Paradox - FamilyEducation

Paradox

May 10,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

T.'s class performed in their spring concert last Thursday, the culmination of over nine months of practicing songs and bell ringing and xylophone playing. T. has been aniticpating this concert for months, then weeks, then days and on the evening of the concert, at dinner, all she wanted to talk about was the event, of course. L. wanted nothing to do with any discussions of the songs--and certainly with no spontanous rehearsing on T.'s part. He was, as he often is in such situations, pretty rude about it all and said lots of destructive and unkind things I won't mention here.

He wanted to sit out in the school hallway during the performance, and not in the auditorium. We told him no, as we always do, because we feel it's important for him to understand that as a family we support each other, even if we just go through the motions of doing so.

I will gloss over what transpired after that. But I will say that we reached a compromise position and told L. he could bring his iPod and earphones but that he needed  to listen to one song out of the Spring Concert  program in its entirety. This compromise position seemed reasonable because while we do want him to understand that he needs to go through the motions of supporting his sister, we also wanted to be able to enjoy the concert ourselves, without having to worry about L. in the chair next to us. We found perfect seats, and L. settled in with his iPod and ear buds before the concert even started. Not even halfway through the first song, though, I noticed that he had pulled one ear bud tentatively out of his ear, then he took out the other. He listened for a moment, then leaned close to me.

"Actually this isn't bad," he whispered.

He listened some more.

"This is pretty...nice," he said, and then he wound the phones up around the iPod and dropped the whole thing into my bag. After the concert he grabbed T. in a one-armed bear-hug and told her she did a great job. She beamed at this high praise from her brother, which I know meant more to her than the praise Scott and I gave her. On our way to the car I snapped the photo below, of L. and T. walking together, L.'s arm clasped in big-brother style across T.'s shoulder.

A friend of mine made a very interesting point to me recently about the nuanced differences between attachment and connection. That L. is deeply attached to his family is clear to most people. He's always been a deeply attached child, even as a baby. In fact, he was often too-attached, I suppose, if such a thing is possible. He suffered terrible separation anxiety as a child, and most of his difficulties going to sleep at night when he was very small, were because of his fears of being apart from us. I'll never forget one night at bedtime, when L. was just three and he said to me, tearfully, I don't want to go to sleep! I'm afraid of not seeing you."

But connection is very different. Connection involves empathy, and reciprocal exchange, and an ability to observe and respond to another person's facial expressions and body language; it involves the filtering of emotions into appropriate chanelled responses, something L. is just unable to do right now. The connection piece is the one we struggle with as we work to help L. understand the basics of trying to model connecting with other people, even if he has trouble truly feeling it himself. I worry and yes, I admit, despair sometimes about this piece more than I worry about any of the other challenges L. faces because I can't imagine how L. will move through life without the ability to truly connect with other people. I worry about whether he will learn how not to react to the constant ebb and flow of emotions in and around him with anger that is almost a knee-jerk-reflex now. A parent's heart can shatter and mend an infinite number of times, I believe, but what about the hearts of others? The anger divides and shatters and isolates like nothing else; it isn't so much a dark and terrible wall, as it is a sinkhole, opened suddenly between us.

And then it closes, almost seamlessly again.