Pressured to Diagnose: One Woman's Anxiety About Labeling Her Toddler

Friday, May 02, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Mom Stories/Opinion

There is a fine line between celebrating uniqueness and fearing it.  There exists a commonly accepted standard for what is normal and we are expected to live within those parameters.  At times, we are permitted to dance dangerously on either side of the limits, but at what point do we go from being pleasantly eccentric to being diagnosed with a mental illness?  It's a very fine line, indeed, and it becomes even more difficult when talking about children.  

Is My Baby Different From Other Kids?

Babies and children grow and develop in wildly different ways and at different speeds.  They are fiercely individual and ambivalent to societal expectations.  In many ways, they are all tiny madmen. My three year old once insisted on leaving the house wearing his underwear like a hat because he said it would protect him from the invisible purple dog that was stalking him. Try doing that in your thirties.  

Of course, there comes a point when a child's development has strayed too far from the average, and it becomes a cause for concern. But where do we draw that line?

The day my first son was born I looked at his chubby face and thought that he was the most perfect creature to ever grace our planet.  Even the enormous blood clot that was stuck in his wispy hair for a week didn't dissuade me.  He was pure and pristine: a blank slate, and my only job as a parent was to refrain from screwing him up.  I held him in my arms and promised to be the best parent I knew how to be.  After all, I could only aspire to his level of perfection.  I took him home that same day, wrapped neatly in the swaddling blanket I'd stolen from the hospital, and laid him in his brand new, extortionately expensive bassinet. 

Approximately fourteen seconds later reality set in. 

My sweet little cherub let out a shriek fit for a demon and I picked him up immediately to check him for damages.  He wasn't wet, he wouldn't nurse, and he certainly didn't want to sleep.  He was offended by the sound of the wicker bassinet creaking as he shifted on the tiny mattress.  The mere suggestion that he return to the hand-basket from Hell would send him into a frenzy. 

Thus began the longest three months of my life.  Some people called it colic and others said he was just very alert.  I called them the dark days. 

My perfect, precious, first-born child confounded me.  I cried myself to sleep every night for weeks.  I cried because I was letting him down: breaking the first promise I ever made him.  Babies were supposed to be happy, gurgling, bundles of joy.  Right?  Over the next year I spent a lot of time and energy questioning what babies were "supposed" to do and comparing notes with other parents.

Babies were supposed to like music classes.  Not mine. The sound of the other babies drumming and shaking rattles and giggling with glee was too much for my sensitive little soul.  He cried and we left. 

Babies were supposed to like taking walks in their strollers.  Not mine. After an hour and a half of frantic walking, shielding my eyes from the judgmental stares I was receiving from the other parents whose children were not being murdered by their push-chair, I returned home to soothe my now sore feet and still crying baby. 

My son never quite belonged in the world of the other babies.  Over time and through much trial and error we established activities and routines that worked for him.  He survived the colicky months and began to thrive.  We learned to soothe him and how to keep him happy at home.  While other children watched cartoons and listened to Old MacDonald, my son watched YouTube videos of Liza Minnelli and Aerosmith.  He marched to the beat of his very own, slightly demented drummer.  I knew he was different, but it never occurred to me that it could be a problem.

Does My Child Have A Diagnosis?

The first time someone mentioned to me that he might be socially delayed, I laughed it off. 

Don't be ridiculous. He's perfect. Of course he is.

Wasn't he?  I was a cognitive psychologist.  Surely if there was something wrong with my son I would have been the first to notice.  I tried to ignore the glances he received from the other parents when he spoke to them in the gibberish language he'd invented and only I could understand.  He was loving and happy, unquestionably smart, and clearly very creative.  I have to confess that, as much as I denied it, my pride in those unique qualities withered under the confused and sometimes concerned looks he elicited from other people.

Words like "Autism Spectrum" and "Aspergers" didn't show up until a year or so later, and again I shrugged them off. But somewhere along the line I started listening to them. I didn't mean to, but eventually the voices crept into my subconscious.

I understand that the people who made these suggestions did so out of love and concern for me and my son, but their innocent concerns turned my deepest, darkest fears into a living nightmare. Was there something wrong with my baby? Had this been there all along and I had simply been too selfish to notice? I'd fought for so long to be the perfect parent for him. Had I left him alone with his struggles? 

I started seeing diagnoses everywhere. He was overly sensitive to criticism and so easily frustrated. Could he have an anxiety disorder? He wouldn't make eye contact with me when I  tried to discipline him. Could he have Aspergers? He obsessively memorized facts and recited them for comfort. Could he have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? He couldn't sit still most of the time; he was always wiggling or fidgeting. Could he have ADHD? 

Three years of guilt and stress over believing that his difficult behavior was a product of my substandard parenting came bubbling to the surface like a geyser ready to erupt. Maybe it wasn't my fault. The thought was delicious and sinful on my tongue.  I hid it away from my friends and family like a dirty little secret. If he really has one of these diagnoses then perhaps parenting isn't supposed to be this hard. My private suspicions that my life was somehow harder than everyone else's were validated.  

Then I'd look into his bright blue eyes, so full of wonder and intelligence, and decided I'd wait to have those suspicions confirmed.  Just a little longer

My readiness to accept other people's conclusions about his behavior came from a place of fear and naivety.  In a society where our first experience with children often comes when we, ourselves, become parents, we are fraught with insecurities.  We turn to books and doctors to give us the formula for the perfect children we always thought we'd have.  Unfortunately, there are no magic answers, no quick fixes, no miracle cures for a child who doesn't quite fit the "normal" mold. Whether his behavior is a product of normal developmental differences or a neurological condition, he is who he is. 

Towards Embracing Differences, In Personality or Otherwise

I don't know what will happen next year, or when my son goes to school.  I don't imagine his social anxieties, introversion, or sensitivity will simply disappear as he grows.  There may come a time when we are forced to accept a label for his behavior, and if that time comes I will embrace him with every bit of love, affection and reverence as I do now.  In the meantime, I will try to quell my own anxieties about his development relative to the children around him and focus on helping him learn to be happy with who he is.

Perhaps if we focused less on the ideal "normal" child and more on learning to adapt to our child's individual differences than maybe we'd feel less pressure and anxiety to label them.  My son may fit some of the criteria for the conditions I feared, but focusing only on those parts of his personality misses out on all the other unique qualities he possesses.  Appreciating those pieces, and showing him that I love him no matter what, is more powerful than any diagnosis or label he could receive. 

I don't need a doctor to tell me what I already know: my baby is the most perfect version of himself that there is, and I would never want him to be anyone else.

Mary Widdicks is a 31 year old mother of two boys, and two male dogs. Once a cognitive psychologist, she now spends her time trying to outsmart her kids, and chronicles her adventures on her blog, Outmanned. Her work has been featured on parenting sites such as Mamapedia, Mamalode, and Scary Mommy.

 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

Help Me, I'm Sad: Recognizing, Treating, and Preventing Childhood and Adolescent Depression
A deep but easily readable look into the world of childhood and adolescent depression.

We've Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication
Judith Warner explores the misunderstood issue of overmedication in relation to children's mental health.

Mothers and Others
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explores the history of maternal drives and assistant caregivers



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