It took years for it to sink in that my oldest child is more like me than I thought. Since that realization, I've learned a lot about how to parent him.
Maverick, my oldest child, just turned 10. He and I have always butted heads, but I could never quite determine why, aside from the fact that he is a neurotic, controlling, demanding, brilliant, handful. Hopeful parents generally wish for intelligence when thinking of qualities they’d want their child to have, but no one ever talks about how difficult parenting a super smart child can be.
I knew Maverick was exceptionally bright, but there was more to it than that; setting aside his smarts, there was still so much emotional and behavioral turmoil. It roiled violently, just below the surface, until he was in a safe place to explode.
It took until month four with our son’s current therapist for it to sink in that perhaps he’s more like me than I thought.
When Maverick was a baby, he was an absolute delight: bright-eyed, expressive, smart, and unusually verbal. As he grew older and gained more independence, parenting became increasingly difficult. He stopped napping obscenely early in life, and he was extremely strong-willed. I’d never raised a child before, so I didn’t know what was normal—maybe I was just bad at parenting. Maybe he needed more discipline.
I cracked down. I read books on raising boys, strong-willed children, discipline, and how to shape a child into something not resembling a sociopath. I researched the effects of environment and screen time, and my type-A personality ensured that we stuck to a regimented schedule. I cut out every type of dye, processed food, and sugar. I blended up greens and gave him vitamins—perhaps he had some sort of deficiency.
Mostly, I cleaned the house obsessively, because that’s what control freaks do when they feel like their lives are spiraling out of control.
Everyone had advice to share, so, out of ideas and at my wit’s end, I happily tried everything they suggested. I spanked, more and harder. I took toys away. I tried positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement and more spanking. Eventually, faced with yet another battle of wills from my toddler and pregnant with our second child, I did what made sense: I blamed my husband.
As Maverick grew, I began to comprehend the magnitude of both his capabilities and his challenges. For every (very loud, very extreme) negative quality, he had two even more awe-inspiring, exceptional ones. He was so not a normal kid.
“He’s fine,” my husband insisted. “He’s just like I was at that age.” My mother-in-law, who is quite possibly a saint, could only partially verify this. “I don’t remember much,” she told me, probably because she blocked it out for survival.
My son was not fine. I was not fine. Our house, however, was impeccably clean.
In fact, it took two child psychologists working together to finally reach a conclusion about our son. He was diagnosed with anxiety, ADHD, and an “unspecified neurological disorder” formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome. Oh, and he’s also possibly a genius. It was told to us—I’m paraphrasing here—that we have on our hands a very unusual and challenging, unquestionably exceptional, kid.
“Great!” we said. “Here’s eleventy million dollars to cover the expense of all the tests you conducted in order to TELL US WHAT WE ALREADY KNOW.”
Several years after the diagnosis, I found myself sitting on a couch the color of dirty bathwater next to my son, describing our current struggles to his therapist. “So what we have here are some controlling behaviors,” she said. My ears perked up, because “controlling behavior” is something I am deeply familiar with. I’m forever working to control the behavior of the people around me. Case in point: my son.
“People who try to control their environment and lives, who don’t learn better ways to cope, often end up struggling with addiction,” the therapist went on to say. “You’ve made it clear that you don’t want to end up with that issue, right?” Maverick nodded emphatically.
I’m in recovery for alcoholism, and as I sat next to my nodding child, thinking about my own need for control and how I used substances for nearly 20 years to make my life more palatable, it dawned on me that we are almost exactly alike. Neurotic, controlling, intense, and prone to dramatics. Demanding and funny and smart. Tortured, creative, and sociable.
I’m a control freak parenting a control freak. Holy crap. My poor husband.
The question I find myself constantly asking is, how do I parent a child who is exactly like me, and why does it require so much more courage, compassion, and grit? If the two of us are so much alike, shouldn’t this be easy?
We each have a therapist, because of course we do, and each of them have said individually how great of a kid Mav is and how great of a mom I am. Based on that feedback, it seems like things should be simple, but nothing is easy or simple because neither of us are easy or simple. The beauty of parenting a child who has the very best and worst of me is that even though I want to wring his neck a lot of the time, he makes me laugh harder than anyone else. It’s very yin and yang and rollercoaster-like. I’m tired. I’m very, very tired.
So, how do you parent a kid who is exactly like you? Carefully, with a lot of help, a lot of grace, a lot of self-care, and a lot of assistance from the universe.
“Am I a handful?” I asked my husband recently, after a session with our therapist.
“Uh … is this a trick question?”