If you are lucky enough to climb down the rabbit hole of parenting, you discover the existence of a world with no end – it is the realm of child-related socialising and fraternising previously hidden from view.
And like Alice, you will feel small and big (or just right) inside this world, depending on how its axial tilt favours you and the temperament of your family.
So far on our adventure, my husband and I have found that we share a general anxiety about social gatherings or public outings where children are ‘required’ to do things like sit down, be quiet or engage on some level with any kind of activity.
Our anxiety isn’t an overreaction. It’s a learned response to years of incidents that have taught us to be on guard. It’s an unease we’ve been conditioned to experience and it’s now embedded in our parenting DNA.
We’ve spent too many parties, excursions and concerts and the like standing outside rather than in, because we can’t find a way to explain to Amelia what kind of behaviour is expected of her.
The ‘red mist’ can be quick to descend when she is told that a) she can’t take that man’s guitar while he’s playing it and singing, or b) purloin cake from a stranger’s birthday party at the park, or c) scream and cry and hit when all these things come together and the result is “it’s time to get the hell out of here”. A free-wheeling, party-going, take-it-as-it-comes family we are not.
Maybe we’re overly sensitive, but sometimes there’s no certainty we’ll make it from the car park to the shops without having to stage an emotional intervention, so forgive us our premonitions of disaster. They so often come true.
Sometimes it’s hard to have a sense of humour about Amelia’s (and our own) public meltdowns. Sure, no-one likes to be looked at but there are plenty of people who do stare in judgement and provide not-so-helpful commentary as you drag your flailing child across grass, carpet and assorted other surfaces.
Then again it’s not always like that and even in fraught moments, there are opportunities to relax and see the funny side of our child’s uncompromising ways.
Here’s a case in point. Last year, we went to the annual Family Day held at the Aurora School for Deaf and Deafblind children. These were intense and wonderful days for us, where we were welcomed into the community of families like ours and told powerful stories of hope and success by deaf adolescents and adults.
Arriving amidst the hectic hubbub of registrations, we had to kill about 45 minutes before the day opened with an Auslan performance of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ by Aurora’s deaf staff.
That significant timeframe of just under an hour is often all the time we have before Amelia grows tired, manic or just plain difficult to manage.
We approached the morning with smiles of optimism, but I could see it in my husband’s eyes as I’m sure he could in mine. Secretly we were already strapped in for the potential turbulence ahead.
Inside the large hall of the school the attendees numbered at least 80, with half of these children from newborns to toddlers and so on.
Amelia was behaving in a reasonably compliant fashion when finally we were asked to take a seat and prepare for the performance. I looked around and saw every man, woman and child dutifully take a seat on the floor and face the stage.
With the exaggeration caused by the passing of time, I recall the scene this way – where a HUGE crowd of all ages suddenly stops mid-sentence with military precision, mocking us with their social pliability and mutual respect for amateur theatre.
Like the starter’s gun had been fired, Amelia took that moment of collective obedience as her cue to jump up and start running around.
We tried in vain to explain, in sign and in speech (in anything really) that there was a fun show about to start and that she would love it, so please, please sit down. But she was ‘gone’, in body and in spirit and we couldn’t get her to look at us or notice the performance commencing right in front of her.
The next 10 minutes followed a very familiar pattern for us. While Little Red Riding Hood’s well-worn adventures were played out inventively on one stage, we performed our own pageant of harried parenting, trying desperately to ‘deal with’ Amelia.
We took turns taking her out into corridors, trying to calm her down and reason with her to come back and watch the show.
These interventions were clearly distressing for Amelia and that made it even harder. It was a chilly winter’s day but we were both sweating bullets from the stress.
At some point she seemed to understand and to acquiesce, so we led her quietly back into the hall and found a little carpet space to sit down. It lasted all of 30 seconds.
Amelia sprang up again and with her back turned slightly away from the stage, walked through part of the set and onto the temporary ‘road’ set up for the fabled Wolf’s travels with young Ms Hood.
I looked over at one of the deaf staff seated near me and signed ‘sorry’ but she smiled reassuringly and signed back that it was ‘okay’. I believed her.
The theatre world’s newest creative voice
At last, my oblivious child turned around and grasped that she had stepped into a new layer of reality, like Tom when he breaks the ‘fourth wall’ in The Purple Rose of Cairo.
I’ll never forget the look of recognition and shock on her face when she realised there was something heavy going on between Grandma (on the floor tied in ropes) and the Wolf character (shady as this day was long).
What was most amusing was that Amelia didn’t know that it was an act. She seemed to think that the story was real and that she had better do something quickly to shut this fairy tale crime scene down.
There was no need for Method acting here – Amelia’s reactions and emotions were absolutely genuine and hilariously funny. Someone had to save poor old Grandma and who better than a feisty three year old with no regard for the rules?
Amelia started signing urgently to Grandma to ‘wait’ and that she would be ‘okay’. For the Wolf she reserved her sternest face and her most passionate telling off in Auslan and in shouted speech. He was a ‘naughty Wolf’, a ‘bad Wolf’ and he had to ‘STOP!’ The deaf performers were absolute pros and played along with this unexpected narrative hook-turn.
In true pantomime style, the audience erupted into generous laughter at this spontaneous part of the show. It was a great sound, filled with kindness, and it took a while to reach me through my clenched fists and hunched shoulders.
It made me let go of my tightly coiled state of anxiety and not mind for once that we were centre stage. I nearly missed out on the chance to see Amelia through compassionate eyes, as a funny, quirky, expressive little person, brave enough to take on the Wolf single-handed.
This is one of my favourite stories about my daughter because it has all the colours of her atypical rainbow: her resistance to parental challenge; her intolerance of social conventions she struggles to interpret; her inflexible but undoubtedly free spirit and, most of all, her deeply-felt empathy for people in need.
While we are busy worrying about what people think of us, she is off living life according to her rules and I have a lot of admiration for that.
Hopefully we will get better at seeing the humour in the moment and finding some kind of middle ground amidst all this intractability; between the rigidity of our rules and her limitless defiance of them.
Amelia’s Expressive Therapist, JM, explained it best when she told me that she is trying to help Amelia to be more forgiving when people fail to understand her and what she needs, and to be more flexible when the world asks things of her that she would rather not do.
In this, JM has come closest to defining the challenges Amelia faces more accurately than any diagnosis of deafness or Asperger’s Syndrome ever could.
She also struck on something for me and my husband to ponder as we blunder our way through the parenting maze.
My beautiful Little Red
Because we need to learn how to be more forgiving when Amelia does not behave the way we would like, in public or in private. We won’t always have an understanding audience to remind us to laugh when we want to run and hide.
If Amelia needs to learn to be more flexible, then so do we because we can bend more readily than the rest of the world will when she has to face it by herself.
I don’t think it’s such a big ask to meet her halfway.
Perhaps in a moment of compromise – of forgiveness and flexibility – we might arrive at the same destination from separate points of departure and find that it was the journey itself that made it all worthwhile.