July Never Flies By: Jack’s Birthday and My Selfish Guilt
July 23rd at 9:30 AM.
That was when everything changed. Technically, life changed nine months before that when I had first found out I was pregnant. But nothing compares to when you give birth to you first child.
Jack’s birthday is five days away and like every birthday since he turned one I always find myself asking the same question: “Have I done enough?”
I do not hide the fact that Jack is autistic. If anything it’s help make me be more understanding of people who might not think the way I do or who process things differently. But in my effort to stray a positive outlook on the autism, I would be lying to myself and doing a disservice to Jack completely if I did not admit that alongside that feeling of understanding comes a layer of guilt.
Guilt from what exactly? Whew, where to begin. For starters, maybe being a young mom? No parent is ever ready to raise a child but people do wait and they do try to wait in order to provide their child the very best life they possibly can and acquire as many resources as possible while they can.
That unfortunately was not me.
I was a 20-year-old college student who wanted to be a journalist. I hung out with my son a whole month. By August 24th, I was back in the classroom at USC listening to my professor discuss the ways in which journalism was changing because of technology. Am I doing enough? Did I pay attention to him enough today? That’s how early that question started. Aside from the typical mom thoughts that pass through your mind when you aren’t physically with your child, more would go on through my mind. I remember reading in “Expecting Adam” (thank you again, Christina) when Martha Beck describes her pregnancy and realizing that she was carrying a extraordinary baby.
It might sound stupid to anyone else but that’s how I felt about Jack. That feeling of life changing nine months before his birth was not the typical feeling. It was this idea that this child was beyond anything I ever knew. When he was finally born and I held him for the first time, I felt like I was holding someone who was more powerful than I was. I felt the overwhelming responsibility that required and every day since then, I feel like I have not lived up to it..
Rushing to class and being a young person with terrible eating habits, I was always more tired and often would be running late. Running late meant I had not pumped enough milk for the day. Then I was too embarrassed to take my pump to school with me so I’d just sit there in class with aching engorged breasts. A physical reminder of the neglect I was giving to my child. Jack’s whole first year was a blur.
I need to go schedule an interview for class…. But have I done enough? He’s not sleeping when he’s suppose to… should I tell his dad to not let him nap? He shouldn’t be watching so much tv…. But do I deserve to be tired? But his dad is tired from watching him all day…. But I’m tired. I’ve barely seen my son… Crap! I have to write this article by the end of the week…
Then school finally ended for my junior year and here came the summer. But without my scholarship stipend, we’d have no money. Jack’s dad was struggling to find work. So I applied to internships and jobs. Thanks to great networking from a professor, I was able to land a job as a World Cup Contractor for Yahoo Sports. Great for me… but here was another moment where I would not be spending time with my son. We got through the summer with financial stability, I got paid to watch soccer games and Jack was always on my mind.
Have I done enough?
As his first birthday started approaching, I thought about all I had done. All I had accomplished. And then, all I hadn’t done. Jack had barely started crawling not too long before he turned one. He was walking and grabbing things. But… no words. No talking. No identifying things.
Then his first birthday passed and things got dark.
I got sad.
And the blur I had felt from the busyness of his infancy wasn’t because of school.
I just disappeared.
I passed my classes like I was suppose, went to school and did the bare minimum to raise my child.
But I was barely there.
Then I discovered I was pregnant with his little brother and once again, I was overshadowing my responsibility with something else. Someone else.
Have I done enough?
I was not all gone during the months leading up to his second birthday. I worked only part-time. Got on welfare so I could manage my finances. I graduated college and earned my Bachelor’s Degree. But still no words. And back then, he wasn’t eating enough fruits and vegetables.
I was out of school so what would my next step be? I had Jack and another baby on the way.
We held him a second birthday party at my parents’ house and a new layer of obstacles and things I needed to complete by his third birthday began to pile up on me.
Have I done enough?
I will admit his gradual departure from infancy and toddler-hood into childhood was better journey leading up to his third birthday. Financially I was still struggling and my personal struggles and mental health were slowly getting better. His baby brother was born and we took on another obstacle together of learning how to integrate this child with such a strong personality at such a young age into our lives. For me, it was learning how to manage the two. For Jack, it was being okay with being an older brother.
We both struggled. I constantly felt I was not paying enough attention to Jack. That guilt only increased as I started basing my parenting skills on his younger brother by doing things I knew I had not done for Jack. I read to him, played music, avoided him watching too much TV and tried to go outside as early as I was able to with him so he would be exposed to things earlier. And it all worked.
Which made the guilt harder. Ollie was hitting every milestone. Rolling, crawling, sitting up and eating everything he was suppose to. And I was just reminded of everything I did not have time for and chose not to make time for with Jack.
I also took some time to cover soccer games and write for an internship I had been incredibly blessed to get. But that time for myself was riddled with guilt as I realized the obstacles I still was attempting to accomplish but couldn’t.
Again: Jack still couldn’t talk. By the time his third birthday rolled around, I had finally decided it was best for my mental health and thanks to a great friend that I left my parents’ home to balance my finances. I was able to buy him presents and clothes and share the day with him the way I had always wanted to.
But still… Have I done enough?
Jack’s birthday is just around the corner. And lots of things have happened since he turned three.
His diagnosis with autism was declared by his preschool’s school district.
He attended and completed his first official year of preschool. I cannot begin to stress how incredibly blessed I was to have Jack attend preschool with the teachers he did. I have been very lucky since the very moment he started readiness centers and schools to have teachers that are so loving and willing to help him. (In all the guilt that I have felt in my life, knowing that Jack has had role models and loving parental-like figures in his life when I couldn’t be there is one of the beautiful things that would not have been possible had I not gone on this journey.)
He can sign his colors. Recognize how many letters his name has. Identify numbers with guidance. He can make bead necklaces. He’s drastically improved his ability to communicate past guessing and really attempt request from a non-verbal but purposeful level. I can speak to him and he understands what I’m saying at least by the second time you’ve told him.
He allowed himself to be danced with for a few seconds by one of his classmates at his end-of-the-year concert.
He’s most certainly not a baby anymore.
Neither am I.
We’ve both grown so much since he was born.
I’ve been at the same job for almost a year now. I now live in my own apartment and am able to provide for Jack and his brother without welfare or food stamps. I can pay my bills and am able to set aside money to plan Jack’s 4th birthday party. I have been lucky enough to cover Mexico games and other soccer matches with wise mentors and encouraging colleagues.
But I still feel like I’ve missed something. I still feel like I haven’t given him everything he deserves. Everything he is worthy of having.
I do not know when and if I’ll ever get rid of this guilt. July weighs on every year until the 23rd finally hits and I’m left with my thoughts. And I also know and realize how incredibly selfish it is to turn such a meaningful day into a somber pity party for myself and that it not my intention.
All I can say is I love my son very much. And the reason I’m a good mother to his younger brother, the reason I’m a better person and the reason I advocate for children with autism every day is because of him.
I love you, my sweet Jack. I can’t believe you’re turning four. You’re as special and as important as the day I first held you in my arms. I haven’t done enough but I promise I’ll never stop trying, kitten. ❤ Thank you for changing my life.