Love That Boy
“Did I Grow Up According to Plan?”
Washington, D.C.--We started slow and close to home--five miles away, to be exact--at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Lori wanted our first trip to be at the place where I spent most of my time away from our kids. When the invitation came from the White House for the 2010 media holiday party, Lori handed me the unopened envelope and said, “I’m not going this year. Take Ty.”
That was two weeks ago. Tyler and I are now standing in line at the party, a gold-fringed red carpet beneath our feet and a crystal chandelier above our heads. A tuxedoed waiter offers Tyler a flute of cranberry juice. “Nope,” Tyler says. The line inches closer to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, who are posing for pictures with members of the White House press corps, a decades-old tradition meant to ease tensions between reporters and the reported. Critics consider this press party a prime example of Washington’s incestuous culture. They’re right, but that’s not the point of this story. This is about my boy.
A lithe waitress presents Tyler with a tray of bacon-wrapped shrimp. “Uh‑uh,” he says, turning to a table of cheese and crackers and loudly proclaiming, “Are you kidding me?” Each time he refuses the food, I tell my 13-year-old, “Be polite, son.” It’s been six months since Tyler was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. He doesn’t know when he’s too loud or when he’s talking too much. He can’t read facial expressions to tell whether somebody is happy, sad, or bored. He has a difficult time stepping outside of himself to see how he is viewed by others. Was he rude to the waiters or just honest? Tyler doesn’t always know the difference. He is what polite company calls “socially awkward” or “a bit off.” Bullies call Tyler “weird.” Even I don’t always know what to make of him.
I’m not just embarrassed about his manners; I’m embarrassed about being embarrassed. After all, this kid would do anything to please me. I expect him to behave; he does. I expect him to respect his mom; he does. I love sports; he hates them, but he plays for me. Guilt and helplessness gnaw at any parent--most deeply for a father like me, whose expectations exceed his common sense, and who for years missed and ignored signs that his child needed help.
Tyler and I inch toward the Green Room, in line with blow-dried TV anchors and stuffy columnists. He’s practicing his handshake and hello: “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. President. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. President. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. President.” When the couple in front of us steps forward for their picture, my teenager with sky-blue eyes and a soft heart looks up at me and says, “I hope I don’t let you down, Dad.”
What kind of father raises a son to worry about embarrassing his dad? Worse, how could I be so pathetically unable to help my boy? I want to tell Tyler not to worry, that he’d never let me down. That there’s nothing wrong with being different. That I actually am proud of what makes him special. But we are next in line to meet the president of the United States in a room filled with fellow strivers, and all I can think about is the real possibility that Tyler might embarrass himself. Or, God forbid, me.
It is now our turn. The president shakes my hand while Tyler approaches Mrs. Obama. “Still playing hoops?” the president asks me, recalling the pickup game we played during the 2008 presidential campaign. “Yes, sir,” I reply as we pose stiffly for pictures. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Mrs. Obama gently brush Tyler’s bangs from his eyes and lean in for a hug. I worry for a moment that Tyler will pull away because he’s not comfortable with being touched, especially by strangers. But he embraces the First Lady, wishes her a merry Christmas, and then shuffles to his left to look her husband squarely in the eye and shake his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. President.” My stomach clenches as I realize the problem here isn’t my son. It’s not even autism. It’s me.
Sitting knee to knee at a coffee shop counter, Stacey Bromberg and I stared self-consciously out a window onto a strip-mall parking lot while she ripped scraps of cardboard from the sleeve of her cup and cried. “I guess you never think of the possibility of something not being--for the lack of a better word--perfect.” Bromberg is the mother of two elementary school children, including a son, Gavin, who struggles with attention-deficit disorder and social skills. “It’s been hard on the family,” she said. “Hard on our marriage.”
From a speaker directly above our heads, Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” gave way to Simple Plan’s “Perfect.” The mythology of excellence is so pervasive in our culture that its Greek chorus chased me down at a Starbucks. “Did I grow up according to plan?” a young man asks his father in the song. “I’m sorry I can’t be perfect.”
Stacey ignored the music, blew on her coffee, and continued. “He doesn’t fit in at school,” she said. I asked how Gavin’s issues were hard on her marriage. Nothing major, Stacey replied, “but we don’t always agree on what to do for him.” Gavin’s doctors wanted to sharpen his focus with medication. Stacey fought against them. Her husband, Adam, was more open to drugs. Gavin broke the tie. “I like who I am,” the fifth-grader told his parents. “I don’t want to change my personality.”
Why do we struggle so much over what makes our children different? Despite the fact that all of us are less than average at most things, we don’t want our kids flirting with society’s Mendoza line. Smaller than normal . . . taller than normal . . . heavier than normal . . . skinnier than normal . . . sicker than normal . . . weaker than normal. For nine months, expectant mothers and fathers worry about childhood deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, and various other physical and learning disabilities that could dash their dreams. Sexuality is another bugaboo. Straight parents expect to have straight kids because that’s what they know--and because they think being gay in America is harder than being hetero.
The most primal of parental expectations is the desire to see your child accepted, to avoid the dastardly a‑words: atypical and its caustic cousin, abnormal. Lori had an endearing way of expressing this desire. “All I want,” she said during each of her three pregnancies, “is a baby with ten fingers and ten toes.” In other words, no defects. Stacey and Adam Bromberg would not use the word defective to describe Gavin any more than Lori and I would use it to describe Tyler. We love our boys. But let’s be honest: When your children aren’t anything like you--or like anything you expected--you struggle to understand them, which makes it more difficult to connect with them.
In his bestselling book, Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon analyzes families with children who are disabled, gifted, or otherwise different from what their mothers and fathers expected. Parents, he concludes, must ask themselves this question: Do I simply accept my kids for who they are, or do I push them to become their best selves? Solomon wrote, “My mother didn’t want me to be gay because she thought it wouldn’t be the happiest course for me, but equally, she didn’t like the image of herself as the mother of a gay son.”
Her son is gay. Solomon’s book destroys one of the biggest myths of parenting: A “normal” kid is better off than one who is different. In fact, he argues, we’ve all got our quirks. “The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state,” Solomon wrote. “As my parents had misapprehended who I was, so other parents must be constantly misapprehending their own children.”
After I wrote a magazine article about my relationship with Tyler, a reader, Russell S., emailed me about his father. “I always wanted to impress him,” wrote the public relations executive for a Fortune 500 company. “I thought the only way to get him to like me was to do things he liked. But I don’t think I ever lived up to his potential. I was never good in sports--a killer, considering my Bronx-born dad once worked at Yankee Stadium. And I am in my mid-30s with no kids. He’ll never say it, but I always feel like I cannot give him what he wants. I sometimes think I embarrass him.”
I called Russell at his Manhattan office and asked what exactly he thought his dad wanted from him. “I feel guilty that I’m not giving my dad or any dad what they expect in a son,” he replied.
“What’s that?” I pressed. Russell was holding something back.
“You expect to become a grandparent,” Russell said. “It’s almost an unspoken social convention that you give your parents [grandchildren].” He coughed to cover up the teary crack in his voice. “I’m gay.”
Russell paused. I sensed that he wanted me to change the subject. Finally he filled the silence. “It’s probably not going to happen for me--children,” he continued. “I often think, when I die, where’s the name going to go? I feel a real responsibility, and I’m not sure it’s the right kind of guilt.”
I asked how his parents had handled the news. “We’ve never had the talk,” he said. “Of course they know. But I’ve never had the coming-out talk with them.”
The closest Russell’s father came to accepting his son’s sexuality was during a roundabout conversation one Thanksgiving. “Maybe you’ll never have children,” his dad said, “but before I leave this earth I want to know that you’re being taken care of and being loved.”
“Thank you,” Russell replied.
In Far from the Tree, Solomon also argues that the aversion to raising an “atypical” child is exacerbated in parents who assume they’re raising an echo of themselves. “Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity,” he wrote. “We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates the fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do.”
Looking back, Alan Dworkin knows that was his mistake. A successful attorney from South Carolina, Dworkin always wanted a boy whom he could teach to play sports, and who might follow him into the legal profession. His son Mitch turned out to be a klutz, both socially and physically, the kind of boy who had trouble making friends and avoiding bullies. Dworkin thought golf would help Mitch meet people and learn to control his impulses. Bad idea.
Mitch, who was about 8 years old when his dad first brought him to the golf course, gripped the club like a baseball bat. “He couldn’t play a lick,” Alan said. Worse, while Alan’s pals and clients lined up putts, Mitch chattered and darted to the flag pin. “I’d pull him back--I wouldn’t yell--and I’d whisper in his ear, ‘You don’t do that when somebody’s putting.’ ” But the boy had no sense of social propriety. Alan once introduced Mitch to a new client, a woman with a large mole on her cheek. The boy pointed at the ugly mass and asked her what was wrong with her face. Adam was horrified.
Mitch is now 50. He remembers the pain and shame of embarrassing his father. “I tried to please my dad a lot as a child, but he was kind of hard on me,” Mitch said. “I kind of felt just like I couldn’t do anything right.” Mitch felt the pressure of his dad’s expectations until those expectations were reset by a doctor’s findings. Mitch was in his 30s when a doctor diagnosed him with anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and in his 40s when labeled an Aspie. “Until then,” Mitch said, “Dad was not being unreasonable in what he was expecting.”
Alan loves Mitch. He has always loved Mitch. But it’s only been in the last 15 or so years that Alan has understood his son, and with that knowledge comes guilt. “When I think about what I did and didn’t do,” Alan said, “I just want to cry.”
Even as a toddler Tyler was mesmerizing--a handsome, blue-eyed packet of precocious energy, with the vocabulary and curiosity of a college professor and the joyful charisma of a comedian. Everybody in the family has a favorite Tylerism, a story that illustrates his old-soul intelligence and wit.
I remember him in the middle of the night, on tiptoes from inside his crib, turning on his bedroom light and yelling, “I want to play with choo guys!” That huge crinkly-eyed smile. He slept with a heavy blanket pulled over his head, no matter how hot it got, and would pretend to snore with an exaggerated “honk-shee!” While speech and vocabulary came easily to Tyler, conversation did not. He spoke in monologues and on tangents, with an oddly commanding voice. When somebody tried to interrupt him--because it wasn’t a good time for a small boy to be talking, or he was totally off topic--Tyler seemed physically incapable of stopping his thought process. He just had to finish, pounding out his thoughts in hurried, quick bursts of speech.
Lori recalls a visit to the mall when Tyler saw a baby boy crying. Rather than quietly asking Lori what was wrong, our preschooler plunged into the other mother’s personal space--his nose almost touched her knee--and shouted, “’Cuse me, ma’am. ’Cuse me, ma’am. What’s wrong with your son?” On another shopping trip Tyler grew restless as Lori helped Holly pick out a dress for senior prom. Sprawling across the aisle, Tyler declared, “My blood sugar level is dangerously low!”
Holly’s favorite Tylerism is listening to her brother try to negotiate his way out of a shower. “When I get free will, I’m not gonna shower every night anymore,” Tyler said. “I’ll flip a coin. Heads, I shower. Tails, I don’t.” Most little boys don’t like taking showers. Few link the chore with the philosophy of free will. He hated collared shirts--couldn’t stand the textured fabric against his neck--and called them “style-cramping shirts.”
One of Tyler’s first teachers had a strict rule: Any student who forgot his or her pencil needed to give the teacher a shoe as collateral for a loaner. Most kids remembered their pencils most days. But with his attention-deficit disorder and a hyperliteral sensibility, Tyler coped this way: Every morning for an entire school year, he took off his left shoe at his locker (which was filled with pencils, by the way) and limped down the hall to English class. “Here ya go!” he’d tell the teacher, handing her his shoe. “Where’s my pencil?”