I realized yesterday why it's been over a year since I spent any time with my friend Kay.
Kay and I live more than two hours away from each other. We both work full-time, which makes getting together during the week exceedingly difficult. That leaves weekends. But Kay has a son, Sam, who is 18 months younger than Bud, so getting together on weekends means that we have to make a choice: get together without our boys and give up one of the only days each week that we have to spend with them, or get together with our boys and hope for the best.
When Bud was a toddler/preschooler and Sam was a baby/toddler, our time together was strained because of Bud's strong negative reaction to babies, and therefore to Sam. As they've gotten older, that dynamic has changed - and yet, no matter how we structure our playdates they never quite seem to work out. We've tried playdates at one house or the other, which were okay when Sam was at the developmental stage in which he enjoyed parallel play and preschool television shows. But Sam has passed those stages, and prefers play-acting scenes from Star Wars to reciting scripts from Teletubbies. And though Sam is a sweet, good-natured boy he is also a high-energy, fast-talking, quick-moving one, so the intensity of one-on-one playdates in small spaces with him is just too overwhelming for Bud. We've tried to meet for lunch - which was once okay, but is difficult these days because Bud has developed an aversion to restaurants and prefers to get meals that can be eaten in the car or taken home.
So this time we decided to meet in a place that was familiar to Bud - a science museum that he loves. He has spent a lot of time there, and it's a comfortable environment for him. It meant a three-hour road trip for Kay and Sam, but Kay said that if it increased the likelihood of success she was up for the journey.
I prepared Bud for a couple of days leading up to our museum playdate. He seemed fine with the plan, and even appeared to be looking forward to it. I had high hopes because the atmosphere in the museum would allow Sam to play and engage with other kids even if Bud was not interested in engaging, and it might even allow for some non-threatening parallel play for Bud.
But the moment we arrived at the museum, Bud turned into a Teletubby. He talked like a Teletubby, made noises like a Teletubby, moved like a Teletubby - and disengaged from the bulk of the museum experience. I found private moments to ask Bud if he could talk like Bud for a while. Several times he said that yes, he could do that, and he used his loud, clear Bud voice to communicate a variety of things: "I'm all done now!"; "Can we leave?"; "Can they go home?"; "It's time to go!" As Kay and Sam had spent three hours in the car to be with us, and as my opportunities to be with Kay have been so few, I was reluctant to leave after such a brief stay, so each time I explained to Bud that we would be staying for a little while longer, and without fanfare Bud returned to Teletubbyland.
As a result, Kay and I spent the afternoon engaging with our own sons, often on opposite ends of the museum, trying to fit in conversation in 30-second increments. Kay asked how Bud was doing in school and I tried to imagine how he must seem to her - this boy whom she only ever sees at his dysregulated worst. I wondered if the disconnect between the stories I told and the boy she saw was striking to her, and I wondered what conclusions that made her draw. For his part, Sam simply seemed confused by Bud, and at one point when we left for the bathroom, he said to his mom "I guess Bud is still just a little shy." So he gave Bud space and focused on all that the museum had to offer.
Toward the end of our afternoon, Kay and I found ourselves with a rare opportunity to chat, as our boys were engaged in activities in relative proximity to each other. She started filling me in on her life and for a few glorious moments we were having a real conversation, until in my peripheral vision I picked up a whirl of Bud and I heard a loud, unfamiliar cry. I spun around as a stunned Bud flew toward me, and in his wake I saw a small toddler, his arm in a sling, sprawled on the ground and wailing. His flustered mother was comforting him, and I looked to his grandmother: "Did he do that?" I asked pointing to Bud. She nodded, as the toddler's family gathered around him to make sure that his arm was okay, and that the damage was not critical. I offered a lame "I'm sorry," then turned to a still-stunned Bud who buried his face in my neck and whispered, "I'm so sorry I'm so sorry I'm so sorry." When the wailing had ceased and the boy was pronounced unharmed, the boy's father approached us, put his hand on Bud's shoulder and said "It's okay. He's fine. He's not hurt." Though I appreciated his reassurance, Bud and I both remained shaken.
When we finally climbed into the car at the end of the day, Bud devoured the picnic lunch that he'd refused to eat with our friends, then fell into a hard, deep sleep. I spent the ride home reviewing the day: What should I have done? What shouldn't I have done? Where do we go from here? Bud was in better spirits when we got home and the rest of the day passed quietly.
At bedtime, after stories were read and lights were out, I cuddled next to Bud and he threw his arm around me and put his smiling face nose-to-nose with mine.
"Was today a hard day or an easy day?" I asked him.
"A hard day."
"How did today make you feel?"
"What made you feel sad?"
"Because...?" I asked tentatively, not even sure what kind of response I was looking for.
Bud was quiet for a minute as he thought about the question. Then he said:
"I'm lonely of you."
It stung my heart.
I'm lonely of you. It wasn't Kay and Sam who bothered Bud. It was me. It was the way that I was because they were there.
I'm lonely of you. I don't want to share you. I don't want your attention focused on someone else. I want our time to be us. Just us. Just you and me.
I've been thinking about it all day. It explains so many difficult times - including his final days of school. Those days were not just dysregulating because the routine was different; they were difficult because I was there. Bud is always understanding of the commitments that take me away from him - I have to work, I have to go to a meeting, I have to be away from you but I will be back and then we will be together again. But my appearance at school made no sense to him - Here you are, at the place where you come when it's time to take me away. You do not have to be at work. You and I could climb into the car together and be off on a great adventure - but you are choosing not to do that. You are staying in this place where we don't have to stay. You are choosing to do something that is Not Right.
It also explains why he has done so well at the social functions that I knew from the start would be difficult for him - the weddings, the graduation parties, the family functions - when my full attention was focused on him; when all of my energy went into making sure he would be okay; when I didn't try to participate in the ongoing activity but just sat huddled with Bud on the sidelines - just as we do in church each week, sitting far in the back, away from everyone else, so that we can "Just watch." Conversely, it explains why he has done "well" during those events when I've engaged with other people but allowed him to overdose on screen time - when I've chatted and visited and laughed with other people while Bud has slipped deeper into a fantasy world; when I've stepped aside and allowed the computer, the television, the portable DVD player to do the parenting.
So now that I have this information, now that I can understand his perspective in a different way, what do I do with it? It's the same push-me/pull-you dilemma I encounter so often. If I choose the route that is easiest for Bud, the one that doesn't challenge him to manage through the social engagements and play dates, they will never become familiar or seem less frightening. But if I force him into them when he's not ready, it may feel to him like I'm turning my back on him, leaving him on his own - alone and lonely of me.
And what about me? I adore the time that I spend with Bud. But what of my need to have real, genuine, adult interaction that is not about my work - to have friends? It's extraordinarily difficult for Kay and me to find moments to spend in each other's company, but I need them. I'm lonely of them. I'm lonely of her.
I know there has got to be a point of balance. There must be a line at which I can give Bud the right amount of time and attention - at which I can be the sort of parent he needs - and still have some time and attention left for myself. There must also be another line at which I strike the right balance between pushing Bud beyond his comfort zone and shielding him from extreme discomfort. And there must be a point at which these two lines intersect. But it's a moving target, shifting constantly as Bud's needs and my needs change and evolve, making it more and more difficult to find.
Maybe it means that achieving balance is not really possible. Maybe I should be striving for a reasonable, livable level of imbalance. But if that's the case, on which side of the imbalance is it better to err? And who pays the cost if I don't choose well?
It seems that all I can do is make my best guesses, take calculated risks, and engage constantly in assessment and revision. Sometimes things work out even better than I'd hoped, and Bud and I have moments of triumph; other times - like yesterday - we fall face-first in the dirt and both end up a little bruised, then have to spend some time brushing ourselves - and each other - off.
I'm glad that Bud was able to find the words to tell me why yesterday was so difficult for him. As painful as it is, I want to know when he is lonely of me. But what to do with those words - how to reassure him - how to help him - what to do next - I'm afraid those are all matters that remain in imbalance, and will need a lot more assessment and revision.