speak for yourselves, narcissistic parents

Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love is plenty insightful. I agree with a lot of what he’s saying, despite the fact that I’ve never had children and don’t want to. Like many people, he assumes there’s something uniquely transformative about increasing the world’s population.

Maturity means acknowledging that Romantic love might only constitute a narrow and perhaps rather mean-minded aspect of emotional life, one principally focused on a quest to find love rather than to give it, to be loved rather than to love.

Children may end up being the unexpected teachers of people many times their age, to whom they offer–through their exhaustive dependence, egoism, and vulnerability–an advanced education in a wholly new sort of love, one in which reciprocation is never jealously demanded or fractiously regretted and in which the true goal is nothing less than the transcendence of oneself for the sake of another….

Children teach us that love is, in its purest form, a kind of service. The word has grown freighted with negative connotations. An individualistic, self-gratifying culture cannot easily equate contentment with being at someone else’s call. We are used to loving others in return for what they can do for us, for their capacity to entertain, charm, or soothe us. Yet babies can do precisely nothing. There is, as slightly older children sometimes conclude with serious discomfiture, no “point” to them; that is their point. They teach us to give without expecting anything in return, simply because they need help badly–and we are in a position to provide it. We are inducted into a love based not on an admiration for strength but on a compassion for weakness, a vulnerability common to every member of the species and one which has been and will eventually again be our own. Because it is always tempting to overemphasize autonomy and independence, these helpless creatures are here to remind us that no one is, in the end, “self-made”: we are all heavily in someone’s debt. We realize that life depends, quite literally, on our capacity for love.

We learn, too, that being another’s servant is not humiliating–quite the opposite, for it sets us free from the wearying responsibility of continuously catering to our own twisted, insatiable natures. We learn the relief and privilege of being granted something more important to live for than ourselves.

He’s doing what white men do all too often: speaking for himself and calling it a description of the human condition. What he calls a “wholly new sort of love” is the same idea of love advocated by all of the world’s major religions (at least sometimes). It was explained to me at all those Jehovah’s Witness meetings I was dragged to. I saw my parents make sacrifices for me, I heard about my dad making sacrifices for family members that were dead by the time I was born, and I watched my mom handle my grandmother’s dementia.

My dad was a social worker. His job was to take care of other people’s kids better than their own parents, in a lot of cases, or at least try to.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses raise you to understand that “worldly people” have a value system inspired by Satan the Devil. Alain de Botton is expressing a selfishness that’s so common in contemporary Western culture that he takes it to be universal. The sentence “we are used to loving others in return for what they can do for us” is confused. Quid pro quo relationships aren’t loving, as much as they may be a beneficial part of life. The essence of loving is that it’s done for its own sake. Clearly, people aren’t understanding that in large numbers. This will cause them to exploit people who do understand it and try to love them properly.

The child teaches the adult something else about love: that genuine love should involve a constant attempt to interpret with maximal generosity what might be going on, at any time, beneath the surface of difficult and unappealing behavior.

The parent has to second-guess what the cry, the kick, the grief, or the anger is really about. And what marks out this project of interpretation–and makes it so different from what occurs in the average adult relationship–is its charity. Parents are apt to proceed from the assumption that their children, though they may be troubled or in pain, are fundamentally good. As soon as the particular pin that is jabbing them is correctly identified, they will be restored to native innocence. When children cry, we don’t accuse them of being mean or self-pitying; we wonder what has upset them. When they bite, we know they must be frightened or momentarily vexed. We are alive to the insidious effects that hunger, a tricky digestive tract, or a lack of sleep may have on mood.

How kind we would be if we managed to import even a little of this instinct into adult relationships–if here, too, we could look past the grumpiness and viciousness and recognize the fear, confusion, and exhaustion which almost invariably underlie them. This is what it would mean to gaze upon the human race with love.

Or the parent never gets it and starts beating their child in frustration. Child abuse is so common that people frequently brag about it openly. The use of “we” is insidious for making it seem like abusiveness is some kind of aberration. It’s not.

On the other hand, approaching people with kindness and an eye to avoiding the fundamental attribution error isn’t an aberration, either. The CEO of the corporation I work at told everyone to “assume positive intent” when interacting with coworkers. Hopefully, people are giving their children the benefit of the doubt at least as much as their coworkers, and their birth isn’t the first time their parents are exposed to the concept. The baby isn’t crying to ruin your life, it turns out!

That kind of patient effort to understand also seems to be missing for autistic children, quite frequently.

As parents, we learn another thing about love: how much power we have over people who depend on us and, therefore, what responsibilities we have to tread carefully around those who have been placed at our mercy. We learn of an unexpected capacity to hurt without meaning to: to frighten through eccentricity or unpredictability, anxiety, or momentary irritation. We must train ourselves to be as others need us to be rather than as our own first reflexes might dictate. The barbarian must will himself to hold the crystal goblet lightly, in a meaty fist that could otherwise crush it like a dry autumn leaf.

Again, it’s troubling that the concept of unintentionally hurting someone is new to him. It’s also very telling. The “political correctness” debate is the fact that Alain de Botton represents a possible majority of adults. “I wasn’t trying to be racist,” as if that settles it. Haven’t we heard that before?

Although cynical by nature, he is now utterly on the side of hope in presenting the world to her. Thus, the politicians are trying their best; scientists are right now working on curing diseases; and this would be a very good time to turn off the radio. In some of the more run-down neighborhoods they drive through, he feels like an apologetic official giving a tour to a foreign dignitary. The graffiti will soon be cleaned up, those hooded figures are shouting because they’re happy, the trees are beautiful at this time of year…In the company of his small passenger, he is reliably ashamed of his fellow adults.

As for his own nature, it too, has been sanitized and simplified. At home he is “Dada,” a man untroubled by career or financial worries, a lover of ice cream, a goofy figure who loves nothing more than to spin his wee girl around and lift her onto his shoulders. He loves Esther far too much to dare impose his anxious reality upon her. Loving her means striving to have the courage not to be entirely himself.

And here he tells us the secret of creating white fragility, making white supremacy invincible for another generation. He thinks it’s cute that his daughter is helpless and naive, as slave owners are wont to do.

Due to social worker dad, mom who watches CNN all day, and a shared belief that lying to your children is immoral, I grew up in the opposite extreme way. There was never Santa Claus or a Tooth Fairy. My impression is that most adults can’t deal with a simple fact of existence: the rapists, wife beaters, and child molesters are ordinary people you they already know. I was able to define physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as domestic violence and probably incest by 4th grade at the latest. I wondered if it was emotional abuse when my parents were fighting. I was a precocious child.

The cost of making the children dumb for the parents’ amusement is that they stay dumb. You don’t unlearn things. You can inhibit and overrule previous learning, but the first, bedrock learning remains. If you grow up believing in a cartoon of reality, it’ll distort your thinking forever.

En masse, parents have abdicated their responsibility to prepare their children for adulthood. Instead, they use their children to signal to each other how great they are at being parents. The children learn that love is objectifying, as a bonus. These are the children that still believe in Democrats, the children that believed Donald Trump was a good idea.

Also, I can remember a little bit of my dad’s second (?) heart attack. He got to meet Alex Trebek in the hospital, which I remember taking some kind of bus to get to with my mom. He was super stressed out because someone was trying to get him fired for blackness, deprived education, learning disability, etc. “What if Dad loses his job or dies?” was always hanging over the family. I made a friend on the playground on the basis of knowing that our dads had drama with each other at work.

I’m glad that my parents gave me a healthy respect for reality.

Of course narcissistic people want to have the best children. It’s really too bad when they turn out autistic…

Whatever modest denials parents may offer–however much they may downplay their ambitions in front of strangers–to have a child is, at the outset, at least, to make an assault on perfection, to attempt to create not just another average human being but an exemplar of distinctive perfection. Mediocrity, albeit the statistical norm, can never be the initial goal; the sacrifices required to get a child to adulthood are simply too great.

Jim Sinclair’s Don’t Mourn For Us is a classic response to those sorts of parents:

Parents often report that learning their child is autistic was the most traumatic thing that ever happened to them. Non-autistic people see autism as a great tragedy, and parents experience continuing disappointment and grief at all stages of the child’s and family’s life cycle.

But this grief does not stem from the child’s autism in itself. It is grief over the loss of the normal child the parents had hoped and expected to have. Parents’ attitudes and expectations, and the discrepancies between what parents expect of children at a particular age and their own child’s actual development, cause more stress and anguish than the practical complexities of life with an autistic person.

Some amount of grief is natural as parents adjust to the fact that an event and a relationship they’ve been looking forward to isn’t going to materialize. But this grief over a fantasized normal child needs to be separated from the parents’ perceptions of the child they do have: the autistic child who needs the support of adult caretakers and who can form very meaningful relationships with those caretakers if given the opportunity. Continuing focus on the child’s autism as a source of grief is damaging for both the parents and the child, and precludes the development of an accepting and authentic relationship between them. For their own sake and for the sake of their children, I urge parents to make radical changes in their perceptions of what autism means.

I invite you to look at our autism, and look at your grief, from our perspective:

Autism is not an appendage

Autism isn’t something a person has, or a “shell” that a person is trapped inside. There’s no normal child hidden behind the autism. Autism is a way of being. It is pervasive; it colors every experience, every sensation, perception, thought, emotion, and encounter, every aspect of existence. It is not possible to separate the autism from the person–and if it were possible, the person you’d have left would not be the same person you started with.

This is important, so take a moment to consider it: Autism is a way of being. It is not possible to separate the person from the autism.

Therefore, when parents say,

I wish my child did not have autism,

what they’re really saying is,

I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead.

Read that again. This is what we hear when you mourn over our existence. This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.

Autism is not an impenetrable wall

You try to relate to your autistic child, and the child doesn’t respond. He doesn’t see you; you can’t reach her; there’s no getting through. That’s the hardest thing to deal with, isn’t it? The only thing is, it isn’t true.

Look at it again: You try to relate as parent to child, using your own understanding of normal children, your own feelings about parenthood, your own experiences and intuitions about relationships. And the child doesn’t respond in any way you can recognize as being part of that system.

That does not mean the child is incapable of relating at all. It only means you’re assuming a shared system, a shared understanding of signals and meanings, that the child in fact does not share. It’s as if you tried to have an intimate conversation with someone who has no comprehension of your language. Of course the person won’t understand what you’re talking about, won’t respond in the way you expect, and may well find the whole interaction confusing and unpleasant.

It takes more work to communicate with someone whose native language isn’t the same as yours. And autism goes deeper than language and culture; autistic people are “foreigners” in any society. You’re going to have to give up your assumptions about shared meanings. You’re going to have to learn to back up to levels more basic than you’ve probably thought about before, to translate, and to check to make sure your translations are understood. You’re going to have to give up the certainty that comes of being on your own familiar territory, of knowing you’re in charge, and let your child teach you a little of her language, guide you a little way into his world.

And the outcome, if you succeed, still will not be a normal parent-child relationship. Your autistic child may learn to talk, may attend regular classes in school, may go to college, drive a car, live independently, have a career–but will never relate to you as other children relate to their parents. Or your autistic child may never speak, may graduate from a self-contained special education classroom to a sheltered activity program or a residential facility, may need lifelong full-time care and supervision–but is not completely beyond your reach. The ways we relate are different. Push for the things your expectations tell you are normal, and you’ll find frustration, disappointment, resentment, maybe even rage and hatred. Approach respectfully, without preconceptions, and with openness to learning new things, and you’ll find a world you could never have imagined.

Yes, that takes more work than relating to a non-autistic person. But it can be done–unless non-autistic people are far more limited than we are in their capacity to relate. We spend our entire lives doing it. Each of us who does learn to talk to you, each of us who manages to function at all in your society, each of us who manages to reach out and make a connection with you, is operating in alien territory, making contact with alien beings. We spend our entire lives doing this. And then you tell us that we can’t relate.

The last few years of therapy prove the point about autism going deeper than language and culture. I spent substantial amounts of time on race, class, and gender, and I found obscure academic books about very specific aspects of my upbringing. Something I said at the beginning: “I’ve never been able to identify with anything, all the way.”

The type of parents Alain de Botton was describing are the ones who’d know their child was autistic and not tell them for some reason. I know someone in his 30s who was diagnosed in his early teenage years, but his parents rejected the expertise of the doctor (who was later sued for malpractice or something?). It’s inhuman to knowingly send your kid into the world believing he’s normal, when in fact everyone around him is invisibly communicating in a silent language he doesn’t understand. That’s a serious handicap! The consequences to your self-esteem are much worse than having accurate self-knowledge would be.