I’ve never been a very good dancer. Rhythm and beat and flexible hips were not in the skill set God handed me when I was born, and I have always been perfectly okay with that. I prefer the predictability and ease of, say, a brisk walk down a paved path to the erratic movement of a Zumba class. When I walk, I know where I’m headed, I can slow down if I need to or move into a bit of a jog with no issues. I can see to the right and to the left, and I have the control I’m comfortable with.
But when I dance, I’m all out of sorts. My knees knock the person across from me, my body moves too slow for the pace of the music, I get bumped into and thrown off and I don’t even know which way is right and left because everyone is facing a different direction forward. Walking is forward step after forward step. Dancing is a step then a hop then a hip bend then who knows what. When you know how to dance, that kind of cadence is freeing. But when you’re as clumsy as I am, it’s a whole lot of work.
So far, motherhood has been much more like a dance than a walk.
I remember so clearly the day my middle son waved goodbye to me for the first time. He was ten months old, sitting in his high chair for dinner, and as I grabbed my purse to head out the door for the evening, I gave him a kiss and said “bye bye, sweet boy.” And then as his fingers touched his palm, he looked right up at me and he said “bu bu” in his precious, soft-spoken manner. We all squealed in delight at his new statement, following “mama” and “dada” as the words he had recently found. Then I left the house with a smile on my face, a little bit of gratitude adding a spring to my step.
Motherhood, to that point, had been as predictable as it could have been; a walk down my favorite path where everything coming down the road is in view long before I get there.
It was Christmas last year when my intuition red flags started flying high. I had a six-week-old baby, leaving me with that magical cocktail of heavy eyes and a full heart, slow to process but quick to revel in the gratitude of the new life I’d been given. We started opening presents, and while I could not interest my 19-month old in any of the wrapping paper or ribbons, I didn’t give it much thought until my three-year-old began jumping up and down on the wood floors and I looked over to see my toddler with his hands over his ears. And I knew, I just knew, something was not right.
The predictability of my walk through motherhood was slowly turning into a dance I did not know the steps for. And like I said, I’ve never been a very good dancer.
In hindsight, maybe I should have seen something earlier. Until he was a year old, my little guy’s development seemed perfectly, beautifully, on track. He crawled at seven months, walked at eleven, had a few words by his first birthday, and enjoyed the company of his big sister all the time. He was an easy little guy, and by his first birthday I was already pregnant with a younger sibling, and maybe in the fog of my couch-to-toilet sickness I failed to see the regressing. The words slowly stopped coming, even the ones he did use at one point, but we reasoned that away with the fact that he was a boy and has a big sister who does not stop talking. Speech therapy began, and he hated it. Week after week became a fight to hold down a little boy who did not want to be held down. After six months and only one real moment of progress, the speech therapist herself suggested that he needed something different.
One of the reasons I don’t love dancing is because as soon as you feel like you’ve got the rhythm of one dance, the music changes, and it’s a whole new set of awkward steps to learn as I try, often in vain, to blend in with the people around me who know what they are doing.
When you’re staring down a word like autism, every mama’s heart panics. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you spent a good portion of your pregnancy and the early months of your child’s life thinking with each milestone that you’re “in the clear”, that you’re doing a good job, that you’ve got a healthy baby and nothing is more important than a healthy baby. So when that big, scary word gets thrown on the table by all the professionals, it’s like someone jumped out of the bushes with a mask and a knife while you are on your walk, and your very life feels threatened.
So what do you do? Obviously, you fight back—your life is on the line! You thwart off the stabs with “but he loves to play hide and seek!” or “he said ‘bu bu’ at ten months old!” or even “he loves to cuddle!” Until that masked man jumped out of the bushes, it was never a big deal that he didn’t always respond to his name, maybe he didn’t hear me! Why did it matter that he preferred to wander around by himself, he is just an introvert! And no, his eye contact is not perfect, but he can sign for ‘more’! For every stab mark of evidence, you’ve got a move to defend yourself, to defend your baby.
But then, at some point, the defense strategy changes. After a weekend with friends from out of town and all their kids, with the other two year-olds sitting at the table for dinner and you chasing yours around the yard to keep him from wandering to the neighbors’ house, you suddenly realize that you are fighting when you should be getting lessons. Because motherhood—especially mothering a little one with special needs—it shouldn’t be a fight, and it's not always a walk, either. But often, it’s a dance.
Like I said, dancing never came naturally to me. Words like plié and rond de jambe have never been a part of my vocabulary. But neither have phrases like Applied Behavior Analysis or Picture Exchange System. But you learn them. All professional dancers had to learn what a plié was when they started, didn’t they?
For an awkward person like me, dancing doesn’t look graceful. And right now, it shouldn’t, because I don’t know what I’m doing yet. I just got off my walking path to sign up for dance lessons, and every instruction is a little bit foreign. But we will learn, my sweet boy and I. We’ll meet the experts who have been at this dancing for years, and we’ll have great teachers guiding our new steps. And you know what, I bet I’ll even start to like this new rhythm to our lives; it’s not as predictable as the walk we were on, but it’s got a good beat to it.
And really, that fight on the path was never a fight for our lives. It felt like it for a moment, but it was really just the death of one dream and the birth of a new one. Birth is painful, but beautiful, and the knife was only there to cut away the selfishness, pride, and insecurities that will only hinder the learning I have in front of me. You can’t pick up a new step when you’re too worried about how silly it looks to others.
That fight was just me, wrestling with the Author of Life, who for some reason, saw fit to turn this clumsy mama into a dancer.
Written by Katie Blackburn.