Just listen.

He asks for “easy shorts”. Not the ones with the pesky button at the belly. Or dapper denim pants from this season of Couture Levis. He wants no nonsense drawstring shorts, with a forgiving waistline because they’re comfortable.

Almost 10, and his voice still makes my heart flutter. Squeaky, high pitched and with the oddest of inflections, he talks sparingly but with obvious joy. Words don’t come easy; so when he speaks, we always listen.

These past few years have been a rich lesson in unpredictability. We’ve seen enormous waves of anxiety and panic attacks. We’ve had progress in academics, music and life skills. There have been days he wouldn’t stop smiling. There have been days he couldn’t stop crying. This chronic ebb and flow is exhausting. Barring very few mornings, I have no idea if the day will be easy or not. If the smallest things will set him off or if he will skate by with just a few upsets. And I hate to even imagine what goes through his head. How fearsome obstacles must seem to him, how tiring it might be to navigate through an utterly ordinary day.

So when he talks, I listen.

At the end of a particularly harrowing meltdown, when he says, “Amma, when will Nirav be happy?” I listen, I empathize with his grief, and give him all the hugs he needs.

After a long day at school, when he grumbles about therapy. I ask the therapist to play with him, to laugh and tickle him, to indulge his silliness.

At the park, on a drive, he scripts endlessly about video games. I smile and nod, because this is how he shares his happiness.

I grew up in an authoritarian era where grown ups set the rules, and children followed. In the 80s and 90s,  when children “acted out” or rebelled, adults saw it as a threat. A threat to their position as rulers of the household.  And when threatened, their natural response was to attack back.  They set down more rules. Enforced harsh punishments. Some of them were so scared, they hit and spanked their kids, believing they were doing the right thing. And countless children came from such households; bitter, angry and with hearts full of hurt.

Even today, there’s no book out there telling us how to raise children into well rounded adults. So we do what our society teaches us and view children as opponents instead of our own team.

“If I am not super strict with the children, they will not be good, responsible adults.”

“I need to discipline them and make them follow the line. Otherwise, they will manipulate me and do what they want.”

“What if my son grows up to be an entitled jerk?”

“What if my daughter doesn’t do well at school?”

Before I had children, I said and believed these statements. Isn’t that heartbreaking? To fear your own child and their unwritten future so much?

And before Nirav’s diagnosis, I was so sure about my parenting choices. I knew what books he would read, which school he would go to. I had my eyes on 3 different extracurricular activities, and I actively hounded local relatives about the best after-school classes. He would likely be a doctor, like I was or my husband. Maybe a scientist, if he embraced his nerd dad’s personality. I dreamed and planned until I became that parent, that stereotype that plays out on so many of our TV shows. And now I’m thankful for my life as his mother. He came along and upset my neatly lined applecart with such finality, I knew there was no going back. And better yet, I don’t want to go back.

Having a neurodivergent, autistic child changes your worldview. I worry about my children, just like every other parent, but I no longer live by society’s rules. Potty training, schooling, chores, manners. I set up the children for success and hope they’ll do it when they’re ready. My goal with them is not obedience, but gentle independence. So I try my best to give them control where I can, because their little lives are filled with so many uncertainties already.

I don’t know who they’ll be ten years from now or even twenty. But I know I’d have given them the tools to be the best versions of themselves.

My daughter is loud, assertive and very vocal about her opinions. She has the space to be her true self without me judging her 5-year-old choices. When she talks (and she talks a lot), I listen.

And Nirav, my child of few words. Almost 10 and growing into his long, lean physique. When he squeaks and asks for “easy shorts”, I listen.

No parenting book in the world has the wisdom of these two children. The least I can do is listen.

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