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Our Family Balance: Possible—But Just Barely

Our mercurial adult family proves just as challenging now as in our baby days.

There is nothing I love more than having my three sons all together like they were this Thanksgiving. This time, I'd nurtured a tender idea that the day after Thanksgiving, we would go into New York, and Nat, Max, and Ben would split off from us and go out to dinner just the three of them—giving Nat the birthday present he'd managed to ask for (he's got a severe communication disability along with his autism). Giving me a present I'd longed for ever since they were little.

I always wanted my boys to be close the way I was/am with my sister, Laura. We're the kind of siblings who sometimes feel like two parts of one person, who have a shared language and sense of humor, and rich and dear history together. She's never too far from my mind.

My boys have never been close in that way. Max and Ben did bond as little boys, as two non-autistic siblings, the "easier" of my children, the puppies, as I called them. They would share Legos and play video games together; they had big birthday parties and sleepovers.

Nat was set apart, no matter how many family vacations I forced on us in my desperation to replicate my own childhood family. Vacations, high-color and off-color jokes, fights, and obfuscated boundaries: My family life, growing up, was for better or worse, rich and complicated, rainbows and hurricanes, joy and pain. It was vital, and we were all so close, so much a part of each other—and that is what I wanted for my three boys.

But I did not get that. Autism blew in, raging hot and icy cold during those years. It was the first disability my family—including my extended family—ever had to deal with. The first time we had real scary uncertainty about one of us, and the experience of things not being settled and peaceful. This was the climate of my sons' childhood.

It proved nearly impossible for me to balance the three of them at once. It always felt like someone was going to lose out. Giving Max the birthday of his dreams meant that I had to be split inside, watching out that Nat was not wreaking havoc somehow. Going to a movie meant either getting a sitter for Nat or taking the big chance that we'd have to leave before it ended. No matter what we did, I had to get used to having lead around my heart, because I was always worried about them. Always, on some level.

These days, my young men need independence and space. All three of them need me to let go. They each live very much beyond the borders of my life, in their own homes, in their own selves, but I did not understand the extent of this until this holiday weekend.

We drove down to New Jersey to spend Thanksgiving with my sister Laura's family and our parents. Max took the train from New York. When we picked him up at the train station, I could tell right away that he was not his brightly-lit self. His face was pale, and his eyes were not sparkling. He was coming off a typically grueling gig and was bone-tired. Yet no longer can I just hug away his bad feelings or make him feel energized again with a sweet snack.

We doggedly went into New York anyway, but by the early afternoon, we were all dragging and tired. All we could think to do was eat. I could feel Ben's trepidation about what the Airbnb was going to be like, his desire to just get back home to his life. The five of us went to lunch with a brief, cold walk in a park. I had no hat, and the wind was merciless. Then the Airbnb was mysteriously canceled. We had no idea where to go, so we returned to Max's apartment.

While I lay napping on Max's couch, I felt tears pushing out. But Ben was sleeping slumped over near me, and so I did not want to cry. Another thing I've learned as a mother is that even with my insides feeling like lead, I cannot share my feelings with them—I should try not to, anyway—because that puts them in the position of having to separate from their own feelings and respond to mine. That is a role reversal that I want to avoid.

Besides, what was I crying about, I asked myself? A few disappointments like canceled reservations and bad weather? I had to dig down and find the bottom of these feelings. Propelling myself off the couch, I began to talk to the rest of them about where to have dinner. The prospect of food, the lowest common denominator, the easiest bond since the dawn of man, made us sit up and smile a little.

We had really good Thai food in a beautifully decorated place, with deep blue ceilings and bright, gold, heavy moldings. We were revived by the spicy-sweet sticky food. Afterward, Max offered to take us to his favorite ice cream store. We braved the wind and cold over the four blocks, feeling our sense of happy anticipation restored by the pink store and the happy, creative array of flavors, the really big "small" cups, and Max's proud delight in the high-quality ice cream we were about to have.

Nat stepped forward excitedly, waiting for us to tell him the flavors. He shouted, "Caramel." In mutual silent agreement, Ned and I hung back, and just as if he'd been doing it all his life, Max took charge, helping Nat order. I sat down heavily, but sighing deeply with contentment.

Max shared his exquisite, silken, vegan chocolate with us, with a knowing smile—yes, it was just as good as any ice cream I'd ever tried. Better, even. Last night I would have even enjoyed broccoli-flavored ice cream. Because there were the five of us, doing something so old—enjoying a treat—but also so new because we were all grown up. Each of us our own person, with jagged edges and secret shadows. But we'd managed to come together again, in Max's world. The five of us reinvented again, for that moment in time, at least, and it tasted really sweet.