Monday, March 29, 2010

Sweet sixteen

My son turned 16 on Friday.

His party was at ChuckECheese. An odd location for a teenager, but my son's developmental age is much younger.

I wish it hadn't bothered me.

I was happy to see Ben happy. He loved the games, the pizza, and seeing ChuckECheese in costume.

But a part of me was embarrassed that my 16-year-old wanted to go to ChuckECheese. Ben is the size of a six- or seven-year-old, so it wasn't like he stood out particularly.

We've had other birthdays where only one friend has shown up. This year four kids came. Two teenagers from his school – one deaf and one with autism – his younger friend Liam and a teenage girl Ben knew when he went to an alternative school.

The deaf boy clearly found ChuckECheese uncool, but the others enjoyed it.

Whenever Ben's birthday rolls around I feel a tinge of sadness. He's not doing what other kids his age are doing, and he never will. He wants to have lots of friends come to his party, but the truth is that he doesn't have friends – not the kind that he sees on a regular basis and is able to maintain an ongoing relationship with. There are kids who have been fond of him over the years, and sometimes we’re able to get them out.

I wish I didn't feel this way. I wish I didn't have any ambivalence about his slow development or inability to follow social norms. Sometimes I feel Ben's presence in my life is a constant reminder of where I'm lacking as a person: I don't have enough patience. I'm not as accepting as I need to be. I care too much about fitting in.

And I couldn't help thinking, what will Ben do for his 17th birthday? Or his 25th? Will we become lifelong regulars at ChuckECheese?

The bottom line, I guess, is that it doesn't matter what Ben chooses for his party next year, as long as he enjoys it.

Today my younger son came up with this brilliant idea: "Dad, why don’t you go to ChuckECheese for your 50th?!"

Now at least then, I wouldn't have to worry about Ben being the oldest kid in the place.


I so get this, Louise and only marveled to find it here on your blog. I know that you usually write of the "good stuff" that comes with parenting a child with special needs, difficult issues are usually framed in looking on the bright side, etc. It was "good" to read of your own ambivalence because I think your feelings are common and those of us who share them can find some relief when they are articulated so beautifully. I also loved the laughter and humor implicit even in these sobering thoughts. Thank you.

16! Wow! happy Birthday Ben!!

I can understand it too, I've only tried birthday parties for Dimitri a couple of times - I gave up. I don't feel guilty about it either as I've become something of a grumpy old woman - "when I was a kid" we didn't have parties with friends every year, it was often a family get together/treat.

Birthdays are that one clear reminder each year of the growing distance between my son and his peers - there is sadness there.

But I think that at least some of the ambivalence comes from knowing that if someone stands out or is different in someway, that they will be judged and excluded, I don't think this is all about acceptance on the parents part - for example, we may know the choice of a more "age appropriate" venue may mean more people would come to the party.

We care about "fitting in" as it's, for the most part, easier. And it may open up a larger world for our children (and ourselves).

Hi Elizabeth -- Thanks so much for your message! Sometimes it's hard to go against the grain of what our culture tells us is appropriate or to be expected at a certain age. When I was making the ChuckECheese reservation, I worried that the woman might fall off her chair when she asked "how old is the child?" and I said 16! On a funny note, there was a table of typical girls near us who were celebrating a 15th birthday -- go figure!

I know part of it for me, too, is that when I was growing up appearances were very important.

It's nice to know we share similar experiences.

Hi Emma -- thanks so much for writing and for the birthday wishes!

You make an interesting point about our desire to choose a venue that will be well-received by peers (as a way of making the party more successful).

It's a delicate balance, trying to figure it all out!

Look forward to hearing more about Dimitri -- I'm glad the iPod is going well!

I just had an aha! moment. I remembered my own 16th was a complete disaster. I lived in a rough working class neighbourhood and only a handful of people turned up, which I remember as being..a less than pleasant experience!!

I may well be expressing my own feelings at these memories and unwittingly placing my way of seeing the world on my son (actually, I'm sure I do this, however carefully I try not to). Peer pressure, ugh.

Completely off point, I went and died my hair blue and pierced my nose some short time after that birthday. Which is a very deliberate choice of "culture". Dimitri does this too in his own way, but I worry that it puts him at to much of a disadvantage.

(ps, I feel a bit panicky about the iPod since you said about backing up changes to it!! But yes, things seem to be going well)

Louise I also appreciated your honesty here. I struggle with my daughter's inability to interact with children her age.

I like the idea of a Chuck E Cheese party for your husband. My friends threw me a surprise 16th birthday party there!


Hi Louise,
I've been thinking about this post since I read it (a few days ago, on vacation). I really get your sadness and ambivalence and it reminded me of times when, for whatever reason on whichever occasion, I was sensitive to Oscar's behavior, developmental age, or and ability to fit in. It goes in waves for me -- sometimes I can let it go, but those "milestones" are always hard for me. With 10 years peeking around the corner I'll be looking back at this post for comfort in knowing I am not alone. Thanks for your honesty!

It's so great to hear everyone's responses!

Emma -- I love the picture of your blue hair and pierced nose! :) We are still struggling with problems with the Proloquo -- with the actual iPod device and how it backs it up and now the editing functions aren't working properly. And Ben really wants to use it now!

Lisa -- I would love to hear more about your experiences with your daughter! I loved that you had a 16th ChuckECheese party. I'll let you know if hubby goes for it for number 50 -- can't you just see them putting on his crown?

And Mary -- it's always so affirming to know that others experience similar feelings. It is helpful to think of the hard feelings as waves -- they ebb and flow -- and it's important to know that they will ebb! And when they come again, over time you can have a bit more perspective and say: "Oh, it's you again!"

I hope you had a wonderful vacation!

Tonight, as we headed out for dinner, we took Gabriel next door so he could give the two birthday invites to our neighbors -- twin six year old boys. It was more important for Gabe to take off his shoes and run through their house than it was for him to hand over the invites to his "friends". That edge of sadness seems to always be followed by resignation. It will always be different than what I imagined, I think.

I love the idea of your husband celebrating (and perhaps embracing?) ChuckECheese for his 50th! Sounds to me like a very fine idea. :)

Its always hard for me to when its birthday. Its reminder that they are growing older and not
reachng their milestone.

Thank you so much for sharing this with me. Yes, I know exactly what you're saying, and it's the panic over the future that gets more, more than the reality of the present. I know that's my issue to resolve, Rojo is fine!