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I’ve been thinking a lot about how we see our kids, and how the rest of the world sees our kids. And mostly how we see our kids as we envision them growing up, becoming adults, and living lives of their own.

I think about this in a very nebulous, general sense. And then I think about Georgia.

How do I see my kid? Well, I know fully that I don’t see her in the same way I see other 14-year-olds. I see her as much younger, due in part to her developmental delay and due in part to that inevitably natural parental attribute – to see your children always as children. To this day, the (wonderfully protective) things that my parents say to me belie the truth. While they are fully aware of the facts that (a) I’m a grown-up, closer to (*cough*) the big 5-0 than to any other landmark birthday and (b) I’m responsible for another small persons’ livelihood, they also still see me as their ‘little girl’. Anytime I tell my mother about something at work that is stressful or worrying me, her response is almost always a version of, “Well why would people be so petty and stupid? They should know better! Academics!” Translation (I think): “Why are these people bothering my kid?” I’m usually so busy trying to explain to her that the other persons’ perspectives are quite relevant and really probably justified, that I forget to appreciate the value in having that ubiquitous shield of parental protection.

When I look at Georgia, I still see her as a little kid.

Her body continues to grow up, all surfer-girlish: lithe and lean and lovely and reminding me of myself at age 14. Her hormones drive a certain kind of universal ‘leave me alone!’ adolescent reaction to almost any kind of parental intervention, from entering a room to dictating rules and regulations of the house. But there is still that part of her that gets into her bed, tired and mellow, and reaches for her Pooh Bear, embracing him with heartbreaking tenderness. And then there is the sight of her curled up, asleep, in the morning with that beautiful little face that, to me, looks no different than the face of the sleeping baby in my arms 14 years ago. These persistent and tenacious images remind me of the child who is still there in front of me, so vulnerable and needing me to be her guardian and protector. Or so I keep telling myself.

Nancy blowing bubbles as a child

It’s a case of mixed signals. I see the growing and developing person – and I know enough about human development to see where this whole thing is going – but I also see the plateaus and the tears and the giggles and the relentless lagging behind of a lovely little child.

In tights and a hoodie, she almost looks like any other 14 year-old, I think. Because when I visit Georgia’s high school, all the kids look so old. They’re hanging out, looking giant, hip and cool, well-dressed and worldly. The boys look taller and far less geeky than I teenage boys did in my day. The girls look like young women you’d be cranky that your boyfriend was talking to at a club while you were in the bathroom.

I can’t quite reconcile the vision of these kids with the vision of Georgia. In the standard early adolescent female uniform of the day (tights, layered tops) she reminds me more of a lovely seven-year-old trying to look older than a genuine peer of the 14 year olds I see.

This has all been triggered in part by a fascinating article by Ron SusKind in the New York Times called “Reaching my autistic son through Disney.” In the article, SusKind says that while these Disney movies and characters helped connect his autistic son to him, his “waking nightmare” was that his son would be “50 and watching Disney movies in the basement.” This made me stop and think a lot about what he said.

I can’t quite picture Georgia at 50, as I’m sure many parents of kids that are 14 have difficulty trying to do. But in some ways, parents of children who don’t (currently) have physical, developmental or mental health challenges don’t actually need to picture their kids at 50 or think hard about what they hope that will look like. There will be time, growth, and many other external influences that will facilitate the development of their children through adolescence, and into adulthood. And most of those kids will be independent with families of their own or circles of support around them at age 50. So picturing these kids at 50 might be just more of a fun thought experiment than a pressing need of sorts.

I see that Georgia will also have time, growth and external influences on her growing up, she already does. Additionally, she’ll very likely have a circle of support around her at 50. It just is far less predictable what that will look like.

The comment about watching Disney movies at 50 doesn’t sound like as much of a nightmare as I probably should think it does. I’m not sure if it would be the worst thing if Georgia is doing a version of what she does now, at age 50.  Many would disagree with me, and I welcome criticism that might come my way. It’s more a matter of me just putting it out there for my own contemplation and reflection. It’s very challenging for me to picture giving up the protective parental presence I feel with Georgia. It’s now hard wired, and it is strengthened by her developmental delay and childlike nature that allows me, in every way, to keep that little-kid image of her so foremost in my mind.

More complex than a selfish-desire to keep her young, my feelings are about sorting through the mixed signals and focussing on the one that is the loudest or the most compelling.

I’m sure my views on this will evolve in some meaningful way, with time and as Georgia continues to develop and grow. But don’t get me wrong: I want her to be as independent as possible. I would love for her to take the bus on her own, to shop for her own clothes, to have a kind of job that she loves, to go places and do things she wants to do on her own or with friends or even just with minimal help. I dare to sometimes think about what that would be like. It’s so incredibly far from the reality of everyday right now that it feels daring and perilous to imagine. Daring because it opens up a whole other set of possibilities to think about. Perilous because of the remarkable potential to set up high expectations that may never become reality. But I also know that, realistically, Georgia will always require lots of support and help and guidance to get through her days. I cannot imagine not being the one of the key people around her to do this nor can I ever imagine anyone else being able to “translate” her and connect with her the way I do. The bottom line: I want her to grow and develop and gain independence – as much as she is able to – but I want her to do it with me alongside, somehow, for as long as she has to.

The crux of all this is that I am fully aware that there is a very real potential there that I might hold her back in some ways, because of the way I see her, and I need to be hyperaware of that. It doesn’t much matter that, for example, my parents might still see me as that freckle-faced frizzy-haired little kid.  I am independent, I am able to take care of myself and that lovely sideways view of me hasn’t held me back or compromised my ability to achieve and grow. But my difficulty with seeing Georgia as anything other than my little kid will have an effect on how I’m able to let her grow and let go, if I allow it to.

Rationally, I know that she is growing up. I know I’ll need to let go, but I’m not sure yet what that letting go means. I’m almost envious of the father who wrote that article who has a very clear vision of his son at age 50, what he sees for him as promising and what he sees as nightmarish. I don’t have that yet, I am not able to see that with any clarity. I still just see that lovely little kid in tights and her hoodie, who needs extra help putting it on when the sleeves are turned inside out. The kid who plans on taking her teddy bear to the beach this summer and who is in high school. The kid who has begun puberty but who believes in Santa. The kid who is almost as tall as me but still needs help taking a bath. The kid who can go to prom but who still wants her mommy.

Gonna have to just keep doing some serious work sorting through those mixed signals, I guess.

 Nancy Walton is a professor at Ryerson and the mom of a fabulous 14-year-old. More Life With Georgia here.

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