We had a scary situation this weekend. It wasn't that bad--no blood, no emergency--but for a moment we had a glimpse of what life could be if that scary "A" word--autism--entered the picture. This particular condition, with all the publicity it gets, has captured our imaginations as the worst thing that could happen. I'm sure each generation has its thing--what it looks for, analyzes, agonizes over--and for this generation of parents, it's autism. For good reason, I might add--with 1 in 150 kids in America diagnosed today, and the way it challenges our expectations of relationships--no wonder it scares us.

So Finn woke up from his nap Saturday seemingly awake but refusing all interaction. He sat on the floor away from us, resisting eye contact or touch of any kind. It was breathtakingly scary--he was so withdrawn and inward-looking that both Matt and I wondered "Is this how it starts? Is this the beginning of a journey we don't want to take? Will this day be forever frozen in our minds?" We couldn't even acknowledge our fears until much later that evening, after he had mostly come back to us. He seemed distant to me the rest of the day, actually, but was completely himself the next morning and ever since.

We suspect that Finn is fine, that he had a bad dream or was in the middle of a sleep cycle and needed to awaken more fully. Or maybe he felt sad and was just trying to understand it. Finn walks around stomping his feet and proclaiming himself "Happy," but there's no song, after all, about what you do if you feel sad or how you know it.

So yes, we watch Finn run up to kids on the playground, eager to share his ball and to say hi and we suspect autism is not an issue for him. But of course, you never know, and even this momentary fear has started me thinking about the nature of parental anxiety, and what it means for our children when we take our legitimate responsibility of observation and awareness too far, to the point of constantly looking for something to diagnose, something that is wrong.

I have to admit I'm uncomfortable with how quickly we can descend into this place of anxiety,
where anything is a potential symptom. Not that parents shouldn't be alert to potential problems--of course not. We have friends whose observation and persistence in the face of doctors who wanted to wait and see has gained their child untold advantages. By obtaining an early diagnosis of a prenatal stroke, his physical and occupational therapy began that much sooner, while the brain is still developing and forming. Clearly this sort of attention and recognition of a problem is exactly the job of parents.

But there is an alternate world of "parenting" out there that offers only an addict's relief for our trembling fear. Shelves of books promise to provide a full night's sleep, a beautifully-behaved child and a high IQ to boot. They compete with websites, blogs, forums and parenting magazines, which offer the consumers' solution: buy the right products, the best toys, the safest equipment, and everything will be fine. These solutions, of course, only foster more anxiety--any temporary comfort quickly subsumed by a new study or a tragic story. It is not a far stretch to say that the anxiety produced by those shelves of parenting books and endless hyperlinks--read or unread--robs us of the confidence and ability to look inside, listen to our instincts, think rationally or even pay attention to our particular child with his or her particular needs, temperament and personality.

In this alternate world of parenting, one moment can indeed spiral into a diagnosis--and it's only a short walk from there to the realm of "what did I do wrong and how can I fix it?" It's so tempting to think that even in the face of an uncontrollable world, we can control our child's world. But we parents are only stewards, not saviors.

The truth is that our children are born into an imperfect world to imperfect parents. They are full inheritors of the human condition--sadness, bad dreams and failures included. I remind myself of this--that, in the words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, both I and Finn are dust, and to dust we will return. It is a strange grace to remember, but grace nonetheless. Finn belongs to God before he belongs to me.

Yes. This is my theological answer, but my everyday, lived answer I'm still working out.

On that day when we felt stricken with fear--and in the days since--we wondered if Finn was indeed on some sort of cusp, and if so, was there anything we could do to bring him back? Could we, by sheer force of love and physical presence, hold him to us, not let him slip away? Maybe so, and we have certainly been quicker to pick him up, quicker to bring him into our bed at night, quicker to cuddle.

I think that holding him when we feel scared is not a bad start. Ironically, it's the quotidian acts of parenting that most relieve me from the anxiety and the idea of parenting. Because the other side of this anxiety is that I do experience God in the work of parenting, in the creativity and the guidance required, in the mundane duties and the selfless love. The dailiness and constancy calm me, give rhythms and patterns to my prayer.

Ideas like "being present" and "being mindful" may be much talked about and written upon, but never have they been made so manifest in our lives as when Finn entered in, casting a hazy spell which blurred everything except counting 10 perfect fingers and toes over and over again in a strange rosary of parently bliss.

And these days, walking at a toddler's pace and cleaning something for the millionth time--these are the disciplines that shape my days. Accepting my lack of control over how often the milk is spilled, when the diaper leaks or where he throws a tantrum helps me to accept my lack of control over the world. And when I choose to read a novel instead of a parenting book, I'm accepting my limits and somehow accepting Finn's limits too. I know that we both have--and will continue to have--bad days. And I know that whatever issues do come up for us--whether it's developmental delays now or reading problems later--those issues, diagnose-able or not, don't have to define us.

I know that none of this is any kind of hedge against the terrifying possibilities of life. But that's the point--reading endless articles isn't a hedge either. I have certainly found valuable resources in a few parenting books, and I wouldn't advocate throwing them out. But sometimes--more often than not, I suspect--the healthy thing to do is to shut the books, stop googling lists of symptoms (as I spent Sunday morning doing) and simply be with my child. Or knit a few rows, letting my control over yarn soothe me. Or make pancakes, which has never yet failed to nourish myself, my husband or my son. These little acts of creativity, of life, help me to hold onto the "already" in the midst of the "not yet," giving me a glimpse of the Kingdom right here in my kitchen. 

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