Learning to Love Across the Divide

by Jill Smith

When Emily was born, I searched her face to find the familiar. Did she have my eyes? Was the shape of her nose like her father’s? As she grew, I monitored her behaviors as well, wanting her to like the same foods I liked, laugh at the movies that I thought were funny. I hoped that this beautiful child we had created would be like us, only better.

What I didn’t expect when I gazed into Emily’s face was that there would be something deep in her that I wouldn’t recognize. I couldn’t imagine that there might be an aspect of my child that was unfamiliar, that I wouldn’t understand.

I think it’s human nature to want our children to resemble us, for it to be obvious to others that they belong to us because they share familial traits. So what happens when they don’t? What happens when a child is born with a condition such as dwarfism, deafness, autism or transgender identity?

In Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, he offers guidance for how to understand and bridge this gap by asking us to consider the concept of vertical versus horizontal identities.

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“[M]ost children share at least some traits with their parents,” he writes. “These are vertical identities. Attributes and values are passed down from parent to child across the generations not only through strands of DNA, but also through shared cultural norms. Ethnicity, for example, is a vertical identity. … Often, however, someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group. This is a horizontal identity.”**

Autism, for me, is a horizontal identity. I confess that one of the biggest challenges of being Emily’s mother is accepting that she doesn’t experience the world the way I do. Learning to embrace that difference has also been one of my greatest joys.

Most parents, Solomon states, learn to “love across the divide” created by horizontal identities. Through habit and love a mother grows to accept the unfamiliar nature of her child as commonplace.

She also assumes a new identity as the parent of a child who has a horizontal condition. The mother then has a horizontal identity from her own family. The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, but has rolled away. Often, these parents look to peer groups to acquire these new identifies.  That, for me, has been a challenge.

I don’t consider myself to be an activist. I’m not out to find a cure for autism or lobby our leaders for disability rights. It’s not often that I stand on my soapbox and rally against The Man. I rarely follow the latest research on the causes of autism or add my voice to either side of the ongoing debates about why autism rates are skyrocketing. I’ve never joined a support group for parents of children who have autism.

My focus has been much more introspective. I simply want my daughter to live a happy life.

Solomon says stories of families who have horizontal identities “point a way for all of us to expand our definitions of the human family.” So I’ve been pondering my societal responsibility as the parent of someone on the autism spectrum. Do I have a moral obligation to share our experiences in the interest of improving the lives of generations to come? And if so, what do I want you to take away from my experience?

For me, it comes down to this.

I want you to accept and love my child with the same sense of wonder, compassion and awe that I do. I want this because it will make Emily’s life happier, but my desire is larger than that. I hope that if you can understand Emily by seeing her through my eyes, you’ll also have a deeper understanding of the next person you meet who has autism.

So I write to share how I’ve learned to love across the divide that separates me from my daughter. I don’t share our stories to elicit pity, but to help expand the definition of the human family. I write in the hopes that our stories might help others who encounter identity differences find a way to cross the horizontal divide as well.

**Solomon, Andrew (2012-11-13). Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (Kindle Locations 86-88 and 94-95). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Who’s Teaching Girls to be Angry?

by Emily Smith

Now, you might have read the above in one of two ways.

The first of these ways is “come on, the internet’s full of angry feminists! Check Instagram and check Tumblr! They’re all crazy! I can’t stand it! WHO is teaching these stupid women that they need to be angry?”

This is probably not how most of you, our audience, would have read that. But certainly, it’s a view often proliferated, even encouraged, both in the dark recesses of Internet anonymity and the broad daylight of our quotidian lives.

You may even have read that tone into it without wanting to – that’s how loud this viewpoint can scream. It’s an exercise in privilege, and in irony, that boys and men in their usual environments can sometimes express so much anger… about someone else’s anger. The point, of course, is that they have the right to this anger. And women don’t.

So I’d care to illuminate the other half of this question, the genuine half, with honest concern and bafflement. Who IS teaching girls to be angry? Their parents, their teachers? In many cases, nobody. In most cases, not enough people.

In fact, this general failure to teach productive anger gets so entangled with our gender that even the words we use for “not getting angry” are domestic, traditionally effeminate in nature. We do not restrain our emotions; we bottle them. We do not build up resentment; we stew it. We do not sort out our feelings; we prune them like roses, sift them like flour. We boil over in our overwhelm. We cook up stories. We throw babies out with bathwater. And so on.

I claim a new language for the anger of women. A strong language. A dark, wild language. I am not “steamed,” “strained” or “drained” because I am not pasta. A thick-funneled vortex churns away at my heart and threatens to swallow it up, because I am a storm. And if you believe storms are fickle (as oh, so many do), you fail to understand weather.

Storms follow iterative rules; each molecular movement of the cloud depends upon the movement before it. This is why meteorologists run their simulators so many times, why the predicted path of a hurricane grows increasingly narrow as it approaches the shore. The possibilities appear chaotic, yet are mathematically predictable.

The path of a storm is a fractal.

The path of my anger is a fractal. Each measurable state depends upon the measurable state before it. And so I think it must be with “angry feminists” in our current sociopolitical climate. No one has given us the right to be angry (or feminists anymore, for that matter). No one has predicted us; no one has stood watch for our storms. And because there are no plans in place, we devastate the land.

To paraphrase Alexander Pope, “to anger is human; to believe, divine.” As human beings, we deserve our storms. One deserves a natural pattern of behavior, a climate to call one’s own. Even the sunniest of dispositions will occasionally darken, and even the darkest are not on constant tornado watch. As we know in this environmentally conscious world (or at least, we ought to by now), prevailing climate offers a range of variance. It is not the same as daily weather.

Certainly we all wish for fair weather, relative warmth and sunlight. This is a mercy in our lives, hence the dead metaphor of precipitation as “inclement.” Yet we understand that the elements of nature do not offer us eternal clemency. We watch, wait, and prepare.

I therefore advise all women and men expressing the storms of their lives: brace for those of others as if they were inevitable, because they are. Look out your windows; check your local listings.

Plan for the weather you see.