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.