Susan's Blog

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Max on his own

Max has gone off to college.  I am missing Max in a soft way, a quiet but constant awareness that he’s not here.  For the past year — his gap year — he was here so much, even though he was also away so much, using his newly-earned driver’s license, hanging out at with his girlfriend (also not yet in college) and friends who went to college nearby.  He was simply part of the family, though in a nineteen-year-old’s undependable way.  I never knew when there would be only the three of us for dinner (Ned, Ben, and me) or six for dinner (Max, his girlfriend Hannah, and his friends Yaz and sometimes Sam).  Sometimes — when Nat was also home —  I had to tell Max that any more than one friend, they were on their own.  An impromptu dinner for seven, when two of those people are vegetarians?  I don’t think so.

My feeling of missing Max is compatible with my feeling of Max, his entire life.  He came along when I didn’t know Nat was autistic, but I did know that things were not going well with my firstborn.  Those days I thought that the problem was me.  It made sense to me that I would not have been a very good mother; I hadn’t done a whole lot yet in my life except marry and get a master’s degree.  The only books I’d written were unpublished novels that I knew were not very good.  I hadn’t held any real jobs and it seemed unlikely that I would in the next decade.   I had not separated psychologically all that much from my parents and so I lived in a kind of emotional dependence on them merged with a teenage rebellion/angst even in my late twenties.  Predictably, this mess ran over into my relationship with my sister, with whom I would have bloody, visceral fights from time to time.

I was so uncomfortable in my own body that it was pretty much impossible to be comfortable anywhere.  Two months after Nat was born, we moved into a crappy but fairly charming little house in a shitty part of a suburb of Cambridge.  I spent the next year of his life figuring out that we had made a mistake leaving my beloved Brookline, and trying to convince Ned of this.  I also spent that year figuring out that something was wrong with my beloved Nat and trying to convince Ned of this.

Both were exceedingly difficult to come to terms with.  Who wants to move out of their first house only a few weeks after moving in?  Who in the world examines their new baby over and over again, obsessing about every nuance, interaction, or lack thereof?  But I, a nascent obsessive compulsive, spent my first years of motherhood in a miserable state of knowing something but not knowing it. Knowing something but not having the credibility because I lacked confidence and experience, because my husband and parents didn’t know how to deal with this progressively painful situation.  I was Cassandra, I was the prophet of doom, but I had no street cred with my loved ones.  So the pain just bubbled and boiled.  Susan was unhappy, Nat was an eccentric baby, why couldn’t she get fixed and enjoy her life?

She could not.  But when Max came along, something changed.  There was a lightening, a softening for the first time.  This easygoing baby responded to me with wise eyes that believed in me.  He depended on me, and I mothered him, and that was the deal.  Simple, straightforward.   This relationship gave me my first experience of confidence as an adult, though I didn’t know it at the time.

We say that we shouldn’t compare our children, but I think we should.  This is the way that we learn about childhood development.  But we should not compare our children so as to judge the value of one against the other.  In my heart, Nat occupied so much space, and yet, there was just as much room for Max; this seemed wondrous to me.  There was no comparison, only learning.   So much hurt about Nat but did not hurt about Max and I needed to know why.  One boy informed me about the other. I could see the miracle of normal development in Max and I rejoiced in the beauty of even the most mundane things with Max, such as problems with sharing, getting muddy from the rain, getting him eating vegetables.  And then, o joy, there were the most amazing things, such as Max himself:  his mind, his quick intelligence, his fun.  The way he spoke like Woodstock, in all exclamation points.

They say that happiness is the absence of pain, like when you are sick and finally you are better, how beautiful that feels. One aspect of my happiness in Max will always be about the relief of normal development, the absence of fear.  But the other aspect of my joy in Max is purely about Max, my calm and confident baby who grew into this calm, confident, beautiful young man.  His leaving for college feels right and timely.  His absence here is omnipresent.  Everywhere I look I think about Max, how he would come right into the livingroom with us as soon as his friends went home.  How he would open his laptop like a treasure chest and pull out cool things to share with us. How every once in a while he would start talking to me, this quiet smiling son, releasing torrents of thought and information so that I’d have to grab hold, like to a branch in a rushing river, but at the same time  hope that it wouldn’t stop coming at me.

I don’t want to cry, I want to sigh.  I want to breathe and think and look around and picture him, constantly, in his new life on his own without the friends, girlfriend, effluvia of his family.  What is that boy like in the world out there?  I feel a bit of maternal worry but mostly just a missing him — with pride.


Such an honest post Susan. It resonates with me. I was the mom with an 18 month old who started to slip away from me – losing eye contact, pointing, all her words – when my 2nd child was born. There was an ease to the 2nd while I was losing my 1st. It was painful, yet it was what got me through. I think my 2nd daughter saved me – emotionally, physically, psych-ically if that is possible. The engagement from one daughter almost in a way made up for what I lost, and I lost so very much. My family didn’t understand how I was having children so close together, but maybe the universe stepped in to help me by putting M and L only 18 months apart. It’s so sad to say this, but it’s true in my life – It is with my 2nd child that I finally felt like a mother. It is she who gave me those feelings of reciprocity, of intention, of closeness, that built me up, so that I was able to go and mother my first. Amazing the gifts in life, huh?!

— added by Penny on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 9:49 am


— added by Max on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 10:13 am

Max’s smile says it all. 🙂

— added by Donna on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 10:19 am

Ironically, it is the severe asd one that’s the most “normal” in development when he was a baby. Hit all the milestones, loved to snuggle, regressed at age 2, never did talk. Still loves his Mommy most 🙂

Just never know.

Hope he enjoys school.

— added by farmwifetwo on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 11:11 am

Very sweet post, Susan. I feel the same way about my middle daughter, who will be going off to college next year.

Happy adventures to Max!

— added by Susan on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Lovely post Susan. I agree that one child informs you about the other and vice versa. Now that they are 12 and 9 respectively, they intentionally inform on each other.

Just wait for the first holiday he’s home, think of all the treasures he’ll share from his laptop. Enjoy this time just as much as Max will, you’ve turned out another good one. Lisa

— added by lisa on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 5:39 pm

What a beautiful, bittersweet post. My college-bound one is four, I can’t even imagine being where you are yet. I hope you have a bit more time to breathe!

— added by kim mccafferty on Saturday, September 3, 2011 at 9:44 am

A sweet post. My oldest has autism and my youngest doe snot. I could so relate to this post. Your youngest is ready to meet the world in such a beautiful way.

— added by Dixie Redmond on Sunday, September 4, 2011 at 7:58 am

Thanks, Dixie, FYI: Max is not my youngest, he is my middle son. Ben is my youngest.

— added by Susan Senator on Sunday, September 4, 2011 at 9:52 am

This is my first visit here, and I am impressed by your writing gift. What a beautiful and achingly honest post!

— added by Steph on Saturday, September 10, 2011 at 10:41 pm

Hey Susan,

Wow, I meant to just read one post, but I ended up way down the rabbit hole at the Galleria, wishing you had found the cookie stand. What a great blog and great writing!

Really sorry to hear Max is now gone to college, but in the time he is away he is going to learn new things and shed old habits and develop new ones, and every time you see him you get to be surprised and proud in a new way.

Anyway, just wanted to let you know that we would love for you to stop by our community and say hello at and share any news, blog posts, or whatever you like.

You’re doing the community a great service with your words- keep it up-


— added by Rethink Kent on Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 5:21 pm

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