Lessons from Max

Missing Milestones

It didn't help that trading baby accomplishments is the currency of motherhood. "Is Max walking yet?" a colleague asked me one day, completely unaware of how devastating her question was; she'd had her baby around the same time Max was born. To keep my composure, I learned to respond brightly and briefly to these inquiries: "Nope! Not yet!" became my standard reply.

Birthday parties were especially painful -- they offered up a whole roomful of kids with whom I could compare Max. That stretch of first birthdays was particularly awful. At 12 months, Max was barely able to sit up, couldn't feed himself or hold a bottle, and made no sounds. I usually sat out these celebrations in a living-room corner, holding my son tightly, as I observed what the other kids were up to: toddling or crawling at a rapid clip, babbling, shoving cookies into their little mouths. I'd leave every party frustrated, upset, and angry at the world. Comparing Max with normally developing children was one kind of torture I invented for myself; comparing him with other challenged kids was another. Would Max someday be in a wheelchair, like the teenage boy I saw at the physical-therapy center? Would he drool constantly, like that little girl who had the doctor's appointment after us? Would Max not be able to respond to his name? The comparisons grew more and more irrational. One Saturday, at a sandwich shop with my husband, I watched intently as a mentally retarded man put together the turkey sandwich I'd ordered. Is this, I wondered, what Max is destined for? Would Max be able to hold down a job or live on his own? The thing is, even doctors didn't know what the future held for Max; it was too early to tell. And that's what made life so damn hard.

I usually kept my compare-a-thons to myself. My husband, dealing with grief in his own way -- namely, denial -- didn't want to hear how Max might be different from other kids. Sometimes, I did talk to friends about what their kids were up to, but not too often; I didn't want them to think I was jealous, even though I secretly was.

As Max grew older, it became more and more obvious to me that he wasn't like other kids. When he was 2, I took him to a toddler music class. As the other kids jangled bells and pranced around, I tried not to lose heart over the fact that Max was just crawling and still couldn't hold a drumstick. Keeping my chin up wasn't easy; not one of the other mothers in the class said hello to me that day. Mostly, they averted their eyes. Was it because Max was different from their kids? Defective? I felt so alone.

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