A not quite universal truth

A new anthology of essays by mothers of children with autism proves motherhood isn't always what you think.

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

The stories in the moving anthology Gravity Pulls You In tell us many truths about motherhood, and perhaps the most important one is this: There is no single universal truth about motherhood.

I have often said to friends that having the second child is less jarring, with the assumption that once you’re on the planet parenthood, at least you don’t have to move. The mothers in this book would either dispute me or remind me the planet is very large, indeed, larger than I imagined when I shared that truth of mine, as if it was the truth.

These tales of parenting children on the autism spectrum describe a parenthood that doesn’t look familiar to many of us. The stories don’t include those experiences our society assumes are universal to parents. These parents may not wait the same amount of time for the first smile or first word that the parenting guides allot, and they may even have stopped waiting. While it’d be easy to say that all parents have to let go of timetables and love kids on their own terms, that’s more true for some parents than others.

Some of what these essays describe will remain foreign territory for most of us: hospitals and health crises and violent outbursts. In the book’s preface, coeditor Kyra Anderson describes the sense of being plucked from her orbit and tossed into a new solar system when her son was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

I found so much nourishment from these essays and poems.There were some that simply took my breath away, like Maggie Kast’s “No Pity,” an essay that eloquently describes her long hospital vigil for her grown and very ill son. Kristen Spina’s “Birthdays,” the story of preparing her 5-year-old son to attend birthday parties, deftly describes the potential booby traps in seemingly normal childhood rituals. In “The Visit,” Laura Shumaker captures the completely bittersweet and thorny experience of parenting an 18-year-old with autism, including the unexpected moments of seeing him shine, if not necessarily directly for you.

Yet what moved me more than the individual pieces of writing was the way these stories together illuminate how we can all better support and even celebrate this vast range of our parenthood experiences (and really, let’s face it, of our lives). It’s the conclusion coeditor Vicki Forman draws in her beautiful essay “The Mother at the Swings,” that finally you share your experience with the interested mother at the swings who imagines the swings are the same for all children, deep down, so that she can better understand you, and better understand the next person she meets who “happens to be different,” and so that she can help her own child learn “how to embrace and treasure what makes us all different. And the same.”

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser’s work has appeared in various anthologies; most recently Shari MacDonald Strong's The Maternal is Political. She’s also written for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, The Tennessean and USA Today. Her essays have appeared in the Southwest Review, the California Literary Review, Ars Medica, Earth Island Journal, and Trusteeship. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and four children (teen to toddler). Her blog on parenting is called Standing in the Shadows.