This is part 1 of a 2 part series.
(Meant to read part 2 instead? CLICK HERE) Recently I was enjoying a candid conversation with an acquaintance and we were mutually observing how full of energy and life my son is. And he really is. He’s energetic, he’s passionate, he is curious about everything, he’s bright. I went on to share that he’s actually been diagnosed with ADHD, to which this gentleman promptly responded, “NONSENSE!” – going on to suggest that there’s really no such thing as ADHD.
I understand that this is a view held by some people but, frankly, I find that kind of blunt reaction annoying, as I’m sure any parent would who has been on the same journey. But, alas, it wasn’t a battle that I was willing to fight at the time so I laughed him off and briefly responded that I actually do think the diagnosis is a legitimate thing. Interestingly, however, his remark represents the unarticulated question mark that seems to hang over so many interactions wherein ADHD is the topic of conversation.
The fact is, our journey toward reaching this particular conclusion about Ethan has been long, difficult, and it’s one that has involved so much thought and prayer and discussion and learning. So many perspectives have informed the decisions we’ve made: from deciding that we believe that ADHD is real, to the decision to have him assessed, to our acceptance of the diagnosis. Each of these issues has been rigorously processed and put through myriad filters, both professional (conversations with teachers and physicians, reading reputable books and other content) and personal (time in prayer and in discussion with people who know us all well, as well as – importantly! – our own sense as his parents).
Let me be clear that my intention here isn’t to start an argument about the legitimacy of the diagnosis or about any of the facts supporting a stance for or against. This is not the place for that. I’m just here to tell our story. As with so many topics causing contention or confusion or misplaced judgment, the bigger problem may simply be our inability to truly listen and truly hear each others’ stories. I, for one, have always found stories more transformative than lists of facts and arguments.
As with so many topics causing contention or confusion or misplaced judgment, the bigger problem may simply be our inability to truly listen and truly hear each others’ stories.
And regardless, I’m not an expert on anything but my own journey.
I’m just here to tell that story.
My hope is twofold: First, that it will encourage those of you who are dealing with comparable difficulties; and second, that it will help to create space for compassion and empathy in all of our hearts for each other as we process the various challenges inherent to parenting. Goodness knows we need it! If we listen and look, we can all see our own humanity reflected in the souls of each other.
So without further ado:
Our Story: Ages 0-3.5
Ethan started showing signs of irritated intensity in babyhood. All through baby and toddlerhood he was kind of a grumpy, serious guy (which is weird because now he’s generally a cheerful, if sometimes high-strung, little dude). He was wiggly, busy, reactive, and restless. You’re probably thinking: that just sounds like a busy little boy. And yes, we wondered if that was all it was, too, but at the same time, we kept looking around and feeling like the particular combination of insane busyness and spirited personality was cumulatively more than we were seeing in virtually any of the other kids around. It was crazy-making. He would try to flip off the change table, crawl and climb his way out of confinements, spend ages jumping in his crib (this was before he could walk), and he would rarely – if ever – sit still. He popped off the boob impatiently during feedings, wiggled constantly, and even listening to stories he would squirm and squirm. Once he could walk, it was go go go – he ran, non-stop, from activity to activity; often injuring other children in his mad exploits. I remember one friend commenting that she felt dizzy just watching him play. I was often in fight-or-flight mode, terrified he’d get into something dangerous or run into the street.
Ordinary “baby proofing” was a joke to our son.
Ordinary “baby proofing” was a joke to him. He devised ways over and around things, sought out tools and all the especially not-kid-friendly items in our homes and the homes of friends. He once picked up some tools lying along a small ledge behind some jackets at a friend’s house – tools that her own little kids had bypassed for months. And he had a thing for finding and pulling air vents out of people’s floors. I also had to be on extra-high alert during play-dates, as he would often act aggressively on impulse and hurt other children. Like, a lot. My friend Brenda and I still laugh about the time I yelled, “WE DON’T STRANGLE OUR FRIENDS!!” to Ethan as he proceeded to squeeze her son’s neck. It was just so full-on, so often. I often felt like I couldn’t relax, couldn’t just “let go.” I had to remain in a state of hyper-vigilance. To top it all off, he seemed agitated and angry, frustrated and serious so much of the time.
…I yelled, “WE DON’T STRANGLE OUR FRIENDS!!”
Sometimes, when we were exasperated and discouraged, we’d wonder, What’s wrong with us!? Why is this so hard? Why isn’t this more enjoyable? Why can’t we handle ONE CHILD!? I recall moments where I felt terrible guilt about my own feelings. I reminded myself that it’s normal to not like being with someone when they aren’t acting likeable. I mean, that’s as sensible a conclusion as there is. But it didn’t change the fact that my reality was vastly different than I had expected it would be.
It helped us loads when people would legitimize to us that we weren’t crazy – that the challenges we were dealing with did seem to be above and beyond. Both our moms, each of whom raised 4 kids, voiced to us several times that none of their kids had been nearly so trying.
Maybe I don’t need to say it, but because I’m zeroing in on the hard stuff, I just want to articulate that we totally adore Ethan. I mean, we are head-over-heels about him. The difficulty that has come with his particular wiring hasn’t changed our love for him one iota. We see such beauty, and we see the glorious opposing edge of the double-edged sword that he is. He is brilliant, gifted, compassionate, sweet, determined, wild, creative… And all the troubles have served to bond us to him further. All these things are true. And yet, it’s been a hard road. All the love and all the struggle have been true at the same time.
Adding Another Child to the Mix
Anyway, back to the story: when Ella came along Ethan had just turned two. While lots of people find adding a child makes life more difficult, I honestly felt like it made everything easier for me. Ethan had thus far demanded SO much from me emotionally, and he was such a negative child much of the time that sometimes I felt a bit trapped. Busier than a mom of 1 “ordinarily” would be, but intellectually bored and sad about how angry and challenging my kid was acting.
Somehow having Ella lightened everything for me. She provided a new dynamic that was healthy for all of us, provided more stimulus for Ethan (yay!), created a happy diversion, and added another factor to my intellectual life that kept me from going nuts. She also, while of course being challenging in her own right, is a “textbook child” in a lot of ways, and my relative-ease in raising her (and she’s not even what some would call “an easy child!”) really affirmed that I wasn’t nuts – Ethan’s behavior was, for lack of a better word, “different.” It wasn’t just me! I could, after all, handle “typical” parenthood.
In his third year some notable sleep issues cropped up. There was a long stretch of time where he would wake up in the night and stay awake for hours. This was distressing to us, because he seemed exhausted all the time, and simultaneously resisted naps. He had previously been a good napper, care of some pretty strict routines, but now that he had dropped his nap, on the days where he genuinely needed one he simply couldn’t fall asleep, or if he did, his night-time would get thrown off even MORE, netting us even less sleep. It felt like a lose-lose situation. At this point we received a lot of well-meaning advice about how we should “just throw him down for a nap” – which of COURSE we had tried (and tried, and tried) but we were totally at an impasse. The middle of the night wakings gradually did wane, much to our delight, but he still seemed – ironically – a funny combination of exhausted/grumpy and restless/hyper so much of the time. He just was not getting enough sleep. It was gut wrenching for me, because I just wanted so desperately for him to flourish!! And the impulsive, hyperactive behaviours were ongoing.
Keep in mind that, again, lots of the behaviours we were seeing were normal. All kids can be grumpy, busy, intense, reactive, impulsive at times. But the amount of difficult behaviour we were dealing with was not typical. It was more. Relentless. It was also not age-appropriate. Watching him with his peers, we could see that he was out of sync.
We now know that this is characteristic of ADHD kids, but we noticed that he was well ahead of kids in certain ways; like with his musical abilities, his interest in STEM activites, his imaginative scope, and his grasp of language and ability to articulate thoughts and feelings with depth and clarity. But he was behind in some notable ways too – all, incidentally, relating back to a deficit in executive function – he was consistently acting and reacting like a younger child in terms of his ability to control his impulses, follow through, make plans, and pay attention. This last bit, the attention one, only really started becoming notable as he reached stages where kids were expected to focus for longer stretches on activities – so around age 3.5 and on.
Because I was so worn-out and emotionally-thin at this point we tried finding a way of getting me a little reprieve so I could regain a bit of a margin and carry on parenting well day-to-day. Because Marcus’ family lives in Ontario, and my family lives all over the place (my parents are only in Manitoba part of the year; and – to my great grief – 2 of my 3 siblings moved out West) we found ourselves with very little practical support, and with what felt like an overwhelming need. So we tried sending him to very-part-time daycare several times, but each time his hyperactivity and intensity proved too overwhelming to deal with and we had to change tracks. I had just finished my MA at this point and we did not have huge financial margins, so paying the hourly wage of a nanny felt impossible, but we decided to do it anyway; just 3 hours every week or so, and for a couple months that reprieve was salvation to me, even though it made things tight. I felt like I could never get a break, and these small breaks were like safety valves for me in my over-taxed emotional state.
It was during his 4th year that we started the ball rolling on getting professional input: We met with our family doctor and shared our concerns, and she gave us a referral to a Developmental Pediatrician. The wait turned out to be an agonizing 8 months, and I remember it too well. I think it was the longest 8 months of my life! I recall calling the clinic in desperation several times, asking where we were on the wait list. The sleep issues at that point were unresolved and we were stressed out. Finally we got an appointment, and that foot in the door was HUGE for us.
During the first appointment the Dr. assessed him for developmental delays and concluded that Ethan was a bright, busy child, but at age 3.5 she couldn’t yet say one way or another whether he had ADHD or not. In the meantime, she suggested we read, “Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic” by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka – a book I recommend if you’re noticing that your kid just seems like “more” in any or all of: Intensity, sensitivity, perceptiveness, persistence, and/or energy. She then connected us with a knowledgeable social worker. We left the appointment encouraged that he was healthy and knowing we had some resources in the wings, but still anxious and stressed about the challenges we were up against on the home front.
….to be continued. CLICK HERE for Part 2.
(In Part 2, I talk about the next couple years and how we ultimately arrived at the point of professional assessment and diagnosis. Please be sure to sign up for our email list for an easy way to stay up to date on posts and other Under The Elms content ➡️)
And for your pinning pleasure ⬇️⬇️⬇️