The Other Mother

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The Other Mother

November 1993. When was my last period? Shit, I think it was September. Is that right? That can’t be. Shit shit shit.

Is that one line or two? That second line is pretty faint, maybe it’s not really… Oh yeah. Yep, that’s definitely two red lines. Wait, does two lines mean positive or negative? Positive. Wow. I’m pregnant. 

Twenty two years ago, a 16-year-old me started feeling nauseous and realized she had missed a period. She nervously bought a pregnancy test, sneaked it home to the single-wide trailer she shared with her mom and four siblings, and waited anxiously for the moment she would have enough time and privacy to pee on the stick and wait the required two minutes for the result without any other family members bugging for bathroom time.

She was a junior and the drum major of the marching band at Goose Creek High in South Carolina. She was smart, witty, and had a bright future ahead of her. She had spent the previous summer at the coveted Governor’s School for the Arts at Furman University. She was a survivor of sexual abuse and was helping her mom and older sister raise three younger siblings as a result of her parents’ recent painful, ugly divorce.

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And now she was a knocked up hoe. It’s true. When word got out at good ol’ GCHS, she walked into a bathroom stall one day to those words scribbled on the door in thick dark Sharpie. “Stacey Ribino in an knocked up hoe.” (I guess spelling my name correctly and using any sort of grammar is not a prerequisite for vandalizing bathroom doors.)

She blinked back tears. Kids were cruel. That’s what they thought of her? Would they have thought the same mean, hurtful things if they had known that she wasn’t keeping the baby? Would they have been kind or even a little sympathetic if they knew she was giving the baby up for adoption?

She knew, the instant that damn pee stick was positive, that adoption was her only choice. This life she was incubating, this baby she was growing, was not meant for her. Her family was barely getting by as her mom was finishing nursing school. How could they have added another baby to the mix?

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A few days after taking the pregnancy test, she gathered the courage to tell her mom. They were at Captain D’s, eating her mom’s favorite fried fish (the ONLY fish she’d ever eat) and hush puppies with gobs of tartar sauce, so she figured she was in a safe zone. Plus her friend Adam was there, so she felt relatively certain that her mom wouldn’t murder her.

“Mom… I think I may be pregnant.”

“Why? Why do you think that?”

“Because I took a test. And it was positive.”

Mom and Adam both stared wide-eyed back at her. Adam’s jaw dropped. After a few minutes of letting the news sink in, her mom said, “I will support whatever you decide.”

She set her jaw, almost offended by the underlying meaning of that sentence. “I have to give it up for adoption. That’s the only thing I can do. I can’t keep it and you know I would never have an abortion.”

She tried to keep her secret as long as possible. The marching band went to Disney World in January to march in a parade. She worried about what she would tell friends when they wanted to go on rides that cautioned against pregnant women. She felt tired and frumpy and very, very alone.IMG_1034

Her mom worked as a labor and delivery nurse at a hospital in Charleston. One night she mentioned to a co-worker what was going on with her daughter. That co-worker told her she should talk to another nurse in the postpartum wing named Kathryn. Kathryn and her husband Jeff had been trying to get pregnant for a while without success.

So that’s how 16 (almost 17)-year-old Stacy found the parents for her baby. Kathryn was a nurse and Jeff was a doctor in the Navy. They had a lovely home, a beautiful Golden Retriever, were Catholic, and wanted a baby more than anything. They were perfect. Once they knew they were getting a baby, they were very involved. They called and checked on Stacy and the baby, and took her out to eat several times.

Getting through the rest of that year of high school, trying to conceal a continually growing belly, was a daunting task. There were a lot of safety pins, elastic waistbands and baggy shirts. She had to have a prom dress specially made to accommodate her eight-months-prego eggo. It was a pretty humiliating affair.

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Toward the end of that hellish junior year, she decided she could not and absolutely did not want to return to GCHS for her senior year (see above story about bathroom stall). She met with a guidance counselor and figured out that she could take the credits she needed at summer school and could graduate at the end of the summer. Meanwhile, her older sister was the valedictorian of the graduating class that year. Stacy was flailing miserably in her “perfect” sister’s shadow. She knew by not having a senior year that she would miss out on a lot of fun experiences and opportunities.

The baby’s due date was the beginning of July. Stacy could only miss two days of classes and still be able to graduate from summer school, so she had to be very careful toward the end of her pregnancy. On the night of June 22, she started having really bad cramps, but attributed it to eating too much food. She went to bed early and set her alarm to get up to go to school the next morning.

Thursday June 23, 1994. Owwwww. My stomach hurts so bad. I need water. <glug glug glug>

Oh God. I’m gonna throw up. I am dying. I am seriously going to die. Maybe I can walk it off. Breathe. Breathe. Lie down. No, get back up. Walk walk walk. Run to the bathroom! <barf>

Nope. That didn’t help. Maybe if I poop… 

Ahh. The pain stopped. I’m okay. I’m okay. <eight minutes later> Pain’s back.

I had Joseph on a Thursday morning. I had to wait for my mom to get home from her night shift so she could drive me to the hospital. By the time we got there I was 7 centimeters dilated. I got some pain meds, did some breathing, and next thing I knew I was being wheeled into the delivery room. After pushing for what felt like forever, a cone-headed beautiful boy came quietly into this world.

Kathryn and Jeff were with me the entire time. (She actually got to the hospital before we did). Immediately after giving birth, she tearfully, gleefully asked me what I wanted to eat. I requested Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie, which I proceeded to inhale and then vomit all over myself.

The lawyer brought the papers for me to sign on Friday morning. I held Joseph in the crook of my left arm, sobbing and kissing him, inhaling his sweet baby smell for the final time. With my right hand, I signed him away.

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The next few days and weeks were a blur. I managed to get myself back to school on Monday, only missing the two days I was allowed. I would sit in class, silently turning in on myself, tears streaming down my face, trying to make myself as tiny and invisible as possible, lest I implode or explode from the pain.

Somehow I survived. I made forward motion movements. I lived. I managed to graduate from summer school. I started drinking– I discovered that it numbed the pain. I remember the first time I drank a six-pack of Zima (because beer was disgusting), and the resulting euphoria and giggles soothed my soul for a moment.

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I spiraled out of control a bit. My mom kicked me out of the house. I lived with my friend Adam and his dad for a few months. Then my older sister came home from her first semester at BYU and somehow convinced me to move to Utah with her.

I moved into an apartment in Provo, started going back to church, and (wait for it) got PREGNANT again. The relationship was pretty toxic, so I packed up and went back to South Carolina. I started going to a tech school there, thinking I’d become a nurse. Then I remembered I don’t do needles. Or blood. Or anything that has to do with nursing.

I had my beautiful daughter on February 9, 1996, just 19 months from giving up Joseph. My forward motion movements were sometimes backwards. I got married, I got divorced. I gained weight, I lost weight. I moved back to Utah. I got married again, I got divorced again. I went back to school, I dropped out of school. I was a bit of a train wreck.

It really wasn’t until 2010 that I started to get it together. I went back to school. This time I finished. I was a runner. I ran marathons. I had an autistic son who taught me so much about patience and resilience. I could do anything. Very hard things. IMPOSSIBLE things.

June 23, 2012. Today Joseph is 18. Maybe he’ll look for me…

Joseph’s 18th birthday came and went. I never heard anything from him. A year ago I found his mom on Facebook. I sent her a message, but never heard anything back. A few months later I found Joseph on Instagram. I started following him and, to my pleasant surprise, he followed me back. I assumed if he checked out my pictures, he would figure out who I was. At this point he was 21.

On September 30, 2015, I sent him the following message:

“Hi Joseph. I hope you are well. Thanks for connecting with me here. Hopefully you don’t think I’m a creepy stalker. I would love to be a part of your life, if you’re willing to let me. I have thought about you so much and hoped when you turned 18 you’d contact me. But I respect whatever decision you’ve made. My whole family would love to know you, especially my other kids. Anyway, I will leave it to you. Feel free to call or text me any time.”

He replied:

“I’m sorry I think you may have me confused with someone. I’m not familiar with anyone from Utah. I’m sorry to say I don’t recognize you. I must have accidentally ‘followed’ you however as I sometimes add people back who follow me.”

“Well I’m from SC. Joseph, June 23, 1994? If that’s not you then I apologize for the confusion. I gave a son up for adoption… I thought it was you.”

He replied that “this is quite a bit to take in at once.”

I felt like I had dropped a huge bomb on this poor kid. I was so confused. We had an open adoption and Jeff and Kathryn had promised he would always know about me. Why did he not realize who I was when I sent him that message?

I messaged his mom again on Facebook.

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So he knows I exist. He knows I am the person who carried him and gave him to his parents.

And he doesn’t want to know me. His heart that I have carried in mine for 22 years. I don’t know what to do with this reality.

When Joseph turned 18, my then-boyfriend (now husband) asked me why I didn’t try to get in touch with him then. And the honest truth was that I didn’t feel like I was “good enough”. I didn’t want to be a disappointment to him. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t made more of myself.

Last year was a particularly good year. We bought an amazing home in a great neighborhood. I got a new job that I love. I became a face for Weber State University as part of their “Finish at Weber” campaign. I’m in a commercial that plays in movie theaters. I won a big contest, gaining some attention in the running community. My friends joke that they should rub my shoulder and then head to Vegas since my good luck will rub off on them.

All these accomplishments. All these things that make me proud. Now I’m finally ready. He’ll be 22 in three and a half months. But he may never be ready for me to be his other mother.

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Ranting ramblings from ASDmama

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Ranting ramblings from ASDmama

I recently posted a picture to my social media of Haiden walking out of school on a beautiful spring afternoon. I cleverly captioned it:

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It got 55 likes on Facebook and nine friends commented on it. I was feeling all warm and fuzzy like I usually do when I get so much positive feedback, support and interaction on my postings about Haiden. Then I received this message:

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“When you post pictures of him or talk about him and put the #autism on it. Do you ever wonder if he will see it when he grows up? I by no means think he should be ashamed of having autism but when he becomes a teenager what if he sees that and gets sad…”

Now, before I get too much into my ranting rambling, let me first preface this scenario. The person who sent this is a former co-worker who has had no dialogue with me in a good three to four years. He also has no children. So to say I was caught off-guard by his sudden interjection into my parenting style is a bit of an understatement. If this had come from someone who really knows me, I might have handled the “constructive criticism” a little better.

I turned to a good friend of mine who knows this guy and asked what she thought. She summed it up pretty well with the following text:

“Ummm… sorry but that offends me. Who the hell does he think he is, saying something like that… He definitely sticks his nose in places that it doesn’t belong. Number one, Haiden would never be sad about ANYTHING you have ever posted. Everything is VERY inspiring for those who don’t understand autism and also for those who are in the same situation as yourself. Nothing is ever said in a negative manner, nor are you doing or posting anything that would make YOUR SON “sad” by any means. And as for some IGNORANT asshole to honestly message you something like that…he has some nerve…Just mean. He shouldn’t have even gone there. Now that will always be in the back of your mind, wondering who else thinks that?”

She goes on to say a bunch of other nice things to help unruffle my feathers, but she hit the nail on the head with a lot of what she said.

First and most importantly, I would NEVER do anything to hurt my kids. I have committed this whole blog to our family’s adventures in autism. Adventures. Because an adventure is defined as “an exciting or very unusual experience.” That’s what this autism trip is for us. I want Haiden to read these posts one day, I want him to know how awesome he is and that I love him so much and he’s so rad that other people want to read about him too!

Do I think it will make him sad? That would imply that I think autism is some horrible thing that has happened to my child. No, I don’t think being autistic is cause for my son to be sad. And I don’t believe that sharing stories of our autism adventure will ever make him sad, either. Autism is his super power.

I want him to know it’s cool that he’s different. I want him to know he’s not alone. I want him to know if someone calls him “weird” that that’s okay because he IS and it’s not a bad thing. I want him to embrace it. I want to build him up so he feels safe and confident. I want to cocoon and shelter him so he never gets hurt.

I worry about this kid on so many levels. Is he making friends? Will he be able to have a driver’s license? Will he have a girlfriend? Will he ever truly understand the volumes of love that I have for him?

All three of my kids are rad and are my total world. I realize how lucky I am to be their mom. Fellow special needs moms particularly need to have a forum, a safe place, to have open dialogue about the ups and downs of motherhood. This responsibility we have been given is hard sometimes. Sometimes it is thankless. Sometimes it is hurtful. We have to have a tough skin, but a soft voice. I like having a voice for others in this situation, and I love that this is a safe place for them to find solace.

When I hashtag autism, I don’t do it because it’s bad or I’m sad about it. I do it because I am proud and I want others to know that and see it. I want my son to know that too.

So for anyone who misunderstands or thinks this comes from a place other than love, feel free to unfriend, unfollow or otherwise kindly remove yourself from my sphere. For everyone else who has been so supportive, thank you. And to my fellow ASD parents, Rock On!!

My Girl is Home

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My Girl is Home

When I tell people I have a 19-year-old daughter, their standard reaction is disbelief. “Did you have her when you were 10?!” (For the record I was 19.) While I certainly appreciate the flattery, it also makes me sad that many of my friends weren’t even aware I had a daughter. Then I had to explain that she lived in another state with her father. Then I had to explain why I wasn’t a horrible mother, since why else would I not have custody of my child?

The truth is I made a mistake. Well, a few mistakes that led to a really BIG mistake.

Growing up in South Carolina, my junior year of high school I got pregnant. Oops. I chose to give him up for adoption (NOT one of my mistakes, by the way). I personally chose the couple who adopted him, and it was one of the hardest most beautiful things I have ever had the chance to be part of.

Following my untimely pregnancy, I graduated high school a year early and entered the workforce at my first job at a movie theater. I loved it. Free movies, free popcorn- pretty sure I made like $4.25 an hour. Super awesome. And all my co-workers liked to paaaarrrtaaay! So I gladly hopped on board for many a good time. Until the time I threw a party at my mom’s house when she was out of town. I thought I had cleaned up all the evidence, but apparently I missed a pile of puke behind the toilet (not mine) and I wasn’t smart enough to throw all the empty beer cans away somewhere other than our own trash can. Oops. That was a mistake.

My mom kicked me out and I moved in with a friend for a few months. Right about this time my older sister was coming home for the holiday break after her first semester at BYU. She kept begging me to come home; she wanted us all to be together for Christmas. I was too stubborn, but also had no clue where I was going to go. She had this bright idea that I should move to Utah and take over a former roommate’s lease. I figured I was 18 and I had nothing else going on, so we packed up my Nissan Sentra and headed west.

We got to Provo and headed to her apartment, just to find out someone else had taken over the lease. So now I was stuck in UT in the middle of winter with no place to go and all my earthly belongings in my car. I ended up finding an apartment down the street from her with five girls who all knew each other. Imagine how fun that was for me.

Also, I should add that Provo, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the Capital of Mormonville. And while I had been raised in the Mormon church, I hadn’t had anything to do with it for quite some time. Trying to fit in was not easy. One of my roommates lived by the mantra: “Fake it ’til you make it.” I faked it A LOT.

I got a job at Sears and ended up meeting (wait for it) a returned missionary!! Lucky me! He was an angel sent from God to help redeem me on my path of repentance to eternal salvation. I was so lucky that he wanted to have anything to do with my tarnished soul that I let him berate, belittle, humiliate and otherwise be unkind to me. We had occasional awkward sex (always my fault, since I was the one who had sinned most recently. And yes, he did say those words to me). And what do you know? I got knocked up again. Possibly the only person in history to move to UT to “get their act together” just to get pregnant. AGAIN. At 18. Oops.

We planned a wedding in SC in the summer of 1995. The night before the nuptials, I went to my mom and sobbed my guts out, begging her not to make me marry him. She never liked his pompous ass, so she was more than supportive in my decision. The returned missionary left the next day back to UT. I stayed in SC, enrolled at the local community college, and started my new journey.

On February 9, 1996, I gave birth to my beautiful daughter. I named her Mia (pronounced ‘papaya’- she hates that I ‘misspelled’ her name) because it means “mine.” I figured it was fitting since she had a “dad” who wanted nothing to do with her. I married and divorced my high school sweetheart by the time she was two. I decided maybe I should head back out to UT to live with my older sister and her husband. In the meantime I was trying to get child support from Mia’s dad. I got a notification that he was contesting paternity so I had to take her and spit on some cotton swabs to prove an indisputable fact.

I moved back to UT in 1998. One day Mia and I went to Sears looking for shoes. It never dawned on me the returned missionary would still be working there. So that was the first time he laid eyes on her. I found out he had gotten married (in the temple- not sure how that works when you have an illegitimate child, but who am I to question?). I am still curious how that conversation went with his wife, explaining a two and a half year old who appeared out of the blue.

He finally received the paternity results and called me at work one day to let me know: “I guess she’s mine.”

What a grade A D-bag.

Once he knew he was indeed her father, he and his wife wanted to have her when I worked. Then they wanted her every other weekend. Then every weekend. Then two weeks on, two weeks off. Then she was turning five and we had to decide where she was going to go to kindergarten. We got into a heated debate and he said these words that I will never forget:

“I am going to do everything in my power to make sure she grows up to be nothing like you.”

Ouch. I wasn’t a saint by any means, but those were some harsh words. I allowed him to steamroll over me for years. His father was an attorney and I, like an idiot, signed papers giving up half of my parental rights. Then he got a job in Washington state and wanted to take her with him. So here’s where my BIG BIG mistake was made:

I let him. I didn’t fight hard enough for my daughter because to me, she wasn’t an object to battle over. She was a person who needed to be loved and cared for. His wife was a stay-at-home mom; I was working and going to school full time. So I made the decision to let her go. The pain was similar to that of giving my baby up for adoption years before. I felt like I made the best decision for her at that time. Somewhere in my mind I stupidly thought it wouldn’t be forever. But it was. Until something wonderful happened.

Mia graduated high school last June, as well as a program called Running Start which earned her an Associates degree. I begged her to come live with us and attend Weber State, but her father insisted she go to BYU Idaho. While I didn’t think it was the school for her, I was definitely glad to have her closer to us. She could ride the bus down and stay with us on the weekends. It was great to start making up for all the years I had lost with her.

She hated BYUI, but she lived in constant fear of disappointing her father and stepmom. On top of the normal stresses of college, she felt the heavy burden of having to live her life under her father’s thumb. He financially blackmailed her, and she was too scared to make a decision that would get her cut off from his monetary assistance. She felt trapped staying at BYUI, but obligated since her dad was paying for it. (On a side note: we recently went back over old custody papers. He is supposed to have a trust account for her to use for college. ANY college. The fact that he insisted it be a Mormon school is dirty, dirty, dirty.)

Even though she was miserable, Mia began her second semester at BYUI. After the first week, she called and asked me to come pick her up. I was full of emotions: relief, pride, happiness, love. I know it took a lot of bravery for her to make the decision to leave that school.

Peace out, Rexburg!

Peace out, Rexburg!

Her father has since cut her off from pretty much everything- we have helped her get a new car, a job, a phone plan and a place to stay. She is with my mom who is equally elated to have her back in our fold. In the past two weeks we have been able to spend each others’ birthdays together- something we haven’t done in 13 years.

It’s like that saying about loving something and letting it go and it coming back to you. My girl came back to me. She came back. He took her away to ensure she wouldn’t “be like me.” And she’s here. I see a lot of myself in her- the parts of her that I’m sure her father wanted to suppress and control. Those are the parts I love the most. Despite my mistakes, I must have done something right. My baby is back!

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Hanging up the apron…For good…

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Hanging up the apron…For good…

Something pretty momentous happened last week: I worked my last shift ever in a restaurant.

That’s right. After spending almost half of my life in the food service/bartending industry, I decided to hang up the apron forever.

(Don’t mind that the name on my food handler permit is “Stacy McCong.” Or that it expired three months ago. Or the fact that I forgot I had to get my picture taken for my permit and I look like The Queen of the People of Walmart.)

I began my illustrious career at Outback Steakhouse in North Charleston, SC when I was 19 and pregnant with my daughter. I was a hostess to start and became a server after I had her. Let me tell you, southerners had no qualms about rubbing a stranger’s belly. You’d think I was harboring a genie ready to poof out and grant three wishes the way people would go to town on my tummy. And yet this experience didn’t scare me away from working in restaurants.

No, no. Once I started serving I was hooked. I remember the first time I picked up a tip from the table. It felt like Christmas! The ability to go to work each shift and walk away with cash was so very enticing. Plus everyone was fun and work was like a party. Literally. We’d go make our money and then spend half of it on drinks when we got off. (In retrospect I wish I had saved some of those hard earned dollars, but my 38-year-old self is far smarter than the 21-year-old version was.) Even when tips were bad, the good money nights negated those. The serving industry sucks in a lot of people that way.

From that Outback I went to a couple locally owned places in Charleston I can’t even remember the names of. Then I moved to Utah and got on at Outback in Orem. Then:

Thanksgiving Point, Olive Garden (Provo), Olive Garden (Layton), Red Lobster, Roosters, Tepanyaki, Applebee’s, The Summit Lounge, Iggy’s, Copper Club, The Officer’s Club on HAFB and finally Bistro 258.

Whew. That makes me dizzy just thinking about it!

During this time I also ventured into other careers. I got my real estate license for a few years, marketed for a title company for a year, and finally decided to go back to school. I graduated from Weber State University in April 2013, but even during school and after graduation I continued to work in the food and bev industry. It was easy, decent money so why not?

But I have to admit- there came a point where I tired of the way some people treated me like I was “just a server” or a “dumb bartender.” There were days I left work feeling degraded and defeated. Don’t even get me started on stories of the horrible things people have done to me over the years. That’s a whooooooole other blog post. (One time at OG in Provo, a couple wrote in a penny on the credit card slip as my tip because I wouldn’t give them a to go box for the NEVER ENDING PASTA BOWL.)

Not an inaccurate depiction of many customer interactions servers deal with on a daily.

Not an inaccurate depiction of many customer interactions servers deal with on a daily.

I could not wait to graduate because I was so sure I would be done with all that nonsense once and for all. But I had a baby and a special needs kiddo at home, so working part-time making an average of $20-30/hour just made sense, so that’s what I did.

And to be honest, I really enjoyed the gig at Bistro 258. A small, intimate restaurant with great food, cool co-workers, nice owners. But I decided this is my year to become who and what I’m supposed to be. I’m focusing all my efforts on being a great mortgage loan officer, an awesome mom, a great wife, and the fittest version of myself. Because I’m almost 38, and 38 is great.

So, so long Stacy McCong. It’s been a good run, but the days of slip resistant (read: hideously ugly and ridiculously overpriced) shoes are behind me. No more aprons overflowing with straws, pens and wine keys. Well, maybe I’ll still have wine keys lying around. No more deposits to the bank of wads of cash that raise the judgmental eyebrows of the tellers. This mama has served her last linguine, poured her last pilsner, brought her last bread basket.

But if you need a home loan in Utah, then I’m happy to be of service. 😉

From Silent to Sir Talks-a-Lot

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From Silent to Sir Talks-a-Lot

My two and a half year old, Eli, is in the super cute phase of sentence building and thought sharing. I told my husband the other day I wish I could freeze this time, when his voice is so sweet and his face so innocent. Even his bossy demands amuse me, with his stern little toddler mean face expressions and his grumpy arm-folding across his chest. I was trying to recall memories of Haiden when he was this age, and felt guilty that I couldn’t remember what his voice sounded like. But that’s because when he was this age, he didn’t have a voice. Crazy to think that my chatter box, my kid who talks nonstop, who uses a vocabulary far above what kids his age should be using, was once non-verbal.

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Little Eli guy

I didn’t realize at the time that Haiden was different. I knew that he had a language delay, but at two years old it wasn’t cause for alarm. When he was three and he still wasn’t able to communicate in full sentences, I knew we had to do something. We enrolled him in a special needs pre-school where he received his first IEP (Individualized Education Plan). His diagnosis at that time was Developmental Delay. Over the course of two years there, he made great improvements in language skills, but still struggled a lot with social, cognitive and behavioral issues.

The first time he was able to answer a question in a full sentence will forever be with me. He was about four at the time. We were driving home and I looked back at him in the rear view mirror and tiredly asked, “What would you like for dinner?” To my surprise he answered: “Chicken nuggets, french fries, Sprite.” (This was a foreshadow for what has become his all-time favorite meal, much to my chagrin.) I was so overjoyed. I choked back the lump in my throat as my eyes filled with tears and I took him straight to Mickey Ds.

The next phase he went through was called Echolalia.  Basically he was a skipping record, saying the same word or phrase over and over and over and over. So you can imagine how much fun that was. He also adopted a variety of odd (but characteristic of autism) movements: rocking back and forth, flapping his hand, a lethargic gait when he walked. Little idiosyncrasies that would come and go, get better, get worse.  There was nothing I could do about it. They were waves that I just had to ride out every time they swelled and rolled through our lives.

Haiden, three years old

Haiden, three years old

When he was four he started at a new daycare. He never wanted to play with the other kids. I would often pick him up while they were outside on the playground. He was always off by himself, Mayor of HaidenLaLaVille. Other kids would point and whisper. Once a kid asked me, “Are you his mom?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“He’s weird.”

My heart broke when I realized that other kids were starting to notice that there was something off about him. And I couldn’t fault a kid for being brutally honest. My consolation at that time was that Haiden didn’t notice- HE didn’t realize he was different and he certainly didn’t know others thought he was. He had no concept of taking another’s perspective. I was glad that he wore this protective cloak of oblivion and that he didn’t hurt over it the way I did.

Now, at nine years old, I think he realizes a little more that he isn’t quite like his fellow classmates. But I don’t think he cares. I love that he doesn’t try to act a certain way to get people to like him. He’s just very authentically Haiden, and if you don’t like him he just doesn’t give a shit! He has a group of good friends who have known him since kindergarten and they all get along great. As long as anyone wants to listen to him chat non-stop about his most recent obsession (last year it was Legos. Now it’s Minecraft) then he’s just happy as can be.

And I couldn’t be happier for him.

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From Meltdowns to Student of the Month

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From Meltdowns to Student of the Month

Today my son was named a Shining Star aka Student of the Month at his school. I imagine this would be a pretty huge deal for any parent, but as a special needs mom, I am downright ELATED. I worry about him just making it through the daily routine, so to see him accomplish and achieve anything beyond that is extra exciting. Fourth grade is turning out to be the best school year yet, and I attribute much of Haiden’s success to his teacher.

Haiden has been at the same school since kindergarten. He has had an IEP in place every year, and for the most part the faculty has been very accepting and accommodating of his quirky personality. His teachers have been fantastic every year. In kindergarten it was sweet Ms. R. Her name was Rescorla but this was a bit of a tongue twister for the kids so she went by Ms. R. I was finishing my BA when he started and I desperately wanted him to get a coveted spot in the full-day class. In retrospect it was better for him to start only half days. He was still in phases of frequent, frantic outbursts and meltdowns. He spent a lot of time on Ms. R’s lap. She was great at keeping me updated of his progress.

In first grade he had the cutest, nicest teacher, Mrs. Steed. She always had so much patience with him. We worked out a system of keeping track of his behavior. She printed strips of paper that had a row of smiley faces and sad faces. When he did what he was supposed to do he earned the happy faces. If he acted out he would earn a sad face. We thought this was a great plan until he had an epic meltdown the first time she colored in a sad face. Realizing his fragile psyche couldn’t tolerate this negative reinforcement, she immediately changed the tactic. She made all the faces happy and he had daily goals to achieve a certain number. She was awesome.

In second grade he had Mrs. Solipo. Man, all I can say is second grade was a rough year for him. At one point in time he got suspended for threatening another student with a pencil. Ay ay ay. But we worked tirelessly to improve behavior issues. Mrs. Solipo researched and found articles and tried many many things with him. She became like another mom to him, and he adored her. Still does! She has become a true friend and someone I can talk to about any worries and concerns. I feel like she always has Haiden’s back.

And then there was third grade. Mr. Mean. I mean Mr. Mann. When we met him at back-to-school night, lots of red flags popped up. First, Haiden has always loved having female teachers. This dry, wispy, monotone man couldn’t have been further from the sweet, nurturing teachers he had had previously. On the rare occasions I had to interact with him, his voice put ME to sleep and he expected a room of 8-year-olds to stay engaged??

I had assumed he had been informed that he had a special needs ASD kid in class and that he was adequately prepared to deal with this type of student. It became glaringly clear by the end of the first week of school that that was not the case. I received a call from the principal letting me know there had been an “incident.” There was a fire drill– fire drills freak Haiden out, even if he knows they’re coming. He started panicking and yelling. Mr. Mann expected him to just fall in line with the other kids and when he didn’t, he grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him out of the class. In Haiden’s words: “He grabbed me so tight I felt like he was pulling my muscles off the bones.”

I picked Haiden up from school that Friday with the sickest feeling in the pit of my stomach. I started searching for other options. We checked out a Montessori school– too expensive. I called all the local charter schools– they were full. I even looked into homeschooling– it just wasn’t feasible. So we decided to do something we have avoided doing all these years: put him on meds.

His pediatrician called in a prescription for Risperdal, which is an anti-psychotic drug. I picked it up from the pharmacy and dove into the fine print of all the side effects. In one paragraph it stated that it could lead to Tardive Dyskinesia,  a disorder resulting in involuntary, repetitive body movements. In this form of dyskinesia, the involuntary movements are tardive, meaning they have a slow or belated onset. It most frequently occurs as the result of long-term or high-dose use of anti-psychotic drugs. When I read that my blood went cold. I turned to my husband and told him we weren’t going to do it. When I told him why, he firmly agreed. His mother struggled with, and ultimately died from, this ugly disorder.

So I gritted my teeth, swallowed the lump of guilt in my throat, and continued to take Haiden to Mr. Mann’s class. Third grade was rough for both of us. I went from being pretty active in his classroom to avoiding it altogether. Teacher appreciation? Fuggetaboutit. I printed some scholarly articles for him, highlighting some of Haiden’s behaviors and ways to handle it. Mr. Mann never read it. His method of measuring my son’s progress was a behavioral chart he would fill out every day. For each subject there was Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor. According to that man, my son was poor in math every day. I learned to take it with a grain of salt and consider the source. It wasn’t that my son wasn’t doing well, it was that his teacher wasn’t.

The silver lining is that these events led to us getting him occupational and behavioral therapy. His official diagnosis at that time was ASD, ADHD and unspecified anxiety disorder. The poor kid was/is trying to balance A LOT of shit in that beautiful mind of his. And without meds. I cringe at the thought if we had started the Risperdal. I hated the idea that these chemicals would alter the inherent make up of my son. Sometimes he can be a weirdo, but he is my funny, sweet, smart, super cute weirdo!

And then TODAY happens. My son was chosen as Student of the Month. When his teacher called his name I think he was surprised and pleased. She said the kindest things about him, and the best part was we could tell she meant it. From the first time we met her, all of my angst from third grade was put to rest. She is like an ASD angel sent from heaven just for Haiden. She takes such great care of him. It’s such a relief to have that weight of worry lifted off of me this year. A couple months ago I had to come chat with her about Haiden’s use of some grown-up words. I walked into the school ready to ground Haiden from Minecraft for life. Mrs. Hunsaker was so kind about everything that I left the meeting feeling proud of my kid. (Not for saying naughty words, but for other things.)

My heart is bursting today. Some days I’ve had heartbreak over this kid, and I’m sure I will in the future. But today my heart is happy. Now I just want a “My kid got Student of the Month” bumper sticker to commemorate it.

Fit Shaming My Inner Fat Girl

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Fit Shaming My Inner Fat Girl

I am a teensy bit obsessed with weight loss shows. I literally cry every time I watch The Biggest Loser and Extreme Weight Loss. I follow the coaches and many of the contestants/participants on their social media and I feel like they are my friends. I feel like I can relate to them, having been overweight for many years. So imagine my delight when The Biggest Loser’s Jackson Carter announced a fundraiser 5k on the Ogden River Parkway, one of my favorite go-to running spots.

I have struggled with my weight most of my life. When I was around eight, I plumped up a bit. This in itself wouldn’t have been so traumatic except I was now bigger than my older sister. Being only a year apart, people often referred to us as the “Rabino Twins,” and at one point in time someone told me the only way they could tell us apart was that I was “the bigger one.” (Thanks a lot, ass hat. Almost 30 years later and that still haunts me.)

In my 20s and early 30s, my weight yo-yoed. At my heaviest I weighed more than I did when I was nine months pregnant, pushing pretty close to the 200-pound mark. Luckily I began running when I was 31 and my weight has been relatively stable, aside from my last pregnancy.

My 20s were not kind to me...

My 20s were not kind to me…

Today I guess I would be considered pretty fit. I try to exercise five to six days a week and eat relatively healthy. But I certainly allow myself indulgences every now and then. (Let’s just say I would not be a pleasant person without chocolate and wine in my life. Even WITH them, I don’t think anyone is going to accuse me of being the sweetest person they know.) I recently went to North Carolina for my BF’s wedding and South Carolina to visit my old childhood stomping grounds of Goose Creek and Charleston. Of course I had to indulge in all of the southern delectables I can’t get in Utah. Even when I did, though, I couldn’t fully enjoy the splurges because I have a super naggy inner fat girl. And she can be very loud and obnoxious.

I don’t wear the battle scars of my weight problems externally, but I know what I have been through and what a struggle it is on a daily basis to do the right thing and make good choices. So imagine my surprise when I showed up for Jackson Carter’s fun run and I ended up feeling FIT SHAMED. (I had to Google that to be sure it’s a real thing. It is!)

One of my many many ups and downs with the scale.

One of my many many ups and downs with the scale.

There were probably about 100 runners for the event. It was a chilly morning, but everyone was in good spirits and having a good time. Since it was October, many participants were in costume, me included. (Hey, I was hoping to snag a prize with my Ace Ventura costume. It was not in the cards. I just looked like a crazy lady in a tutu.)

The run was a quick out-and-back. I am not fast by most running standards. In fact by serious runners’ standards, I’m downright molasses. I have run five full marathons, but there’s no way I’m ever qualifying for Boston or anything. On that day, however, I was one of the fastest and fittest. To these other runners and walkers, this was EASY for me. Because it was an out-and-back course, I passed people on the way back as they headed to the turnaround point and I headed for the finish. I smiled encouragingly, gave thumbs up and high-fived as many of them as I could. “Good job. Way to go. Looking good. You got this.”

Everyone gathered at the finish to cheer in the last two people. I could tell that for the man and the kid with him, they had just achieved a huge accomplishment. I had goosebumps and felt so happy for and proud of these complete strangers. The magic of the finish line is just that feeling of camaraderie: “We did this. Together.”

Later I was chatting with a lady, making small talk about Jackson, The Biggest Loser show, the event. I made a comment about how great it was to see all these people, especially those who were working toward their weight loss goals. She looked me up and down and said, “Well yeah. But you’re a runner, right?” I swear, if there had been a cartoon bubble over her head, the word runner really would have been italicized. And in bold.

It was so weird, that accusatory tone. I’ve had people call me a runner and say it with awe. Some say it with the tone that lets you know they definitely think you are cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. But I’ve never been called a runner and felt guilty about it.

Is that how they saw me? I wanted to explain that, no- I used to be overweight. I have been where you are. I am proud of you and I don’t even know you. You are awesome and amazing and inspiring. I have journeyed your journey. Because there is a part of me that is The Biggest Loser. But there is also a part of me that is the coach.