Perfectionism really can be boiled down to this . . . anxiously caring more than is necessary for something of relatively little consequence.
We hear a lot about the socially awkward gifted kids. The ones who try to talk astrophysics with their fellow first graders and receive blank expressions in return. Or the ones who are too shy to order their own food at a takeout joint. Or the ones who can’t bear to let others be wrong and keep the argument going far longer than anyone else is interested in it. But, what about the socially advanced kid?
There’s no denying that “gifted” is a contentious term. To some, it implies elitism. To some, it implies external locus of control leading to a fixed mindset. To some, it just feels uncomfortable. And to me, I think the former complaints are bollocks.
To begin with, all the supposed better replacements are simply inaccurate and lead to furthering the stereotype that all gifted kids perform well at school. The popular substitute “advanced learners” proves my point. Many gifted kids do not appear to be advanced learners. Advanced learners implies someone who excels in our current educational structures and perform above grade level. Not all gifted kids do. Many have been categorized as special needs (sometimes appropriately so and sometimes not), or EBD (emotionally or behaviorally disabled/disturbed/disordered). Many gifted children who have a comorbid learning difference pass as average students because they are not “advanced learners”.
Another favorite of many schools is “high potential”. Yech. What does that even mean?! Can we throw a little more pressure on these kids of ours? As if little Veronica isn’t anxious and feeling pressured enough, now she’s got to live up to the label of having high potential? Potential for what? And how about all the other kids? “Don’t worry Billy, you’ve just got mediocre potential. Just aim for the middle.”
Then there’s “high ability”. Again, this excludes a vast portion of gifted kids. Those who are struggling with poverty, trauma, injustices of being a person of color, will be less likely to present as having high ability. They might be throwing all their ability into surviving day to day, which few of the identifiers actually get to see. They just see a kid sleeping through class because they were up all night being daddy to their baby sister while their own single dad worked third shift. And I’ve met many, many kids who are sharp as tacks, but have seemingly low ability due to executive functioning issues, communication disorders, sensory processing issues, learning issues, visual issues, etc.
The biggest issue with all these supposedly great substitutes is that they focus on performance, achievement, the output someone produces. Giftedness isn’t about performance. It’s about neurodiversity. It’s about being wired differently. It’s about experiencing the world markedly different from the norm.
Here’s the other thing. It is a gift. This neurodiverse way of perceiving the world was simply gifted upon me and within me at my birth and before. There is nothing I have done, my kids have done, my husband has done, the hundreds of kids and adults I’ve worked with have done to earn this or achieve this wiring. We were gifted with it.
1. Give (something) as a gift
2. Present (someone) with a gift or gifts
3. Endow with (something)
Whether from a divine source, our parents’ dna, our intrauterine experiences, or some combination of these things or more, we have indeed been gifted with a different way of living this life. We have been presented with something, endowed with something. And, just like with real gifts, sometimes we might like it, sometimes we might hate it, sometimes we might wish there was a gift receipt, but either way, it had nothing to do with us.
Nor does what I was gifted have anything to do with anyone else. The fact that my brother received a weight lifting bench had absolutely no impact, influence, or assigning of worth about the keyboard I received that year. His gift was his. My gift was mine. End of story.
And that, indeed, is the end of the story. Giftedness, defended.
My husband and I were required to have 3 premarital counseling sessions before getting married. 3 sessions of talking about the big questions. 3 sessions of filling out questionnaires and considering how we envision dividing household chores. 3 sessions of being told that marriage is hard work, and 3 sessions of believing it won’t be too hard for us, because “we’ll be different”. We’re in love. Ha! To be young and naïve again.
Of course, like all marriages, our nearly 18 years has not been all wedded bliss. We’ve argued. We’ve had years where I fantasized about packing a suitcase and just taking off. My husband has chewed too loudly and left his shoes in the wrong places. I’ve left cookie dough bowls filled with soaking grossness in the kitchen sink even though he’s asked me about a bazillion and one times not to. And there’s been the bigger hurdles, too, that have required far more grace and forgiveness.
And, being that we’ve both got our own varieties of gifted intensities, we can clash and annoy each other in quite intense ways. We can also love and appreciate each other in quite intense ways, too. And we’re both mental health therapists, so that adds a whole new level to things. And no, despite some of my clients believing that must mean we have perfect communication and conflict resolution, our therapy skills only arm us with better ways to get under the other person’s skin.
But, despite all of this. Despite our intensities and our skilled digs, and our mistakes and the hard times we’ve weathered together, there has been nothing more perilous to our relationship than raising a twice exceptional child.
No one prepares you for this lifestyle. Pre-marital counseling doesn’t ask the question, what if you have a child with differing needs, with more intense needs. No relationship book prepares you for the absolute soul-sucking exhaustion caring for a child who aggressively melts down multiple times a day will bring, and then preps you for the guilt and separation and disconnection that comes about because you have absolutely not one drop of anything left to give to your spouse. It’s not a coincidence that most studies show the divorce rate among parents with differently wired kids to be approximately twice as high as couples with neurotypical kids.
There’s been many times I’ve been worried we’d become part of that statistic. And yet, we’re nearly 18 years (13 of those as parents and 10 of those as parents of the intensely differently wired kiddo) and still going strong. Right now, anyway.
Here are a few things we’ve been able to do that have helped our relationship survive.
Allowed each person to grieve in their way and in their time. When we were young and “in love” we dreamed together about what our family would be like. We had names picked out (none of which we used). We imagined how we’d parent together, take vacations together, raise them together. In none of those dreams did we imagine one of our children losing her words, stimming, breaking into aggressive meltdowns, and having sensory processing issues to the extent that we have to lug weighted vests, blankets, and a bag full of other sensory gear with us at all times.
We have to grieve the loss of our dream. We have to grieve the loss of the way we thought our lives would go. We have to grieve for our beloved child who will have extra challenges living in this world for her entire life and we have to grieve for the things we have to set aside or let go of in order to have the time, energy, and patience to raise her and love her well.
All people grieve differently. Some get angry. Some get sad. Some get depressed. Some get anxious. Some get all of those things within the span of an afternoon. And it can take months and years to fully grieve. Really, there isn’t a complete end to grieving. There’s an end to mourning, but various things will pop up throughout the years that trigger the grief and the recognition of the loss of what we thought it’d be again and again.
As partners, we need to allow each other to grieve in our own way and provide the support that the other person needs in a way that they understand. This isn’t always easy, and we had multiple rough patches on the road toward acceptance, but understanding that we’re both grieving, helped.
Trusted what each other sees and experiences. We didn’t always agree on how to complete the parent observation forms for KBear’s initial evaluation. I had noticed things that my husband didn’t. KBear behaved certain ways with me that she simply didn’t when with my husband. And, as is common, this pattern has continued. We’ve both witnessed all the glory of the big meltdowns, but I tend to see them more regularly than Jon, for lots of different reasons. And while sometimes I kinda resent him a little that he has the easier path in that way, and sometimes he accidentally insinuates that I must be doing something wrong, for the most part we understand each other and know it’s simply the way it is. We trust each other to be having the best of intention. We trust that we’re each doing our best. We trust that what the other person experiences is indeed what the other person experiences and we try our best to support each other in it.
Encouraged each other’s self-care. Every three months, I go away for 2 nights to be completely on my own. I usually use that time to write or create other content. It allows me to get into my flow and go. Every couple of weeks my husband says, “When are you getting together with Rachel next? It seems like you need a girls’ night.” I encourage my husband’s gaming and don’t complain about the late nights he spends chatting with his long distance buddies. I send him out for afternoons to do whatever the heck he wants to do without kids. We alternate who gets to sleep in or take naps. We look out for each other.
Recognize that Temporary Survival-Mindset is Going To Happen. My daughter is in the midst of a rough patch right now. Significant chunks of my days these past few months have been spent managing and regulating her overload. We understand that right now, we have no energy left to give each other. We understand that right now we have no energy left to keep the house looking the way we’d like it to. We understand that right now we’re each clinging on til bedtime and then need to collapse in separate aloneness. And we’re ok with that. I mean, we’re not OK with that, but we know it’s temporary. It won’t always be this draining. There will be times when it eases up and we can reinvest that energy into our relationship again. But, for right now, we know we love each other. We know we’re committed to each other. And we know we’ll be able to reconnect again. . . . someday . . . maybe in a decade.
Prioritize Time Away Together. Because we often can’t connect in the same way we’d like to on a day to day basis, we make sure we have time each year to get away from it all and just breath and be together. No kids. A true vacation. In fact, we typically take a weekend in the fall and a weekend in the spring. Each and every year. I know it’s difficult to find people to watch the kiddos overnight. But, maybe even hiring someone would be worth it, if you can afford it. Or ask their friend’s parents. Or drag your third cousin twice removed into the family fray. It is so crucial to get to remember that you actually like hanging out together.
Understand That We’re Going to Parent Differently, but try to be on the same page as much as possible. We have general ground rules that we’ve agreed to and that our kids understand. But beyond that, we let each other do our parenting thing the way that works for us. Each of us has our own relationships with each of our children, and the other of us doesn’t interfere. Not my responsibility what my daughter’s relationship with my husband looks like, today, tomorrow, or 10 years from now. That’s up to them.
Noticed when we’re in danger. It’s difficult on a relationship to co-parent a differently wired kid. And we’re not immune to the damage the stress of it can cause. We often slip into taking our frustrations out on each other, because that’s more acceptable than taking them out on our kids. But, it’s not okay. Sometimes the rough patches last months and we begin to just be roommates. At those times, when we feel total disconnection rearing its isolating head, we say something. We talk in the kitchen and come up with a plan to reconnect. We notice that we’re in danger and we remind ourselves that we don’t want to be a statistic. We recommit to each other and we invest in each other. We look back at where we’ve come from, laughing at the immature love we had sitting in the premarital counseling sessions, and we marvel at how the difficulties have grown us, individually, and as a couple. Then we drink wine and fantasize about when the kids all move out.
Gifted and 2e relationships are complicated. For more great stories and suggestions to inspire and nurture the relationships in your life, check out these great blogs in this month's Hoagies' Blog Hop.