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Letting Go Of Normal

Letting Go Of Normal

By Mir Kamin

“Normal”—much like, say, a unicorn—is something I’m not sure exists. But I want it to exist. In the case of unicorns, it just seems like it would be cool and increase the World Glitter Quotient (that’s a thing, right?); in the case of normal, I cannot tell you why I continue to believe that this is something important.

There’s a small part of my brain that believes normal must be like True North on a compass. It’s not that I need normal or even that I feel like normal is a necessary or desirable destination. It’s simply that I believe it would offer some semblance of guidance to have an absolute point of regularity to reference. If I knew where “most” people were, well, then I would know when and how far off the norm our family is, and that might bring some sort of comfort or other useful information.

[Brief disclaimer: In clinical parlance, there is no “normal” in child development, only “typical.” I refer to my kids as being “non-neurotypical” when we’re discussing goals, nuts-and-bolts, etc. But some mythical “normal” remains an accepted construct, spoken or not, and I am not immune to its lure.]

Hmmm. I can see that in the abstract, this isn’t making a lot of sense. If you believe in the concept of normal (and, again, I do kind of rank it alongside unicorns), you have to understand that I don’t have any “normal” kids, which means I am often baffled about what’s their particular foibles and what’s just “like every other kid.” Let’s go with some examples to make things clearer.

Example 1: My teenage son is autistic. Because his world view tends to be very black and white and concrete, any sort of school assignment he completes is done to match the absolute bare minimum of the requested work. If the rubric for a paper specifies it should be 2-4 pages, he will write exactly two pages. If “show your work” is not specified, he won’t, and if it is, the work he shows is maybe an additional step or two out of 10, if we’re lucky. My son is plenty bright and capable, and also very eager to please his teachers, but fifteen years of trying to explain to him that going the extra mile is almost always a good idea has been met with an unshakeable belief that such additional effort would be a waste of his precious time. I consider this a “feature” of his autism, and something we are (ever so slowly) working on changing. But if I happen to mention any related difficulties to parents of “normal” teens, they assure me that their kids are the same way. So is this normal?

Example 2: My teenage daughter has ADHD. She has benefitted from medication, but of course medication is not the same thing as a magic brain-changing potion. She struggles with staying on task and completing what she starts, particularly when it’s not something she’s interested in. It’s not uncommon to ask her to do something… and then ask again five minutes later… and ten minutes after that to threaten to take away her phone/computer/iPod until said task is completed… and then end up having to stop everything to redirect her while she complains bitterly that she was going already, geez, why are we always on her? We’re as patient as possible (usually) and sometimes we go with natural consequences, which nearly always elicit some sort of meltdown because she didn’t know and but why and so on. It’s not my favorite part of parenting, but I consider this a “feature” of her ADHD… until other parents insist to me that their teens are exactly the same way. Is this normal?

For me, this stuff brings up a lot of mixed emotions.

For starters, autism (and even ADHD, depending on your point of view) is a spectrum. Of course some undesirable behaviors that are part and parcel of autism (or ADHD) are going to be found in the general population, albeit maybe with less severity. I am always torn between appreciating that someone is trying to commiserate and being annoyed at the glossing over of the difference between “garden variety adolescent behavior” and “truly life-challenging issues brought to the table by neurological differences.” When I’m dealing with a teen whose behavior suggests they remain years behind their peers developmentally, it’s hard not to ruffle at the suggestion that I’m overreacting. (Related: Hell hath no fury like hearing the suggestion at an IEP meeting that “but all kids…” when trying to get appropriate accommodations for your child. Just saying.)

On the other hand, part of me really wants to take comfort in the idea that my kids really aren’t so different; shouldn’t it be reassuring to hear that the selfsame behaviors which leave me wondering if my children will ever be able to move out of my house and live on their own are common among all kids their age, and therefore my worry might, actually, be overblown? Because all kids are disorganized, and try to get out of homework, and lose things, and get distracted, and don’t want to do their chores. All of them. My kids are normal!

In the end, I come back to that word. Normal. I wonder if it really exists. I wonder if we would want normal, for real, given the option. Sure, my husband and I joke all the time about how other people fantasize about being rich and/or famous, while we have daydreams about our family being utterly run-of-the-mill and normal, but without the quirks that drive me up a wall, my kids wouldn’t be themselves. And while unicorns sound exciting, normal sounds… kind of boring.

“Mom, I have some very sad news,” my son said, this morning, while packing up his backpack.

“What’s that, honey?” I asked, wondering what on earth could have him looking so glum.

“I am not a bird,” he said, deadpan.

“Oooooo…kay? I’m sorry?” He burst into laughter—unselfconscious, delighted, and utterly himself. Is he normal? Do I care? (Probably not, and no.)

I’ve lived a pretty good life without a single unicorn, and I’ve never felt like, “Oh, but everything would be so much better if only unicorns were real!” Perhaps I just need periodic reminders that the same is true of any supposed normal.

Published January 21, 2015. Last updated January 21, 2015.
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • […] it seemed like a perfectly logical time to head over to Alpha Mom and wonder about my kids’ normalcy (or lack thereof). Maybe I shouldn’t be buying them all those […]

  • Kim

    January 21, 2015 at 10:29 am

    After my daughter and I were diagnosed with ADD last year (you helped!  thanks again!) I’ve had the “normal” conversation a lot. But you seemed fine, everybody does that!  It’s normal!  Um, no, it’s not.  If it interferes with your daily life, as in every day, it’s not. And the fact that I now have  Thanks for playing.
    And oh, Chickadee’s paragraph sounds so familiar, and sometimes I wish the meds were a magic potion.  It’s Science Fair time.  One wants to encourage the 8yo nerdling, but one also wants to stop the insanity. And trying to figure out the line between help and doing it on her own, not to mention avoiding the “throw my hands in the air and say forget it!” phase for me, is tough for everyone, but more complicated for a kid who really does struggle with handwriting and isn’t an accomplished typist yet.

  • monica

    January 21, 2015 at 10:51 am

    Wow, the paragraph about your son and assignments/rubric sounds exactly like BOTH of my boys (ages 12 and 15) – although both are smart kids, their learning styles are very different, BUT they both do the absolute minimum necessary to get by!

    Also, both of mine need literally constant reminders to do things, be it set the table, pick up your pants  from  he living room floor (yes, there are often pants on the living room floor…), take out the recycling or do your homework – FINISH your homework for goodness sake!  

    So, yes!   –  maybe you kids are more “normal” than you think!

  • Karen R.

    January 21, 2015 at 11:29 am

    If it is any comfort, ADD spouse had a long and successful career in a field that held his interest. ADD daughter is rising rapidly in a field that holds her interest. Autistic daughter is doing just fine with supports in place, and is valued at her job.

    Though I remember well those conversations.

    Me: Please stop that now.
    Me: DD, PLEASE stop that now.
    Me: DD, PLEASE STOP that now.
    Me: DD, STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!!
    DD: (tears in her eyes) You don’t have to yell!

  • Cindy

    January 21, 2015 at 11:37 am

    I have people tell me all the time that I should write a book about my life. Evidently, a large part of my purpose in life is to entertain others and make them feel less crappy about their own lives. I’m surprisingly OK with this for the most part.

    Sooo, not that I actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) but if I did, my favorite working title is “Fuck Normal”. It’s way overrated.

  • Billie

    January 21, 2015 at 11:53 am

    Your normal sounds a lot like my normal, but with only one of my three children.

    I can’t tell you how many times I have told my ADHD diagnosed teenager, “Imagine what kind of grades you could get if you would do the bare minimum!”. For him, he attempts to hit the bare minimum every time, but then he gets distracted and forgets to do something which drops his grade way down.

    How can someone who consistently scores in the top of the Ohio Achievement tests get such poor grades?

    At his parent/teacher conferences this year I started the teachers off with, “I know what his grades are, I see where the problem is (turning in homework, doing work, and not studying for anything), but I am choosing to let him succeed or fail on his own.”

    My son is 14 and is choosing to not go back on his ADHD medicine after a weight gain hiatus (he wasn’t gaining any and was in-fact losing, a lot). I on the other hand have chosen to go on an anti-anxiety medicine due to stress. Coincidence?

    I am still struggling with whether I am making the right decision in letting him have this particular choice and with my making the choice to let him succeed or fail (I am no longer doing locker clean-outs at school, or checking his bag and homework every single night, and reminding him through email throughout the day to turn his work in). For me, I am looking at it with an eye for him becoming the adult he will be very soon. He will be getting temps in 1 year! (or not depending on whether I can trust him with it). I need to know that he can start making good decisions on his own. Oh, but it is SO hard to watch him fail!

    Suffice it to say, I think your normal is my normal too!

    • Alice

      January 22, 2015 at 8:58 am

      I just want to say good luck with this! I work with college students, and see a lot of them really struggling with how to manage these things on their own when they’re navigating AD(H)D and similar diagnoses. (Neurotypical kids also struggle, but it’s a categorically different issue, there.)

      Getting a chance to figure out his own approaches when the stakes are comparatively lower than they will be later on has got to be nerve-wracking, but it’ll be so helpful to him (and you). In the meanwhile, I hope that the anxiety meds are doing their job!

  • Rini

    January 21, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    My just-turned-14 twins are neurotypical, and I’m sorry to say both anecdotes sound very, very familiar. In Monkey’s defense, when the rubric asks for 2-4 pages, it is logical to assume that 2 pages is then JUST AS GOOD as 4 pages and will get exactly the same grade, so why do more? It seems to me that the concept of “higher quality might NEED more words” is lost on the teenage mind.

    Add for

  • Rini

    January 21, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    As for Chickadee, I have an app on their phone (Screen Time Parental Control) that lets me remotely lock down all apps, with a message explaining why. It feels like I use it every day! “Please do X.” “Okay.” “Please do X BEFORE using your phone.” “Okay.” (I go block phone with a message of “I SAID do X!”) (Exasperated sigh from the other room, possibly followed by a new device coming out that I have to lock as well to get X done.)

    • Mir Kamin

      January 21, 2015 at 12:54 pm

      I will be getting that app today. Thanks for the tip!! 🙂

  • Mkw

    January 21, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    Ohhhhhh. I can relate. If one more school  guidance counselor dismisses my voiced concern at a parent meeting with “that’s what normal teens do…..” I swear. I. Will. Rise. Out of my chair…. And then there shall be one less counselor in this world. Another thought regarding normal. I have asked many a teacher, therapist, and-think-they-are-superior guidance counselor to rethink using “normal” to describe any kid. Because my one child is less challenged than the other, she is not normal in our book. We consider her “traditional.” For if we had one normal child that would make our other child abnormal. That she is not. She is challenged. But also gifted in many, many ways. Her untraditional ways will blaze a way in the world. Hopefully. But not if I, or anyone else, make her feel abnormal.

    • Mir Kamin

      January 21, 2015 at 12:56 pm

      Excellent point. Thank you for this.

  • Brigitte

    January 21, 2015 at 1:03 pm

    “Normal” may be a matter of degree, or what’s going on behind the behavior.  For most teens, the bare minimum may be sheer laziness, while Monkey’s is because he has Very. Important. Things. To do!  OK, that’s still a very fine distinction, at least *I* know what I mean.  😉

  • RL Julia

    January 21, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    Karen R – apparently we share a daughter!

  • Mandy

    January 21, 2015 at 2:21 pm

    I understand how you feel. My son was adopted at 6 months old and still struggles with attachment issues. Sometimes when I talk to someone about examples of his anxious attachment, they says their kid does the same so I must be overreacting. I spent a lot of time second guessing myself and trying to figure out which of my son’s behaviors were due to him being all boy (my only one), which due to being adopted, and which due to attachment issues. 

    In the end, I just had to go with my gut. I know that some kids have similar behaviors to my son due to different reasons but in the end I knew that his were different. After years of attachment work, he is MUCH better and I’m so glad I didn’t write his problems off as just a regular kid thing. 

    Trust yourself. You know your kids better than anyone and if your gut says their behaviors are due to their personal struggles, then follow that!

  • Holly

    January 21, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    For me, frequency has helped- example- yes all 2 years olds kick, bite, react aggressively, but how often?  My 2 year kicked and hit his way through each day because he has underlying issues, not because he was a toddler.

  • Alison

    January 22, 2015 at 3:58 am

    If it is someone unfamiliar with my two (one ASD, one ADHD, both with lots of free add ons), who says “Oh yes, that’s just what all teenagers/girls/boys do”, then I temper my reply depending on whether they sound dismissive or comforting.

    If it is someone who knows my two little angels, and who is possibly suggesting that I’m moaning or not dealing with the situation correctly, I have been known to suggest that perhaps they’d like to spend some time with the child in question to try and resolve the problem. That usually shuts them up!

  • Alice

    January 22, 2015 at 9:11 am

    I think there are a lot of ways in which we use normal. The proscriptive approach, where everything outside of normal gets labeled WEIRD, is what we run into a lot, and it sucks. 

    But we also look to normal as a way to reassure ourselves about the future. Knowing that something deeply unpleasant is normal at least can take away the anxiety about what comes next. (Colic, the endless-seeming Why stage, myopic teenagers, etc.) 

    One of the nicest things about coming from a family of non-neurotypical folks is being able to look around and see the ways in which our really-not-all-that-normal forebears have made it through. So even when things are far from normal, they can still feel very surviveable.

    • Mir Kamin

      January 22, 2015 at 10:41 am

      I love this, Alice. Thank you. 🙂

  • Stacy

    January 22, 2015 at 9:59 am

    My stepkids are “normal” lazy teenagers, and they are also the most boring people I have ever met in my entire life.  Seriously.  You’ve been sitting on that couch doing nothing for 5 hours, yet you’re texting after 2 minutes.  About what?!?  “Hey, I just farted!”  “Hey, I farted again!”  “Hey, I am so bored!”  Because you are boring and have no hobbies or interests!

  • Betsy

    January 22, 2015 at 6:53 pm

    Of course your kids are normal….they’re just non-typical, too!

  • Sarahd

    January 23, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    You know what I think is “normal”, regardless of whether your kids are “normal” or not? Mothers wondering how in the f&*k their child(ren) will ever survive on their own and become contributing, successful adults in the world. So guess what?! You’re totally “normal”! Hooray?

    • Mir Kamin

      January 26, 2015 at 4:15 pm

      This made me laugh out loud, for real. *fistbump*