Originally written in 2005
A few years ago Amelia was invited to a birthday part at Fuddruckers. One of the other party guests was a boy with severe cerebral palsy. “How did you like kindergarten this year Pete?” I asked the little boy sitting in the wheelchair, body contorted from some hypoxic accident long ago. “Oh, he loved it!” gushed his doting mother, “The teachers and the kids just took wonderful care of him, and he was so happy.” I had never met Pete and his mother before this chance meeting at a 6-year old birthday party. In our brief encounter, I watched her as she instructed the waiter how to puree his food, fed Pete, and changed his diaper. Pete, wheelchair bound and unable to coordinate his movements, required the constant attention of his mother. And she lavished it upon him lovingly without the slightest hint of regret or frustration. I felt so humbled as patience is not one of my virtues.
There was something about Pete that made him seem like he was trapped inside his body. Unable to speak, he still seemed to communicate with an occasional frown or attempt at eye contact. It seemed natural to speak to him, although he was completely unable to answer me. Whenever I asked him a question, his mother responded for him. When I asked about his feelings about school or summer camp, his mother responded much like I do when asked similar questions about my own children, citing his likes and dislikes. Part of me wondered, “How does she know?” It seemed like it would be so hard to discern what was happening in Pete’s brain.
Thoughts of Pete were not quick to dissipate from my mind after we ate our cake and bid each other good-bye. I kept wondering how his mother knew what Pete needed and wanted, liked and disliked. Picking beans in of my garden the next afternoon it hit me: from infancy through adolescence, mothers read their children’s minds. Our indoctrination into this world of intuiting our children’s needs begins when we learn which cry signals hunger and which calls out for comfort and affection. Even when words appear from the mouths of our children, we possess the singular ability to understand our children’s unique language. “Ju Ju,” my first-born cried and only I knew to hold her. Like most mothers, I spent months translating for Amelia. Children’s mastery of language does not, however, carry with it a mastery of emotion. We eventually also learn to interpret behaviors, non-verbal cues, and facial expressions to predict the beginning of a meltdown or anticipate the unspoken needs of a preschooler. For my feisty younger child, I needed to become skilled at predicting when he was overstimulated, tired, or hungry lest he decompensate into one of his angry and aggressive outbursts. On some days, I knew as soon as he awoke that that it was going to be “one of those days” long before he said a word.
I stood in my garden amidst the shoulder high bean plants wondering, when does the mindreading end? I had visions of adolescent versions of my children slamming doors and sulking while their father and I stood by oblivious to the root of their angst. I pictured myself crouched by their beds, coaxing them with an innocent, “You seem upset? I’d like to hear about it.” And I hoped that when that day comes, they’d trust me enough to let me in.
Sure, I can be mind reader enough to know something is wrong, but will I be good enough to know the cause of their distress before they divulge the truth? Then, I thought about my mother. I’m 36 and she still knows when something is wrong with me. Even 400 miles of distance have not dampened her ability to detect the need for a well-timed, “What’s wrong?”
While Pete’s mother certainly has a unique mothering experience relative to those of us whose children do not face so many challenges, I realized that her experience of reading her child’s mind was really a universal one. But she will likely master it long before most.