With the advent of Halloween, the nation enters that time of year I like to call the Holiday Sprint. I am not sure who ever thought that putting all these major holidays together just a few short weeks from each other was a good thing, but I bet it wasn’t a woman with a family. I can see it now, the women putting together their lists, and their ideas of how to celebrate the season. What to serve, getting the kids the proper clothes, who to invite and not invite and how to arrange it and explain it to the younger members of the family when Uncle Sot overindulges on the booze and passes out on the livingroom sofa (you know there is always one). It is a look of sheer exhaustion; panic and that oft said small prayer to God to help me through this. Why women do this to themselves is beyond me. But it seems that we are hell bent on making things fun for everyone else even if we are too overstressed to actually enjoy the season ourselves. Now add into the mix, the requirements of a special needs child and what you end up with is a balancing act that quite frankly is undoable. Yes, undoable. Oh heavens blasphemy you say. No I say. I have actually come to appoint in my life that I have the strength to say, enough is really enough.
Listen, I am going to say something that is akin to sacrilege. I hate this time of year. Hate it, hate it, hate it. I see no fun in the overstimulation, the sensory overload, the inundation of noises, smells, physicality of this time of year. I don’t even have sensory issues (well not until I started menopause and now that is another issue altogether). I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it has been for the boys. Trying to navigate the world’s sensory stimuli is hard enough but with everything being thrown at them at once, it had to have become overwhelming. I do remember the meltdowns in school and the refusal to leave the house. I had not put it together that it was a sensory issue. I usually just thought it was too much for them to process in general; too much for their brain to filter, between the excited children at school, the barrage of information on the televisions and in the stores. But once I understood we took the proverbial bull by the horns and did something about it.
I do have to admit that this time of year is a little easier for us than most of you. Being Jewish we do not celebrate Christmas, so the smells and lights and the tree associated with Jesus’ birthday doesn’t permeate our home. Now this didn’t mean that the children didn’t have holiday celebrations in school and that there weren’t trees and lights and decorations all over town. We used to go into New York City every year too to see the tree at Rockefeller Center and the Christmas windows. I thought it was fun for them, while we don’t celebrate the holiday, the idea that they could appreciate how lovely things are at this time of year and how the nation does celebrate was just part of raising a child in the United States, then one day they said they didn’t like it. Not because they didn’t like the idea of Christmas, they are no fools, but it was too much for them.
In fact one of my most favorite stories about HSB is when he was 7 years old. It was Christmas Time and the local bakery makes these wonderful sugar cookies. At this time of year they make the cookies, in you guessed it, the shape of Christmas trees. Well not wanting the boys to think that they are being totally deprived of anything fun and that they were still part of society so I bought them a Christmas tree butter cookie from the bakery. You see I have memories of growing up the only Jewish child in my school in the South’s Bible belt, replete with teachers who at this time of year made sure to point out that I was not part of society and generally not welcome. I didn’t want the boys to feel rejected by their own country. A little acknowledgment of the society around them and knowing that they can be different and still be Americans is just fine. So when I picked up HSB at school, I told him that I had bought him the cookie. Now the only part that HSB heard was Christmas tree, not cookie. He became so excited.
“You bought us a Christmas tree!” he exclaimed.
“No, I bought you a Christmas tree cookie,” I explained.
“Oh, “he said with a forlorn look on his face,” you know I am half Christian so I can have a Christmas tree.”
“No, you are not, both daddy and I are Jewish,” I told him.
“Oh, OK,” he said.
“You get eight nights of presents at Hanukkah, that really is enough,” I explained. How much a 7 year old really understands about religion is questionable but I am sure even with as liberal as my Rabbi is, there is no Christmas tree in his house either.
Apparently HSB knew children at school who had both Christian and Jewish parents and they celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. I guess he decided to take a shot. He figured he had nothing to loose. The truth is, not celebrating Christmas did make our lives so much easier for the boys and easier for us. Not only did it eliminate the need of trying to figure out what stimuli they could live with through the holiday but it also eliminated another discussion and attempt at trying to get people to understand who they are and what were their needs.
The truth of the matter is, that Collegeman never did like New York City. In fact when he was little and we lived in the City he used to tell us that he wanted to live out with grandma. My mother-in-law (should rest in peace) lived where we have now lived for 15 years. We would go and visit her and collegeman would be so happy out here. We had no idea that he had such issues and that the noise, sounds, and smells of the City were so much for him to handle. There was a calming in his brain when he came out here, only he couldn’t explain it to us and no one, not one professional, caught the issues. But eventually we did move here and the rest of the story is as they say history. On the other hand, I am not sure that HSB cared either way. He has never seemed to have as big an auditory processing issue as his brother, even though it was a quantifiable deficit. He did not have meltdowns in the City when we went, but then again we also would take him to the huge Toys-R-Us in Time Square or F.A.O Schwarz so I think he made himself put up with anything at that point. But once we decided not to go in with them anymore he really didn’t bat an eyelash.
Now Thanksgiving is another issue. Of course we do Thanksgiving. I don’t like Thanksgiving at all. I never really enjoyed it as a child and as an adult it has been fraught with so many issues that I generally have no good feeling towards the holiday. We usually go to my sister-in-laws for the holiday and she is wonderful and welcoming. All of hubby’s siblings are there with their families and under normal circumstances that would be just fine. But with the boys it is just too much for them.
SIL has a media room in her basement so we make sure to bring dvds of their favorite movies with us and their handhelds and even at one point some of their favorite video games. Having an older boy cousin the house was decked out in boy toys so it wasn’t a problem on that end. We would bring the boys appetizers down in the basement where they had ensconced themselves to avoid all the hubbub and noise.
When they were little it was harder because that meant that one of us had to stay with the boys all the time to make sure that the interactions with their cousins went well. It wasn’t that their cousins were ever mean to them, quite on the contrary, but because the boys couldn’t’ read social cues we were always concerned that they would not handle things with their younger cousins well. So one of us stayed to supervise. That task usually fell to hubby, as the boys even then preferred his presence to mine. Hubby never minded though, if his siblings did want to talk to him, they would just visit in the basement. I in the meantime would help out in the kitchen.
Now when dinnertime came, that was another issue. There would be at times over 25 persons sitting for dinner. The noises at the table and the smells of the dinner for most would have been great but the boys needed their handhelds with them to keep them calm. I suppose it would be like their fidget toy today. When there was the long toasting and the “what are you thankful for talk” with the children, it did not go over well, and one or the other would get cranky (to say the least) and have to leave the table. Also the food even though Thanksgiving appropriate was never what they liked to eat so it became another issue. They would nibble on the turkey, bread and butter but then have to be fed when we got home. (Its not that SIL wouldn’t have given them what they like, but how much can you ask of people. Cooking for 25 people for several days is more than enough for one person.)
I suppose in many respects we are very lucky. Our extended family never made us feel that the boys were a burden and never made us feel that the boys were not welcome. We just knew that it was not something that the boys could handle quite well. Luckily we did have family who understood and allowed us to create a small oasis in the midst of the celebration for them so that we could all be together on the holiday. I think for us it really was just the stress of figuring out how to get the boys there, making sure that they were comfortable and in the end making sure that what ever happened with the boys didn’t ruin everyone else’s holiday.
It is an extreme balancing act that you have to create during this time of year. Figuring out how to balance the sights, sounds, smells and crowds of holiday time is very stressful and time consuming. The reality is that there is no one answer for anyone. You need to see what works for your child and for your family. It does help if you have understanding relatives and quite frankly those that weren’t didn’t remain part of our extended family.
Part of the journey that you enter into when you marry is the creation of your own life’s adventure. You create your own holidays and traditions. It is nice when those traditions that you grew up with can be carried through to your children. It makes for continuity and for a continuation of all that came before you. Truthfully it is also a large part of any community. But we cannot always have that. We cannot always follow through with traditions same as our parents. Sometimes we need to create our own traditions and our own celebrations in a way that suits our children and us. One of the aspects of creating a future for our children is to teach them that they are entitled to celebrate holidays in the way that is comfortable for them.
As an example let me tell you quickly about our Passover Seders, even though it occurs in the spring and is not relevant to this time of year. Growing up we would have Seders that lasted several hours. We would review and extol the journey of the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Land of Israel. It was a joyful experience replete with prayers, discussion and song. Well the boys can’t tolerate singing and have no patience for some very long ceremonies. So we have cut down the Seder to a 15-minute tradition. We go over the history, the symbols and the miracles that God performed. At that point, when we bring God into the discussion, without fail, collegeman says something disparaging about the Almighty. HSB gets upset and they end up yelling at each other. We however, have gotten smart; we do not allow them to sit next to each other during the Seder to avoid the argument coming to blows, which it has on occasion. So in many ways this lively discussion has became our tradition; a robust tête-à-tête about the answer to life, the universe and everything. It may not be what Moses had in mind when he, with the help of God in heaven, freed the Jews from bondage, but the sheer act of chutzpah on the part of the boys to remake the Passover holiday in their own image, I think goes quite well with our 3,500 year old Jewish heritage.
OK, sometimes traditions do change...
For us and our children, its more about this:
So L'chaim, to the life we make and the joy it brings us all.
Until next time,
Until next time,