07/20/2012 04:40 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2012

How to Keep Moving Forward Despite the Messiness

As a teenager I was a mess. I quickly developed into a messed-up 20-something and progressed into an even more messed-up 30-something. (Take a breath. Whoooo.) I'll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say, I was a mess. (Another breath.) I was 36 before I realized I was far too old to be so confused and such an utter mess. I found people who had also once been where I now found myself, some worse, some better, but they reached out and pulled me up. They showed me how to reach out to others, how to ask for support, take suggestions and make amends -- not apologies, amends. I learned the joy of gratitude and to examine my own faults before finding fault with others. I learned that in order to feel better I had to behave better. I learned that the most important thing I could ever do was become the type of person I admired, and those people all had one thing in common. They were kind.

I couldn't suddenly transform myself into someone else. I had to learn to do small, thoughtful acts of kindness. In the beginning it was things like giving up my subway seat so another could sit, holding the elevator doors open instead of madly jamming my index finger at the "close door" button when I heard someone coming. I had to learn that sometimes saying nothing was better than saying something. To most of you this is called common courtesy, but remember, I was a mess, which trumped being polite, thoughtful or kind. By behaving in a way that engendered smiles and utterances of gratitude I gradually began to feel better about myself. By mentoring younger people who were having a tough time, but who now saw a person they wanted to emulate, I began to feel I was worthy and living a life of value. I learned to be a part of a larger group. And while I often craved solitude, I found I needed community.

About two years after my dawning awareness that there must be more to life than what I'd been living, I met Richard, now my husband. We had our son, got married, had our daughter, and suddenly there we were five years later, a family of four. So, yeah, I'm not a great role model in how to seamlessly and elegantly slide from teenager to adult, easily taking small, manageable steps, working toward the day when you are a mother and wife. But I had my little road map with rules and suggestions on how best to behave in any given situation, and I had lots of people who had gone before me to help pave the way. But parenting is unlike anything else.

Amazingly, my son did not emerge from my body wrapped in a super hero's cape along with matching Lycra body suit with the word MOM in dayglo colors emblazoned across its chest. I did not, after 38 hours of natural child birth, suddenly find I could dash into arbitrary-enclosed structures, don my supermom costume and reappear in all my lycra-ed, dayglo-ed glory with powers of insight, lightning-quick reflexes and the infallible ability to intuit what my son needed and wanted at any given moment of the day or night. Ditto when my daughter was born. No handbook came with either child, carefully illuminating their very specific needs and issues. Nic cried and held his small hands over his ears when a siren went by or the subway came to a screeching halt in front of us; Emma screamed the first few months of her existence from internal discomforts none of us could see. It turns out my daughter is autistic, my son is not, I'm quirky and a tad neurotic and my husband, well, he can speak for himself.

We humans come with baggage. Some have more than others. Me, I came with a couple of steamer trunks, but I also had that well-worn guidebook from the time when I couldn't figure out whether it was better to keep sleeping or wake up and do something. It was and is my lifeline. It's expanded to include lists of blogs, Twitter contacts and Facebook friends all of whom I can reach out to. You see, I now have hundreds of people I can interact with, and these people are my community, my tribe. Sometimes we behave badly; sometimes we don't agree. But I know hiding is no longer an option. The only way out is by staying in. I know I'm not alone. I've learned it's perfectly reasonable not to know or understand something. I have learned from my autistic friends the beauty in asking for clarification.

There is a great deal of talk about children. There is a tremendous amount of fear that if we don't cram everything in during that critical period of our child's first five years, all is lost. That idea is all the more amplified if our child is autistic, or so we're told. But we humans have a tendency to grow and progress throughout our lives, some perhaps more than others. I am not the person I was in my teens, my 20s or even my 30s. I continue to progress just as my autistic daughter and my non-autistic son do.

Emma's Hope Book, a blog about parenting, children and life.

For more by Ariane Zurcher, click here.

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