"I looked at him and I thought, 'I know who you are,''" says the stunning and articulate Robyn Stecher, Executive Vice-President of the bi-coastal talent agency, Don Buchwald & Associates, and author of a new book, There's Something About Daniel (The Write Place, 2010). The book contains a series of engaging, alternately funny and moving stories of raising her neurologically impaired "complex" (her preferred word) son.
Stecher relays one of the stories from her book, of when Daniel was around 4 years old, and he had to step across a series of blocks laid out by the teacher and meant to resemble the Great Wall of China. Watching him struggle, stumble, fall down, and pick himself back up again repeatedly with great determination, Stecher realized, "Now I know who you are. And I can take you to wherever I think you can go. Parents have to, in some ways, design their children. They have to create the opportunity for possibility to occur," Stecher shares from the comfort of her living room couch on the Upper East Side, while Daniel, now 18 years old, watches a baseball game in the other room, offers me water, and checks up on us periodically.
"Parents have to create a runway for these kids to go on. Often times they get this imprint in their head -- you're supposed to fit into this box. I use the analogy of plants in a garden. I always say if you are a fern, you cannot survive in a desert. If you are a cactus, you cannot survive in a humid greenhouse. You must look at that individual, (and every kid will be so different), and find the means to motivate, to inspire, and to bring out whoever they can be," Stecher outlines effortlessly, her calm demeanor belying the challenges she has met in her life.
Preparing for a benefit being held this Friday, June 18th at Joe's Pub in New York City to celebrate the book launch and raise money for her son's school, The Lowell School, Stecher discusses her impetus to start writing a few years ago. "I thought, 'I am fully baked now.' I've been through marriage, childbirth, raising a special needs child, rebuilding my career, divorce, living on my own -- things women don't do."
When she left her crumbling marriage 10 years ago with no child support, she had to find an apartment for herself and Daniel and rebuild her career, as she had been out of the work force for many years caring for her son. Stecher muses, "An entrepreneur by nature is someone who will take on very, very high risk, and not be terrified of it. They actually live in their faith and not their fear. I was looking for a place to live (driving around with a friend), and all of a sudden she looks at me and says, 'This is a house of cards. This thing can crumble at any second. Are you sure this is what you want to do?' I looked back at her and said, 'I don't have a choice and I don't want to see it that way. It's not going to crumble. I'll figure out how to cement the foundation of it.'"
From the outside looking in, it appears Stecher corners the market on the mortar she created to build her foundation. "The fortunate thing with Daniel is his sociability and how remarkable it is. I think it comes from his self-confidence. With everything he has going on -- (he's now down to a mere 8 doctors a year - neurologist, psychologist, ophthalmologist, orthopedist, and more) -- he could have been lacking tremendously in self-confidence. He may never have run for student office, but he did it time and time again. He may never have gone to the prom alone, but he managed to figure out that that was an okay thing to do. He takes himself out to dinner, goes to movies by himself. These are things I never learned how to do!" Stecher laughs.
The book shows great humor, humility, and grace as Stecher opens her heart to share her and Daniel's personal struggles over the years. I may not have yet have children myself, but I've spent enough time around them to know that they will very strongly reflect back what their parents show them. Daniel's thoughtfulness and friendly disposition are no mere "accident."
"Balance was the key to the whole thing. I was always able to think through his memories - how will he look back? How will he bring this into the fabric of who he is? Would he be like, 'Oh My God, my mom was always stressed out!' Or did I want to be this woman who was, 'Okay, I'm stressing, but you're not going to see me stressing.' I really saw myself in the role of remaining in the moment, joyfully embracing life and the love that I have for my son, and letting him know it every moment, every second of every day. If I had my frustration, I didn't want to rope him into that, I wanted to keep it very pure. I didn't want to think every time he threw the ball to me, 'Oh My God, is he moving his muscles in the right way?'" Stecher gesticulates, a portrait of self-actualization gained through experience.
"I used the language that was very high level, always. I expected very high functioning behaviors. Even if my son physically couldn't manipulate something, I didn't orient myself around accepting the limitations of his movement or his behaviors, nor did I deny the limitation. I just said, 'Let's see how far we can go with this.' I cast the net far for him. I consistently did that from the time he was very young. Yeah, running's going to be tough for him. But can he run at all?" Stecher poses the important question many don't make the extra effort to ask when facing an obstacle.
Stecher leaves so I can have the time alone I requested with Daniel. I ask him to share his thoughts about himself, his mom's book, and their relationship. "We have a very loving relationship, me and my mom. We don't really hang out outside of the house really that much, but we still love each other very, very much." What 18 year old boy, I think to myself, is able to express himself so honestly, so much like a man?
"I'm really happy that she had the courage to write a book about our life and I'm really proud of her for writing a book about that," Daniel tells me.
"I'm a very outgoing person, I'm easy to get along with. Some of my hobbies are hanging out with my friends outside of school, some other hobbies of mine are going to baseball games, and if people would ever spend that much time with me then they would realize how good of a person I am. I am loving, and I am a really caring person. That's pretty much it."
"When I finish school, I would like to become a teacher's aide, like an assistant teacher, and that's pretty much it. And hopefully get a girlfriend because I'm still single, I'm still looking for that one woman. I know I will (find her)," Daniel concludes.
"Parenting and mothering on the ground level -- it is the most untraditional, extraordinary, it is the most unconditional way you will love somebody," Stecher continues. "If I gave birth to a dreamer, then it's my job to show him the process to make his dreams come true. If you can show a child the process, then those dreams, they become other dreams." I think about a few parents at the playground at 26th and Madison that could use a few lessons in parenthood from Stecher.
"Faith is the belief in that for which there is no evidence -- that there will be something that comes of this. I say our souls have their journey, we're here for a visit, and we were destined for each other. I believe that my son found me when his soul was picking parents and my soul was picking children, and that somehow we came together to make our lives much richer and more extraordinary than they ever could have been had we been 'typical.'"