When I first looked at Priscilla Gilman's just-published book, The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy, there was little about its packaging that says it's a book for all parents. Most of its "advance praise" quotes refer to the fact that this anti-romantic child is "challenging" and has a "developmental disorder." As such, it is expected to appeal to parents whose children face similar conditions and might even deter other parents.
Far too many books for parents are guilt-trip books, telling us what we did wrong or scaring us with the thought that everything we thought we knew just might be incorrect -- discouraging rather than inspiring us -- so it is no wonder that we are very selective about the books we choose to read.
Fortunately, I heard about The Anti-Romantic Child from a friend, picked it up, and then couldn't stop reading. There are three lessons in this book that are so compellingly universal that I believe it is a book for all parents.
The first lesson is triggered by the fact that we rarely get the child we expect. In fact, this is a something I wrote about in my own book, The Six Stages of Parenthood. Perhaps surprisingly, this dissonance between the fantasy child we expect versus the child we have offers us the first significant opportunity to grow as parents. As I found in my own studies, parental growth involves reconciling the dissonance between our expectations and reality. So whether we were expecting a girl and we had a boy, a child who looks "like me" but doesn't, or an athletic child and we have an artistic child, this disparity gives us three choices -- we can stay upset, we can change our expectations to live up to reality, or we can change our own behavior. It is by changing that we grow and learn. This process applies to any of our expectations in the early years and beyond -- the perfect birth we were expecting that didn't happen or the fact we are now saying things to our own children that we hated when our parent said them to us ("I hope your face freezes that way" or "I hope your children give you one tenth the trouble you have given me"). In Gilman's story, her child Benj was precocious (an early and avid reader) but had trouble making social connections and was found to have hyperlexia. Gilman goes through the process of accepting the fact that the romantic vision of her child isn't true (thus the title of the book), but her poignant story of reconciling fantasy with reality is a universal story of parental growth.
The second lesson is that many well-meaning family members, friends, and professionals will give us advice that doesn't seem right and we have to learn to trust our own instincts. In Gilman's case, she suspected that something was not quite right with her son, but everyone assured that all was fine. It can be hard to learn to stand up for our own children against a barrage of advice, but learning to do so also helps us grow as parents. In my own case, there were a number of experiences that helped me learn this tough lesson. The first was when my son came down with pneumonia as an infant and we were told that we couldn't spend the night with him in the hospital. I obediently followed hospital protocol for that first night but as soon as I saw him the next morning, I knew it had been traumatic. So I gathered my strength to fight the bureaucracy and camped out with him on a chair beside his crib until he was discharged. Like Gilman, all of us can learn that we are the most important advocates for our children. Obviously, we need to advocate in ways that are effective rather than in ways that turn people off, but we need to listen to that voice inside when something really doesn't feel right. Gilman writes: "My goal as a mother is never to stop fighting that battle for Benj's essential self and to teach him how to fight it on his own behalf."
The third lesson from Gilman is the importance of building on our children's strengths. It's so easy in this test-crazed world is to let our children be labeled, but Gilman refused to let her son be stereotyped by his diagnosis. And it's so easy to then focus on our children's weaknesses and try to fix them rather than to build on our children's strengths. In the Anti-Romantic Child, Gilman learns to insist that this is the way she wants Benj parented and taught. For example, she and the teachers in his preschool used his facility in reading as a way of helping him learn to connect socially with others. He read to the other children and that helped him shine.
My children are grown now, but that doesn't mean that I stop learning and growing, that they stop needing me or I stop needing them. Parenthood can be the most growth-producing experience we'll ever have. Priscilla Gilman's story can help us turn our own challenges into opportunities as she has done. She writes: "Being Benj's mother has changed me profoundly, has made me more, rather than less, idealistic; more, rather than less, passionate; more, rather than less, creative." Her journey as a parent has helped her see what really matters most and as such, her story is a story to inspire us all.