Golden age of parenthood is now

Posted: Sunday, August 02, 2009

My daughter was grumpy the other night. The house was noisy and the constant banter of houseguests made it hard for her to sleep. She told me all about it too, and despite the grouchy tone of her message I couldn't help being overjoyed just to hear the complaints.

She told me of her troubles over the phone!

I happened to call on the telephone while my wife was trying to get the kids to settle in for the night. She told me about our grumpy daughter and suggested I talk with her on the phone to divert her attention. I did.

My daughter, for those folks who haven't been following this column, is autistic, or at least she was diagnosed as such when she was 3 years old. The diagnosis was neither a surprise nor a shock to my wife and I, because we knew from her behavior that something was amiss.

But the autism diagnosis brought a lot of anxiety with it. How could my wife and I offer our daughter a full measure of life when we couldn't even get her attention? How could we even know how she was doing if we couldn't get even simple answers from her? All we could do was to be patient, and to do our best for her.

Actually, having a medical diagnosis was a great thing. It opened up a range of services to her that have made a real difference. In fact, my daughter's progress has been stunning. There was a time not long ago when her speech consisted of a few barely legible words, when her attention was hard to attract and even harder to retain. Those days are past. Now she's talking on the phone!

And what did she say in our conversation? She said she was tired, that everybody was making noise and they all wanted to play with her, but that she didn't want to play with anybody. I asked her some questions. She answered them, sometimes with just a yes or a no, but other times with one or more sentences, describing the things she didn't like about her evening.

After hearing her out, I suggested that she should just try laying down and closing her eyes, and that nobody would bug her with her eyes closed. I also offered her a few warm words, assuring her that I was doing well and keeping busy, and that I missed her. I later learned from her mother that my words helped and our daughter calmed right down after our little telephone conversation.

I, on the other hand, was very excited. My daughter talked with me in a regular conversation over the telephone!

Small children don't really understand telephones, and it takes several years for many kids to understand that the disembodied voice coming through the speaker is anything more than that. Until these last couple of weeks, neither of my kids had any interest in talking to disembodied voices.

But kids grow, and circumstances change. I am doing renovation work on our house in Juneau again this summer while my wife and kids spend a few weeks of quality time with my wife's family up in Wasilla. It's a great arrangement, allowing me to work without children underfoot while my kids enjoy the constant companionship of their cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents.

It was the constant part of that companionship that had my daughter so upset. Our home life is typically very quiet, but the house in Wasilla has been in a constant whir of activity through most of the summer, and their household is anything but quiet these days. A few calming words from her daddy was all my daughter really needed.

I've been waiting for this part of parenthood ever since my daughter was born. This is the good part, after all, that time in my young children's development when they're old enough to carry on a conversation and express their opinions, and to share their likes and dislikes. They're also still young enough to rank their parents right up there with the all-knowing and all-powerful.

If there is ever a golden age for parenting, for me that time is now.

• Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home parent and long-term Juneau resident.

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