Whatever she was supposed to do with her life, it wasn’t this.
Lillith watched as her only child, a four-year-old boy, rocked back and forth, sitting on the rug in the living room. She sipped her tea, resentful that this was her experience of motherhood. Lillith called to him, ‘James,’ but he didn’t seem to hear her. Louder, ‘James.’ Still no response. Resignedly, she put her tea cup in its saucer on the coffee table next to her, and crouching down on her knees with her hands stretched forwards along the rug, she was at his level. ‘James, can you hear me?’
Lillith didn’t know when she first realised that James was different. Looking back, there were all sorts of clues, but she didn’t see them. Or maybe she didn’t want to see them. Those weekly mothers’ group gatherings were possibly her first clue. Her newly formed group of friends, chatting over milestones that James was not even close to achieving. Her feelings of guilt, displacement, rejection that threatened to drown her. Of course, none of her mum friends knew that she felt this way. They had no clue of her innermost fears.
By the time James was two years old, his difference was clear: the lining up of his trains and cars in perfect straight lines, his lack of language, his seeming refusal to make eye contact, his hatred of contact with other people, even her. How deeply and painfully this cut Lillith. But no one knew, pretending was the way to cope. Lillith stopped going mothers’ group, even though they still met weekly, most of them pregnant with their second child, bursting with happiness and possibility. There was no such possibility of happiness for Lillith. Or for a second child. Even if Brett was still around, if he hadn’t left when it all got too hard, there was no way she was going to take the chance that this error, this malfunction, this defect could happen again. So, it was her and James. Together, the two of them, yet alone in their own worlds: his, autism; hers, fear.
She wished she could leave. She really did. She didn’t ask for this. Lillith was furious that Brett walked out, but also furious that now, she didn’t get that opportunity. Still, she often would fantasise about going out for a litre of milk and never returning. Her dreams and expectations of being a mother weren’t adding up and she felt duped by god, if there was one, or the universe, or whoever the hell had decided this was her fate.
The trips to the specialists were taxing, financially and emotionally. The first trip to the clinical psychologist was shocking: Lillith watched as James struggled to match the patterns on the simple puzzle laid before him. The clinical psychologist glanced at Lillith, made no attempt to engage James with a more complex one.
‘I think that’s enough for today,’ she said kindly, but Lillith knew. She knew the diagnosis, even though she had to come back for at least two more appointments before the report could be written.
The psychologist, Marie, continued in a too-chirpy tone, ‘So, we’ll see you next week, or the week after, depending on what’s available.’ She smiled at Lillith, then bent down to look James in the eye, and said, ‘Great work today, James. Goodbye!’ James, of course, blankly ignored her. Lillith burned but pressed on with a forced smile. What she was angry at, she couldn’t name. Was it James, or Marie? Or herself? Was she angry at herself? Did she blame herself?
In her early thirties, Lillith dreamed of her future. She dreamed of a kind man, who would love and support her, handsome too, but that was an added extra. Together they would have two, possibly three, children, all born neatly two years apart. She didn’t know this at the time, but she was not far away from fulfilling part of that dream. She met Brett, and they quickly set up home together, their plans for the future evenly matched.
Falling pregnant was easy, like blinking. Lillith was grateful, Brett was grateful, and they selfishly assumed the rest of the dream would be just as easy.
The second appointment with Marie was just as damning for Lillith. Lots of questions about his development, some she could answer, and others she couldn’t remember. Surely other mothers kept meticulous records of these milestones, particularly for their first child; why hadn’t she? Lillith answered as best she could: Normal pregnancy? Delivery – vaginal or caesarean? Breastfed? Eating with a spoon at age? Playtime – favourite toys? Other children? And so the questions went on, each scoring into Lillith’s shame and humiliation.
At the third appointment, Marie handed her pamphlets about support groups and information sessions on parenting an autistic child. Her shoulders heaved downwards, but she fought against the tears. She should cry more, she knew that. But not here. Certainly, she should reach out to others for help.
After the report was emailed, Lillith read it over and over. How was she to make a life out of this? How was she to be a mum to this boy, whose world seemed so unreachable, so different to hers?
James stopped rocking back and forth. He looked into her eyes. Lillith, still crouching on the floor, almost gasped. She wanted to sit up, her knees sore, but didn’t want to break the moment. ‘You can hear me, can’t you, James?’ Lillith gently asked. James opened his mouth; an indecipherable noise came out. But Lillith knew he meant, Yes Mummy, I can hear you.
This wasn’t meant to be her life, but it was. James was her world, and they would figure out, together, his world.