Priscilla Gilman, a teacher of romantic poetry who embraced Wordsworth’s vision of childhood’s spontaneous wonder, eagerly anticipated the birth of her first child, certain that he would come “trailing clouds of glory.” But as Benjamin grew, his remarkable precocity was associated with a developmental disorder that would dramatically alter the course of Priscilla’s dreams. In The Anti-Romantic Child, a memoir full of lyricism and light, Gilman explores our hopes and expectations for our children, our families, and ourselves—and the ways in which experience may lead us to re-imagine them.
We’re pleased to feature this excerpt from The Anti-Romantic Child. Priscilla is also our parenting and education advice columnist and would love to respond to your questions. Email her at [email protected].
A poem begins . . . as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness . . . It finds the thought and the thought finds the words. — Robert Frost
There are still occasional moments when I feel lonely as Benj’s mother. Moments when I still get that “lump in the throat” feeling, that sense of wrong, of homesickness and lovesickness. Seemingly simple things like watching him struggle to integrate and manage a flood of confusing emotions, his “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” His uneasy relationships with his peers and lack of social flexibility. His anxiety. His occasional unresponsiveness to a question, kind word, or compliment from another person. His “inappropriateness” in certain situations.
But usually the “lump in the throat” feeling comes from a very different place: a feeling of awe, a palpable charge of connectedness and love that I feel with this uncanny child. Watching his progress. Receiving a hand-drawn Mother’s Day card, an acrostic, which read:
Mom I Love You!
Our Time Together is Fun
Takes me to concerts
Every night she sings to me.
Really my friend!
Below the text he’d drawn a picture of two figures clearly meant to be himself and me, our bodies separated by inches of space, but connected by an arc of red hearts, like a rainbow, between our heads. When I glanced over it, I began to cry; he tenderly hugged me and patted me comfortingly on the back His picture seemed to literalize an idea from the German poet Rilke that I’d always loved and that I’d only really come to understand through being Benj’s mother:
Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky. — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters
What initially felt to me like a bewildering distance now feels like a beneficent space. Of course all the work of the past years has been designed to bring me closer to Benj and Benj closer to the normal world, but it has also been about learning to love the distance between Benj and me. The distance, space, gap between me and my child is no longer a terrifying void, an unbridgeable gulf, a yawning emptiness, but rather a capacious and blessed opening, an aperture of respect and marvel. Being at arm’s length from Benj is what’s enabled me to see him truly, to accept and appreciate his irreducible otherness. Benj had taught me both how to be alone with myself and to recognize that the space between us is something to cherish.
. . . People often ask me: what are your goals and hopes and dreams for Benj? And the answer is so simple: that he be seen whole against the sky. That he not suffer beyond his and my capacity to bear it. That he be allowed to enjoy the pleasures of “his own private nook” and come out of that nook for joyful engagement with others. That he always hold onto his visionary gleam, his bright radiance. I think of the following wonderful lines from ee cummings:
To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you every body else means to fight the hardest battle which any human can fight and never stop fighting.
My goal as a mother is to never stop fighting that battle for Benj’s essential self and to teach him how to fight it on his own behalf.