Obviously, I write a lot about my kids because quite frankly they are just more interesting than me most of the time. and they are the reason that I decided to start blogging in the first place. First, I was just going to focus on our journey for and with Caden’s service dog, and then I started expanding to cover their rare diseases like primary immune deficiencies, autonomic dysfunction, and will probably be expanding into our newest challenge of training a service dog for Ryley. They are the ones with the stories that need to be told, and let’s face it they are pretty darn cute to include pictures of every once in a while. Granted, my pre-teen has put a gag order on more and more stories these days, which I completely respect and I never tell a story or moment that I won’t be comfortable sharing with my kids when they are older. There are some moments too private, too embarrassing, or too personal for me to ever share on a blog. I have drawn a line, and it is one that I refuse to cross regardless of what point or awareness it might help raise.
The story that I have to share today though is my own. I worked my way through school at a painfully slow process and even took a year off to substitute teach to really make sure that higher education was where I wanted to be. From the day that I was given my own class as a teaching assistant, I knew exactly where I wanted to spend my professional life. I loved the challenge of teaching, advising felt like helping students work out their life puzzles, and writing has always been my passion.
As my daughter developed her own set of special medical needs, I was more and more convinced that I was in the right profession. I had the ability to work my schedule out to meet her needs. I arranged my schedule to teach while she was at school, I took her to classes with me when she had the day off, and I taught my classes online if I needed to stay home with her. I learned to hold office hours online and continued to love what I was doing.
I think what made my work so enjoyable was that my personality in the classroom and out of the classroom were so similar. The language that I used, the stories that I told, the experiences that I was living, and really who my core being was didn’t change in or out of the classroom. I could be 100% me in both worlds. Other than the clothes I wore, nothing changed when I walked on campus or into the grocery store or into my house. My identity was intact and I was happy with whom I thought I was.
When Caden was diagnosed with the same immune deficiency that Ryley had I was saddened, not surprised though, and my identity didn’t really suffer any dents. Initially, the autism diagnosis didn’t hurt my identity continuity either. Caden had lost all of his language, and while that was terribly hard he was also young and I didn’t have to worry all that much about my word choices when I talked to him; in fact I talked to him the same way I talked to Ryley. They were just little people at least language wise.
Then Caden started (joyfully) getting some language back. At times, language would explode from him. Then he’d regress only to have another word explosion. We started on this roller coaster where one day he could verbally communicate with us and the next he couldn’t. At this same time he developed a receptive language disorder. It was during this time that my identity started to crack a bit.
Professionally, I teach organizational communication; I teach people how to be effective communicators in one on one situation, in small group settings, and in front of public audiences. I spend a lot of time teaching and grading my students on things like consistent eye contact, careful word choice, and elaborate language to create strong mental images in their listeners. During lecture, I present multiple examples and often test with short answer questions that have a variety of answers possible if you can justify the choice decided upon.
In other words I teach in the exact opposite manner that my own son needs in order to learn and understand or participate in a conversation. For him, we consider it successful eye contact if he at least looks toward your face. We know we can’t present more than two choices if we want him to be able to actually make a decision. Figurative language and metaphors are a foreign language for Caden. So I have to code switch my language and teaching style on the ride home and become a mommy that Caden can understand. I have to code switch back when talking to Ryley and then again when I am talking with students online or over the phone.
Okay, so lots of people have to switch gears on their way home; I’m sure doctors don’t go into graphic details about their day with their children or that salespeople don’t recount every difficult customer they encountered that day. So what’s the problem then?
The problem is that I am now doubting myself and who I should be when I walk into the classroom. I find myself struggling to deduct points when someone doesn’t make eye contact because I mentally see Caden standing in front of that classroom. I find myself offering both literal and creative assignments to accommodate the Cadens in the room that can’t handle assignments with shades of gray. I find myself being overly sensitive to students who need to turn things in late or miss an exam because I see them as my Ry struggling with a complex illness that, while life threatening, is also invisible. In some ways, my experiences with my own children are making me a more compassionate and stronger teacher but in other ways I doubt my ability to truly accomplish either world. I don’t know how to have a professional identity and a personal identity that don’t reconcile in any fashion possible. I also don’t know what that means for my future. Maybe it means a new career. Maybe it means a new research line in my field to help me make sense of what I am going through. Or maybe the lesson isn’t in the answer but in the struggle itself.