Resource Center

Letting a Daughter with Development Disorders Grow Up

My 15 year-old daughter Lizzie is very angry with me right now. Over breakfast this morning, she sputtered through tears: I am not letting her grow up! I am an overprotective, crazy mother! “Not fair,” she kept repeating: her mantra, but the words don’t seem to sink into my apparently dense skull.

Our argument, which began last night and spilled into this morning, is about a simple thing – walking the dog. She can walk our sweet little mutt, Scooter, anywhere in our neighborhood, but she is not allowed to venture on the busier main roads nearby. Yesterday, a neighbor spotted Lizzie and Scooter on the busy road, and Lizzie has lost her dog-walking privileges for now. Last night, after a few minutes of indignant ranting, she ran down the hall and slammed her bedroom door shut at the injustice of it all.

I sound like a helicopter mom, hovering over the mean streets of suburbia, but there is more to the story. Lizzie is oldest of my two amazing daughters. She’s a fine writer and beautiful singer, thoughtful and sensitive who was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) at age five, but would now best be described as having mild Asperger’s. Caroline, my younger daughter, is a delightful, bubbly 13year-old who loves MarioKart, all things pink, and playing the trumpet in her school band. Caroline has autism.

Parenting my girls has made me a much better mother, teacher, and human being. But it has been hard work. Being protective has been the nature of the job. I have worried about many things over the years: school programs, those elusive milestones, navigating friendships, and the future. I never worried about how I would let go. I wasn’t sure I would have the chance.

Lizzie’s growth has been nothing short of miraculous. In elementary school, she was so shy and anxious, she barely spoke. During middle school, she blossomed, participating in the school musicals and making friends. Now, as a 9th grader, Lizzie flies through the day independently, eating lunch with friends, and staying after school for clubs. Our days are punctuated by her frequent frustration with me and my exasperating omnipresence. Perhaps after needing me so much for so long, she wants her independence even more. I understand. My Irish-Catholic parents were so fiercely overprotective that when they dropped me off at college freshman year, I was overwhelmed with the singular realization that I could leave my dorm room and walk around the campus, anonymous, not accountable to anyone.

I am struggling trying to be the right mother for both my girls: one daughter who wants to brave the world alone and another who may never be able to go so far. For Caroline, I am still on the job full-time. I lay out her clothes, I do her hair, I even help her put Nair on her legs (last time, while rinsing her legs, Nair-splatter left me with several small bald patches—the things we do for love). I am so used to being that mom. It’s the mom I need to become, that I am grateful to become, who is giving me trouble.

I tell myself that old habits die hard, but it’s more than that. I thought my girls would always want me around, that I would be spared that one heartbreak – my teenage daughter dropping me like a bad habit. I know I am so lucky that Lizzie has come so far. Like all parents, I want nothing more than for both of my girls to be able to live well without me, to enjoy full and complete lives after I ‘m gone.

I still don’t feel comfortable with Lizzie walking busy roads at dusk. It’s just plain dangerous. But sooner than I think, Lizzie will swing the screen door open and walk off to have her own life. Caroline’s horizons need to expand, too, in whatever way they can.

So tomorrow, I am buying Caroline an electric razor, and together she and I will come up with a list of things for her to practice doing on her own. Even if Caroline can’t follow in her sister’s footsteps, I want to make sure she gets as far down that road as possible. I think I am finally getting the lesson Lizzie has been trying to teach me. I want to protect them from the world; they want to get out there and be a part of it. It’s time for me to show them that I believe they can.