Good Mom, Bad Mom? Neither. I’m Just A Working Mom To A Non-Verbal Child With Autism…!

My non-verbal 14 year old was crying, and I couldn't make out what was bothering her. I was also a working mom with commitments to my clients...

The morning starts as usual. Cold, damp and freezing – a typical January morning in the Delhi winters. I sit curled up inside the blanket on the bed, wearing a cap that covers my ears, typing away on my laptop. Having ditched my cosy writing corner for the comfort of the quilt in the season, somehow, I have been able to keep up with my 5 AM daily writing routine, even though my productivity is at its lowest.

The figure lying beside me on the bed stirs and changes her position, making me realise it’s time to pause my morning ritual and turn my attention to worldly matters. My daughter, Avantika, wakes up with a start, pulls the heavy blanket away and makes a beeline for the bathroom. I smile. In the fourteen years I have had the fortune to be her mother, I have rarely seen her still or at ‘rest’. One moment, she may be prancing around the room, and the next moment, she plops down on the bed, closes her eyes and falls fast asleep. Similarly, she would be snoring away to glory, and the very next second, I would find her darting up and around as if she had never been asleep in the first place.

Those parenting a child with an autism spectrum disorder will agree when I say there’s never a dull moment in life. Some days are exciting, some more challenging than usual, but we rarely encounter mundane or predictable days.

The last few days had been good. 2023 had ended well, and 2024 commenced peacefully with Avantika laughing, playing and smiling to her heart’s content – her mood good enough for my husband and I to take her to nearby places to ring off the old year.

Little do I know that it’s all about to change – this morning.

The wailing that pierces my heart

It starts with a mellowed cry.

Avantika emerges from the washroom and starts jumping on the bed, throwing the occasional mischievous smile at me. I put my laptop back in the writing corner and prepare to embark on my day. Suddenly, she starts crying softly. It’s not the furious cry of a child about to have a meltdown but the sound of a request from someone wanting something. Almost a decade and a half of parenting a special-needs non-verbal child has taught me to distinguish between different sounds emanating from her mouth.

She must be hungry. She usually feels hungry before breakfast and grabs some biscuits until the main meal is served. I go to the kitchen, put some biscuits on a quarter plate and return to her room with it.

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Much to my surprise, she pushes the plate away and starts crying louder. Loud enough for my husband to come from the other room. I attempt to hug Avantika, but she nudges me away and continues bawling. Tears appear at the corner of her eyes and flow down her cheeks.

She’s not throwing a tantrum. Tantrum cries are loud, shrill and high-pitched – more like a shout than a cry – and unaccompanied by tears. While it is a herculean task to deal with them, the good thing is that you know that it’s a phase that will dissipate soon, and your child is not in pain.

In this case, it seems she’s in pain. What is bothering her? There’s no way to tell. The one who knows cannot speak, leaving all the guesswork to her parents. Unlike neurotypical children, my daughter is unable to express and convey the source and severity of her pain.

She starts crying louder. The tears get thicker. My husband sits down next to her and starts patting her back. She curls closer to him, but the bawling doesn’t cease.

‘What’s the matter with her?’ My husband asks me, more wistful than confident, knowing I won’t have the answer. I wish I did.

I shrug. ‘She doesn’t seem to be hungry.’ She wouldn’t have pushed her favourite biscuits away otherwise. ‘She was happily playing five minutes ago,’ I continue with a pointless explanation, hoping our talk will drown out the disconcerting cries.

But the lament increases in intensity and shrillness. It doesn’t stop when breakfast is served; Avantika cries throughout the meal.

I live my worst nightmare as a mother

I start to panic. What if my daughter is in a lot of pain? What if the underlying pain is a symptom of something serious? My worst nightmare as a mother is about some severe ailment befalling my daughter, which I will not be able to comprehend.

‘What is causing you pain, Avni?’ I ask softly after she finishes her breakfast and put my hand over her stomach. ‘Is it paining here?’ I enquire. She pushes my hand aside. I pat her head next. ‘Is the pain here?’ I ask again and get the same response.

For the next three hours, the crying continues unabated. Avantika wails while having her bath; there are tears in her eyes while getting into a fresh set of clothes, and the intensity increases as she roams around the room. I glance at my husband and see my helplessness mirrored in his eyes. Not knowing what to do, both of us are quiet.

Shall I take her to the doctor? I wonder. There’s nothing concrete for me to tell him, but the paediatrician knew her history and limitations and was adept at examining her stomach and heartbeats through his stethoscope. At least he can rule out my worst fears, if nothing else.

I call his clinic. The coordinator tells me that the doctor is unable to take appointments for the day. I berate myself silently. They say a mother knows everything. Why can’t I figure out what is causing so much trouble to my child? I shed silent tears of frustration.

I have to leave my crying daughter…and work

Beep, beep. My phone rings insistently with an urgent reminder, putting me on notice for a scheduled coaching session with a client ten minutes later. I open my calendar to see four meetings scheduled back-to-back for the day. In the frenzy of the day, I had forgotten all about them.

‘How will I take the coaching sessions from here?’ I ask my husband. My working-cum-writing space was a separate corner in the same room as my daughter’s. Even though I use headphones during the sessions, it was unlikely that the incessant hysteric sounds would escape the attention of the people on the other side of the laptop.

‘Go to the guest room and take your meetings from there,’ he suggests. ‘I am here with her. Lock the door from inside lest she suddenly rushes in between your sessions.’ I feel guilty listening to his words. First, I am unable to alleviate my daughter’s pain. Then, I will abandon her and move to the furthest corner of the house to help others navigate their life’s challenges. The irony of the situation isn’t lost on me.

Am I a good mother? The doubts resurface

Am I a good mother? The question pricks my conscience as I carry my laptop and Avantika’s portable study table to the guest room and switch on my system. Going by the expressed and implicit verdict of the medical practitioners during the early days of my daughter’s autism diagnosis, I wasn’t. Perhaps they were right. What kind of mother leaves a crying child for her work commitments? Even if the latter were scheduled much in advance and the concerned people eagerly awaited these discussions?

Avantika’s sobs ring in my ears as I shut and lock the heavy wooden door. For the next four hours, I push myself to be mindful in the coaching conversations with my clients. Thoughts about Avantika frequently enter my head. As I listen to other people, I force myself to move her distant wails to the back of my head. ‘A new place today?’ One of my clients enquires, alluding to the unfamiliar background behind me on the screen. ‘Same place, different room,’ I reply with a smile, wondering if he can see through the pain behind that smile.

Avantika is still crying four hours later when I emerge from my makeshift workplace, though the intensity has reduced. Crying non-stop for so long takes a lot of energy, I muse. The persistent pain is making my daughter express herself in the only way she knows. In many ways, my fourteen-year-old daughter is no different from a small child.

I shoot in the dark…and it works!

‘Please go and rest,’ I say to my husband, who was at his wit’s end. It is no mean feat to give company to our cranky daughter alone. Next, I instruct the maid, ‘Mix some hing with milk and rub it on Avantika’s stomach,’ more out of desperation than hope. Shooting in the dark feels better than sitting helplessly, doing nothing.

The maid comes holding a saucer of milk on one hand and some cotton on the other. I sit beside Avantika, patting her head. She hunches closer to my lap without making a sound, but the tears continue to flow. I gingerly lift the blanket to pull up the jacket and other upper layers of clothing from her stomach. The maid starts dabbing the milk-soaked cotton around her navel area.

My daughter makes a sound of protest at first – which I know is because of the cold – but cooperates. This isn’t a new thing for her. Ten minutes into the act, and more than seven hours since the morning, she stops crying. I utter my first prayer of thanks for the day, fervently hoping the calm continues.

Half an hour later, she breaks into a sweet smile. An hour later, she’s prancing around like her usual self. I heave a sigh of relief. All’s right with the world again.

My husband enters the room, takes in the sight and asks, ‘What had happened?’

‘I don’t know,’ I admit. Perhaps it was an acid reflux, maybe gas, probably both. It may also have been something else altogether. I will never be sure of the answer.

Most likely, the Gods above took pity on me, and one of my numerous darts happened to hit the bull’s eye. It isn’t the first time. It won’t be the last.

I can do nothing but keep calm and carry on

I know history will repeat itself on some other day. Till then, I will put my feet up and enjoy these seemingly ordinary moments.

I look at my daughter. She was smiling as if oblivious to all the rigamarole sixty minutes before. Has she forgotten the past already, or is she simply immersed in enjoying the present? Again, I don’t know. Perhaps I never will.

Good Mom or Bad Mom? I am not sure. I am an Autism Mom trying to do the best I can. I have no other choice.

Image source: by dimaberlinphotos Free for Canva Pro

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About the Author

Smita Das Jain

Smita Das Jain is a writer by passion who writes every day. Samples of her writing are visible in the surroundings around her — her home office, her sunny terrace garden, her husband’s car and read more...

41 Posts | 49,139 Views

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