By Sara Petersen
My son Charlie is quirky. And it’s not just me who notices.
“Charlie certainly marches to the beat of his own drum,” one of the moms in his preschool class says with a bemused look, as Charlie lines up his matchbox cars according to color.
I smile stiffly and agree. “He sure does!” I wonder in which direction of social acceptance Charlie’s drum will lead.
I scan the room of three-year-olds and their parents. Mary carefully outlines the entire alphabet on a big easel. Charlie can’t draw a straight line. Evan rolls a ball with disarming accuracy under two bridges, and into a tiny, makeshift goal. Charlie misses the ball with his foot two out of every four tries. A handful of kids play an intricate game of pretend that involves fairy wings, baby dolls, and tractors. Charlie continues to line up his cars. Alone and quiet.
The older Charlie gets, the more I worry about the multitude of things I won’t be able to control—his friends, his interests, his struggles, his loves. I worry that his personality is crystallizing into something that doesn’t quite fit into a cookie-cutter. Some kids ooze affability, like Golden Retrievers. They love everyone and everyone loves them. Charlie is different. He does his own thing. He’s quirky. In the old days “quirky” was shorthand for something more problematic. The “quirky” kids were the ones who hung out by themselves.
“Charlie did the sweetest thing tonight,” his babysitter tells me with a grin. “As I was tucking him in, I said goodnight, and he said, ‘I love you sooo much.’ How cute is that?”
I smile stiffly and agree. The babysitter drives home.
“I love you sooo much.” I say these words to Charlie every night. He has just said them to his babysitter. He must not know the meaning of the word love—he must not be able to properly process emotion. He must not be able to distinguish a mother’s love from a babysitter’s fondness. Something must be wrong.
“Charlie just seems a little closer to age two than age three, and he exhibits some behavior that I would’ve expected to see change by now.” Charlie’s kind, warm teacher speaks carefully, watching my face.
I nod. “I know. His little buddies moved on from parallel play months ago, but Charlie still seems to prefer being by himself, or playing with grownups.”
“Well, it’s something to keep our eye on. I’m not worried. He’s a sweet, smart kid. All kids develop at their own pace.”
I leave the parent-teacher conference feeling ok, but in a disconnected way, like I’m watching the scene unfold from above. The phrase “I would’ve expected to see change by now” irks me at noon, and by 5 o’clock it’s all I can see, a foreshadowing of Charlie’s collective social, academic, and emotional failures down the road.
I don’t succumb to my panic until later that night, when I’m alone with my visions of Charlie’s future. Charlie in second grade, bewildered by his peers and their social mores. Charlie in middle school, surrounded by kids talking about what’s cool and what’s not. Charlie’s aide reminding him to respond to people when they say hello. Charlie as a young adult, working at a video store (so frantic is my state of mind that I place the future Charlie at a dead-end job that doesn’t even exist anymore). Charlie middle-aged, living alone in a dingy apartment. Violent computer games. Ramen. Darkness. Empty folding chairs at Charlie’s funeral.
In the morning Charlie calmly eats his Cheerios as he plays intently with his trucks. He’s so creative, so independent, so curious. I tell myself he is fine, that he will be fine, but later, at a playdate, he picks dandelions by himself while his peers collaborate on a fort made of sticks, and my head starts buzzing with anxiety that feeds on anxiety, that turns into irrational, blinding fear.
“He’s a sweet little boy,” the pediatric psychologist says, smiling at Charlie. “He seems very lovable, and very happy.” I want the psychologist to write her statement down. Preferably in blood, or some other equally unambiguous substance.
My husband looks at me knowingly. He’s been saying the same thing for months, and he agreed to see the psychologist only in hopes that she could somehow provide me with the impossible, the assurance I need that Charlie will always be ok.
I look at Charlie. I think of his shrieks of glee when he chases seagulls on the beach, the way he crinkles his nose pretending to be a bunny. He gently steers a big horse figurine towards a small horse figurine and says, “The mama horse wants to be with her baby horse.” He is lovable. He is happy.
After an exhaustive “test” that involves many pictures of fruit and many puzzles, the psychologist determines Charlie has a fine motor delay. I’m comfortable with a clear cut problem that can be solved. The unknown is different. There’s nothing to grip onto—I can’t fight the unknown with my will.
As the weeks go by, I repeat the psychologist’s words to myself like a mantra, “He’s very lovable. And very happy.” When Charlie howls like a banshee upon a request that he wash his muddy hands, I repeat the mantra. When Charlie crumbles to the floor upon entering a friend’s house, I repeat the mantra. When Charlie’s friends talk to each other with apparent ease about their favorite colors and Charlie lurks on the periphery of their conversation, anxiously chewing on his sleeve, I repeat the mantra.
“Mum, how are you feeling?” Charlie comes over to me and puts a hand on either side of my face, peering intently into my eyes for answers. He’s really into feelings lately. He’ll be four in July.
“Just a little tired buddy,” I say. I’m annoyed as hell that his sister has spilled a kale smoothie onto my way-too-expensive rug, and have been ready for bed since I woke up.
“Are you sad?” Charlie asks.
“Nope—I’m ok bud,” I say, pasting a smile onto my face to offer him assurance.
And for the most part, it’s true. I am ok. It’s been a year since the days of fear-induced midnight Google searches and sleepless nights, when my body hummed with anxiety, jaw clenched, on the defensive, looking for signs that something was wrong.
Charlie is quirky. Sometimes it scares me. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Sara writes about parenthood, feminism, funny stuff, and other miscellany. Her work has been published in Neutrons Protons, Brain, Child, Entropy, Bustle, Scary Mommy and Bust. She blogs about children, pretty wallpaper, IPA, and friendship here.