And whilst I busy myself with plants only a handful of people will get to enjoy, words fly asea and children grow.

We emerge from the Docklands Light Railway under the imposing hull of the Cutty Sark.

Above Greenwich, clouds and sun weave a fine maritime sky perfect to blow wind in our imagination. Your bedroom wall has for years been adorned with a painting of this marvellous tea clipper, and a few months ago, you decided to draw her for your homework about the Victorians. We will get to visit her in a few hours, but for now, we set about crossing the park towards the Observatory and the Planetarium. Trees join their branches low above our heads and lull the occasional rise in the heat. From the Observatory hill, London appears to me beautiful for the first time.

Our outing has barely started that things already play out as I hoped they wouldn’t. I knew, when I was planning this birthday treat, how delicate the task of maintaining the equilibrium of social interactions would be. I had to try to invite several friends in case your sole company wouldn’t appear enticing enough, or would end up seeming dull on the day. But I wasn’t really prepared to overhear right from the station, before even our departure, our guests starting to plot to sit together in the train, and again when time came to catch the train homebound – if there are three seats together, at a pinch… Was I surprised ? No. But I automatically did that thing where one redoubles one’s effort to be charming on behalf of somebody else one feels the need to protect, as if the mother’s social skills could be credited to the son.

Were you aware of what was going on ? For me, it was impossible not to realise the other boys sought each other’s company and prefered to leave you aside, birthday boy or not. Generally kind and, for English kids (pardon my prejudice), well brought up boys.

As the day passes, the slight tightening of my heart gradually sharpens to a bite. At nightfall, when silence settles and distracting thoughts and movements subside, I notice my whole body is stiff and my muscles ache. What is this emotion ? It doesn’t feel like sadness, nor like disappointment or anger. It leaves the head clear but grips the body – perhaps more akin to a form of anxiety.

In truth, it hurts me more than it does you, who are used to it and know how to cope. Nobody would accuse me of blind motherly fondness and my natural Asian propensity is to judge harshly. The way you are, though, I know it to be special. Whilst socially clumsy, you are kind, caring, original and imaginative as few are. I have no doubt that in a number of years your peers will recognise it too – as do your teachers (memories of the school doctor, in Paris, to whom I was trying to explain the English diagnosis of ASD – she shook her head, shrugged and wrote down “Beau petit garçon”. And Monsieur L, the psychologist, who in our last meeting felt compelled to say “Madame, votre fils est original, et c’est une qualité !”).

This evening, I think of the many people for whom childhood and teenage, far from being that lost sunny shore nostalgia longs for in the dull years of adulthood, are a wearisome and lonely path to tread. As for you, son, a pencil, a sheet of paper, a piece of cake (and a few birds hopping along the way) will carry you across and beyond.

4 thoughts on “Childhood

  1. Oh how I relate. The ache, the pain, the immense urge to take over and make it all good for our child. So hard to let go, to acknowledge and cherish the individuality, the originality, the creativity which almost seems the other side of the social awkwardness. Genius or social popularity, why does it sometimes, often, have be one or the other, we don’t know. To teach these special creatures to draw strength and self-belief from their “otherness”, to trust themselves and seek out their own “tribe” later in life, seems all we can try to do. A huge challenge in itself..

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    1. Yes, you are right… And it is hard no to add to their difficulties with our own worries. I was surprised to find myself so affected. I dread to think how things would be if he was actually bullied, which might well happen in secondary school. But then again, maybe not. “Teach these special creatures to draw strength and self-belief from their “otherness”” : you say it perfectly, and I shall remember your words when challenges come. Thank you Katya.

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  2. Dear Frog, I so understand you. Having been at the receiving end of bullying and “being left out” during later childhood/ early teens I know what it feels like, if not from a mum’s perspective (the concept of bullying didn’t exist then, it was just something you had to live with and shrug off as best as you could – and luckily my own children have escaped it so far). However, having the unconditional love of my family made me strong enough to get through and even show some fighting spirit. I distinctly remember, when “friends” came up to me during breaktime and whispered that they felt sorry and didn’t approve of the treatment I was subjected to but that they had to play along for fear they’d also become “outcasts”, feeling a surge of determination and stubborn pride and telling them: either you stand with me or you are dead to me – I don’t need friends that are only friends when no-one else is around. I have kept that pride – but I have to be honest and admit that I also have kept the scars from those years. Still, both made me who I am and I don’t think it’s turned out for the worse.
    As for your son’s “otherness”: have you heard about the concept of “Highly Sensitive Person” or HSP? It certainly sounds as if he could be one. You could find out more here:
    Much as you will hurt from witnessing the treatment of your son – if it is not outright bullying I wouldn’t worry too much. Quite possibly he will notice but I could well imagine it that he has his “escapes” (like drawing) that provide as much happiness and comfort to him as any friends might do, and in any case just one or two friends (or guests) are likely to be better than a group, even if it is customary in Britain to invite many kids. Your son will turn out absolutely fine!

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I agree with you : I don’t really believe in the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” kind of adage. Scars are there, frailties linger, not everything heals. I was sometimes left out or mocked at school too, but somehow always managed to keep a few friends. Strangely, the pride of being academically successful (one reason to be left out) overcame the social difficulties, as if I would rather have had high marks than be popular. Or maybe that is how I consoled myself. But I can’t say I had the same problems as my son. Thank you for the link to that website. Somebody else who reads my blog suggested I might be HSP or something similar too. Reading the site makes me realise it is very possible (and my son certainly is – he also had an ASD diagnosis when younger, although I am not entirely convinced on that side). You are right, I think I overreacted on that day. The friends didn’t mean any harm and I am not quite sure why I found it so sad and painful. I will try not to worry and to give him some confidence, although I suspect I am not good at that.


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