Raising A Child Who Is Like Me

Raising A Child Who Is Like Me

Silhouette of a young mother lovingly holding hands with her happy little child outside in front of a sunset in the sky.

By Tanya Slavin

I wake up to a steady and dull thump-thump-thump outside. I look out of the window: grey sky and a heavy wall of rain. It’s Saturday morning. I breath a sigh of relief.

I put my head back on the pillow, close my eyes and take in the comforting sound of pouring rain for a few more minutes. Saturday indoors? No pressure to get dressed, get organized, and go “do” things? The complete guilt-free permission to stay inside and let the day spontaneously unfold, guided only by our minute to minute desires? What could be better than that? I know, just as I lay there listening, that somebody else in my house is relieved too. Martin, my 7-year-old son, like me, is delighted at an opportunity to spend a weekend indoors.

Martin is a lot like me in many ways. We both enjoy an opportunity to stay indoors on a rainy Saturday. We both, it seems, need to have a lot time to ourselves, doing self-directed activities. We are both slow to warm up to people, but once we have warmed up to them, are ready to be vulnerable and give all of ourselves. We are both very physical – he needs cuddles, I also crave touch. We are both highly sensitive. We get overwhelmed by crowds, we don’t understand the appeal of large loud events, or the pressure to try and ‘do’ things all the time. The drive to constantly try new things is equally alien to us. We both notice and can get hurt by things that other people don’t pay attention to – a slight rise in someone’s intonation, a wrong gaze. We’re both worried that people will stare at us when we have a new item of clothing or a new haircut (well I not so much anymore, but as a child I did).

It’s a great in so many ways to have a child who is so similar to you. We have this connection going. I understand – no, I often can almost see what he is feeling. I know exactly what he is going through. My relationship with him has made me reconnect with young and child parts of myself – a process that has been both painful and healing. I have grown to understand myself so much more while trying to understand him. Every day he is teaching me how to be the most authentic version of myself. And then the best thing of all in my mind is that we never have to go to Disneyland…

But having a son so similar to me inevitably comes with its own challenges, too. Before I had kids, I imagined that being a mother would mostly involve sitting on a bench with other moms and talking about grown up stuff, while happy boys and girls around us played tag, chasing each other and laughing, climbed trees, had fun on slides and swings, and generally enjoyed themselves in a typical non-self-conscious kid way. My main job would be, just like that of other mothers, to kiss booboos and tape band-aid to scraped knees, dispense snacks and drinks, and help resolve occasional kid quarrels. For some reason, it had never occurred to me that I could have a kid who would be like me when I was little, the non-typical and shy child, who would stand there in the middle of the playground not knowing what to do with himself, and after a while come to me and either ask to go home or ask me to help him introduce him into a group of kids. “Mama, I want to play with that boy over there!” he whispers into my ear, meaning that he needs my help to get the interaction started. In such moments, I truly wish that we were different. That I’d be a confident and chatty kind of mom who could easily help him in new situations and interactions. Instead I curl up into a tense ball inside, make up some kind of lame excuse for why I can’t do that, and pray that the other mom overhears our conversation and takes on the task of initiating the interaction between the two kids.

But, perhaps, the biggest challenge in raising a kid who is similar to you is not to project too much of yourself onto him, not to assume that just because you’re so similar, he is like you in every way. I see that in Martin every day, if I pay close enough attention, his own unique ways of being in the world. I see it in his interests, in the way interacts with people once he warms up to them, in the way his energy takes over the room and engages everyone present when there is something he is excited about. He is a lot like me, but he is not me, I tell myself. He is his own person. And I have to keep reminding that to myself over and over again.

Tanya Slavin is mother of two and a freelance writer. Her essays have been published in Brain, ChildManifest-Station and Washington Post. Find her on her website, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

photo credit: © Christin_Lola


Monsters In His Head

Monsters In His Head

silhouette of a boy on a sunset background

By Tanya Slavin

I’m watching Martin’s weekly private swimming lesson from the viewing area of the local pool. A girl of about the same age as him is swimming widths nearby, accompanied by her teacher. There is nothing unusual about the girl, but her presence suddenly disrupts the sense of normal that I’ve gotten used to. Every time she answers her teacher out loud, her voice rings like a bell standing out from the background noises of the pool, and I stare at the source of the sound in sheer amazement. I’m so used to Martin’s silent ways that I forgot what is “normal,” and this girl seems to me nothing short of a miracle. Will I ever hear Martin’s voice like this too?


My six-year-old son Martin has Selective Mutism (SM), a rare childhood anxiety disorder that makes a child who is perfectly capable of speaking unable to speak in certain situations. At this time, Martin only speaks to family members and a few family friends.

At home, with us, he is relaxed, chatty and loud. New situations make him freeze like a deer caught in the headlights. In the now familiar school environment, he interacts and plays with kids, has friends, but communicates with them only in gestures. He may even laugh and cry, but all without emitting a sound.

We are not sure how and why it started, but three years ago, things were different. Back then, Martin was an average three-year-old—a video of his 3rd birthday party at his daycare where he is chatting and singing happily confirms that. Then, suddenly something changed, shifted, he became more self-conscious, gradually narrowing his talking circle to just family members. The onset of his SM coincided with him beginning a new daycare, so, at the beginning, it looked like nothing more than normal shyness in a new situation. But when after a few months he still didn’t talk, we were certain that something was not right.

Then we moved, and moved again. And now, several moves and three schools later, he still doesn’t talk.


Martin is lying on the couch, his long hair almost sweeping the floor, his bare feet in his hands, dreamily looking at the ceiling and smiling shyly at something, his thoughts. “Mama, remember how I forgot to give my present to Ded Moroz this year?” (Ded Moroz is the Russian version of Santa who comes towards New Years. Every year his Dad dresses up as one and pretends to arrive towards midnight on the 31st to give out presents. This year Martin drew a picture for him before his arrival and wanted to give it to him but forgot). “Yes, but you’ll have a chance to give it to him next year,” I say. Martin, even more dreamily, half-whispering “Next year I want to try to talk to Ded Moroz out loud…” (Of course, this would really mean talking to his Dad in disguise). “That’s a good idea,” I say, matching his whisper.

“We can practice in advance if you’d like to.” He had never explicitly expressed his hope of being able to speak out loud to someone, not to his friends, not to his teachers, not to the train driver… But he wants to try and speak out loud to Ded Moroz. Maybe he can practice with Dad pretending to be Ded Moroz, before his Dad in disguise comes again at New Year’s eve to give out presents so Martin won’t recognize him…


“What helps a lot is having a chatty, confident mom,” I read on one of the forums on the topic, and my heart sinks because I’m about the last person in the world to fit this description. To be honest, most of the time, I myself wouldn’t mind having a chatty and confident person beside me to help me ease into new interactions. So I feel ill-equipped to help him. I’m trying hard to help him in other ways, drawing on the strengths of my imperfect and unconfident self. I can offer understanding and empathy. I can offer warmth and protection. I can offer unconditional love and acceptance.


Martin had a bad dream, about a scary old lady who laughs and tickles him and maybe wants to eat him. He tells me he has met her before in his dreams. I ask questions, and he breaks into tears, crying that he is scared to go to bed because of her.

I spend the next few hours trying to think of ways to keep the scary old lady away from Martin’s dreams. What if he tries to think about nice things before he goes to bed? Can he do that? No, he says he can’t, he’ll think about her anyway.. OK, then, if he is bound to meet her, we should make sure he is prepared for this next meeting.

I tell him, “When you see her next time, you can try and drive her away. Remember, she is not real, she exists only in your dream, but YOU are real. And if you tell her that, she might get scared herself and even run away. Can you do that?”

He cries again: “But you know that I can’t talk to strangers!” Oh, Martin, Martin, what should we do? I can’t allow SM to terrorize you even in your dreams. I have another idea: “Look, Martin, she is not real, she lives only in your head, and you do talk in your head, don’t you?”

He does of course.

“Well, then, don’t tell her out loud, tell her in your head, in your dream, tell her to go away, tell her she’s not real… Can you do that?” He’s not sure, maybe… I tell him to practice now saying it in his head, and then again, before going to bed. “If she comes into your head while you’re awake, tell her “Go away! You’re not real! I’m real!”

He falls silent for a few moments, thinking, looking past me for some time … then frowns his eyebrows… then says sternly and quietly to somebody who is not in the room, “Go away! You’re not real! I am real!” I applaud: “Yes! You did it! And you said it out loud too! What did she say?” He replies hesitantly: “I think she got smaller and then ran away…”

“See? It worked! Yay! Do that again, tell her that every time she comes during the day. And then at night, if she dares to show up, you’ll be used to driving her away, even if you won’t say it out loud but only in your head.”

And then for the rest of the evening I see him lifting his head from whatever he’s doing and yelling bravely into the empty room, “Go away! You’re not real! I’m real! I’m not scared of you!” Preparing for the night… And so we go on like this, day after day, night after night. He is learning to fight monsters in his head. I’m learning that I don’t need to become someone else in order to help him. That maybe it’s more important to get invited into his inner world and help facilitate his internal dialogue. Hopefully, the external one will follow.

Author’s note: This essay was written a year and a half ago, in the midst of our struggles against Selective Mutism. Now, at seven years old, thanks to the amazing support from his school, Martin is gradually getting through his anxiety, slowly expanding his talking circle to more and more people.

Tanya Slavin is a freelance writer and a recovering academic who was born in Russia, grew up in Israel and spent most of her adult life moving around North America and documenting a Native American language. She now lives in the UK with her husband and two kids. Her essays appeared on Brain, Child, Washington Post, and Manifest-Station. Find her on her blog Invisible to the Eye and follow her on Twitter or Facebook.


The Physical vs. Cognitive Stage of Motherhood: Two Perspectives

The Physical vs. Cognitive Stage of Motherhood: Two Perspectives

Motherhood has different stages. The early months and years are dominated by physical interaction: feeding, cuddling, carrying. At a certain point, however, this changes and new parenting skills are required: answering questions, playing games, negotiating. Tanya Slavin prefers the former phase; Christine Organ the latter. What about you?


I Prefer the Physical Stage of Motherhood

By Tanya Slavin

IMG_1630“Mom! You’re not listening!!!” My six-year-old pulls at my sleeve in frustration. He is right. I tuned out mid sentence, when he was telling me something about his new favourite dinosaur. It’s not that I’m not interested, I really am, but we’ve spent the last several hours together, and I just need some personal space. Some personal space to think. Now that he is bigger, I require more frequent breaks from him than I did when he was a baby (or than I do from his baby sister now). Not only that, but the typical challenges of parenting a six year old—setting boundaries, discipline, and so on—are much more of a struggle for me than any of the physical responsibilities tied to parenting an infant.

A friend of mine recently revealed that she often resented breastfeeding because she perceived it as an invasion of her personal space. That made me think: I am very much the opposite. Breastfeeding felt wonderful to me, while too much talking and playing with an older child is what becomes an invasion of my personal space. I suppose the physical-emotional side of mothering comes more naturally to me than the cognitive—thinking, reasoning, communicating—one.

I absolutely love and crave the physical closeness that is inherent in a baby’s first year of life. I welcome the near non-existence of boundaries that is part and parcel of breastfeeding, co-sleeping, carrying her on me. In those moments, I don’t have to say anything, and don’t have to make a conscious effort to connect with my child. My presence is enough. My body is enough. My smile is enough. My touch is enough.

I never tire of holding a baby, and I rarely feel that her needs are intrusive. That’s because while I can be physically there to comfort her, my mind is free to drift in and out of the situation as it pleases. I realize now that this is why I nursed my son until he was two and a half, and co-slept with him until he was at least four years old (and even now, at six, he still sometimes sleeps in our bed). Because being physically close is the easiest way for me to say “I love you,” to fix any rifts between us, to strengthen our bond.

Now that he is six years old, my interactions with my son revolve mainly around playing buses, talking about Minecraft, and getting him to brush his teeth every morning. I can enjoy an occasional board game, I love our conversations about life, and dinosaurs, or whatever his most recent interest is. I consider him one of the most interesting and engaging people I know. But too much talking and playing wears me out. Pretend play often feels like torture to me. My ideal is to sit side by side with my son in a cozy coffee shop or at the dinner table at home, each doing our own thing. We would have an occasional chat, be there for each other for a hug or a cuddle, but would mostly give each other space.

At the same time, I’m not too bothered by a transgression of my physical boundaries, even with an older child. I don’t mind it when my son climbs onto my back as I’m nursing the baby on the couch or if he wants to snuggle when I’m busy talking on the phone or working on my laptop. I still let him slip into our bed for a cuddle towards the morning, or even spend the whole night there, especially if he is sick or distressed.

I sometimes wonder how my introverted ways affect our relationship in this regard. I tend to withdraw into my own world when I’m concerned or upset. I also tend to need a lot of mental space. I often worry that these traits of mine will contribute to a disconnect between me and my son in the future. But understanding my own strengths and needs has helped me find different routes to connect with him. Even now that he isn’t a baby anymore, I often rely on the physical to mend things between us.

That’s how it is in difficult times, after a rough day at school or at home, after I’ve screwed up and want to make amends. I know that something needs to happen before the day is over, if not to fix things, then to smooth them out a bit. I open my mouth to say something but the right words don’t come. I feel awkward with words, they never come easily to me. So, I simply sit him on my lap, press his head against my chest and hold him like this for a few minutes, breathing into his neck. I say nothing, just breath, breath, and watch the invisible threads of our broken connection weave themselves back together again with every exhale. After that, we can talk. Or maybe we won’t even need to.

Tanya Slavin is a freelance writer and a recovering academic who was born in Russia, grew up in Israel and spent most of her adult life moving around North America and documenting a Native American language. She now lives in the UK with her husband and two kids. You can find her at her blog Invisible to the Eye where she writes about the challenges of parenting and growing up, and on Twitter @invisible2the


I Prefer When the Physical Stage of Motherhood Is Over

By Christine Organ

99308365This morning I did what was once unimaginable. I lay down on the couch and closed my eyes for a few minutes while my son played quietly on the other side of the room. Just a few years ago, the idea that I could lie on the couch without a child crawling on me would have been impossible. Heck, the idea of simply going to the bathroom alone seemed like a pipe dream.

Motherhood, for many years, blurred the lines of personal space between my children and me. The early stages of motherhood—from infancy into toddlerhood—are inevitably defined by its physical demands and constant contact. Feeding, rocking, bouncing, and cradling are the cornerstones of a mother’s role in the early years —not to mention the physical and emotional toll sleep deprivation takes on a mother. Even in the toddler years, motherhood involves a significant amount of crawling on the floor, carrying children, and feeling the tug of little hands on pant legs.

As an introvert, personal space is absolutely essential to my peace of mind. Though I like to cuddle as much as the next person, I can only take so much physical closeness. At some point, if or when an indefinable threshold is crossed, physical contact begins to feel suffocating.

After the birth of my first son, the loss of autonomy and control over my body and self was staggering. Due to undiagnosed postpartum depression, my mind didn’t feel like my own. And in light of the physical demands of mothering a newborn, my body didn’t feel like my own either. As the stay-at-home parent, the physical demands of motherhood were so all-consuming, so pervasive, and so relentless that I sometimes feared that my life had been taken hostage, that I would never feel like meagain. I felt smothered by their needs, like I was being swallowed whole.

Exacerbating my frustrations with early parenting were the relentless messages that motherhood—especially early motherhood—is defined by physical closeness and affection. Everywhere I looked, I saw images of mothers serenely smiling at their nursing baby. Grandparents clamored to hold babies and pouted when they surrendered the little bundle. Other mothers talked about how they instantly fell in love with their baby.

I, on the other hand, prickled with anger when I nursed, was more than happy to let someone else hold my baby, and felt dazed rather than in love most of the time. Lack of conversation about this uglier side of early motherhood made me feel like something was wrong with me. But as a child grows, candid conversation about the challenges of parenting becomes less taboo. Complaints about difficult threenagers, homework battles, and sassy teenagers are not only common, but accepted and almost celebrated, whereas admitting that you don’t want to hold your baby is akin to blasphemy.

Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems, they say. As a new mother, I found this phrase to be both condescending and depressing. It seemed to imply my problems as a new mother were insignificant, my struggles were just whiny naiveté, and the dilemmas I faced were inconsequential in the long arc of parenthood. What’s more, this cliché made me feel hopeless. You mean it only gets harder?!, I wanted to cry. You mean I might never feel like me again?

And yet, somehow, I did start to feel like me again. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but eventually the smothering sensation abated when the physical demands of parenting lessened as my children moved through infancy and toddlerhood and into the school-age years.

Parenting is still hard, confusing, and demanding. Parenting will always be hard, confusing, and demanding. But the parenting challenges I face now are less physical and more cognitive in nature—something I am far more suited to handle.

Now there is whining, bickering, and negotiating. But while these challenges are frustrating and have more long-lasting consequences, they don’t feel as suffocating as the physical demands of early motherhood. I can ignore the whining, discipline the fights, and listen to the pleas (or not). I can talk to my children about the problem, resorting to logic when possible, or simply dole out a firm response. I can take the time to gather my emotions, if necessary, ponder a response, consult with my husband, and find the much-needed space—both emotional and physical—when I am pushed to the brink of frustration, fear, or confusion. And even my parenting mistakes can be teachable moments about the importance of grace, humility, and forgiveness. Paying attention to my own needs doesn’t feel as selfish anymore, but an opportunity to teach my children about respecting others’ needs.

People also like to say parenting doesn’t get easier, you just get better at it, and having been a parent for nearly ten years now, I can say without a doubt that parenting, as a whole, does not get easier. As my kids have grown, the issues have also grown in complexity, with more nuances and deeper ramifications. Having the sex talk is more awkward than a diaper change in a Target bathroom. The decision to let my son play football (or not) could have repercussions more far-reaching than whether to give him a pacifier. And I can only imagine the perplexing challenges we will face as we move further into the tween and teenage years.

Yet despite the “bigness” of the problems, they somehow seem more manageable simply because I am better equipped to handle them. Parenting didn’t get easier, but I got better at it—and I finally got that much needed personal space.


Christine Organ is a freelance writer who lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two sons. Her work has appeared on The New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Brain, Child, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Country Living, Mamalode, and Scary Mommy, among others. She is the author of Open Boxes: the gifts of living a full and connected life and writes at www.christineorgan.com.

Photo: gettyimages.com

Join us on Twitter Thursday, January 14th at 1:00 EST to discuss the issues. Do/did you prefer the physical stages of motherhood or the cognitive ones? Remember to use the hashtag #braindebate.