"Mom, you have the attention span of a squirrel," my younger son told me when he was in middle school.
Never mind that he had the attention span of something even less focused, perhaps a field mouse or a hummingbird. He was right. I just could not do many of the things other responsible adults did.
The other mothers at the private school my children attended were chic, elegant, poised, and I always felt one step behind them, always a little less than. Clad in pressed slacks and matching jewelry, these mothers served gracefully and relentlessly on silent auction committees, created complex carpool schedules on Excel spreadsheets, orchestrated elaborate parties for fifty-plus kids at a time.
I, on the other hand, was concerned about whether I had on matching socks or whether my shirt was on right-side-out. I could not sit through meetings lasting longer than fifteen minutes. I could not remember to sign my children's field trip permission forms. I forgot to send ice cream money on Fridays. I routinely misplaced important items -- my car keys, my sports bra, my ATM card, my birth control pills. Once, my older son wore the same pair of shoes for three years before I realized he had outgrown them.
It never occurred to me that there might be a reason for this. I just thought it was how I was wired, as in, I was a little too wired. And then one day, my daughter, a high school junior, began to struggle mightily in math and chemistry, an issue that was all-too-familiar to me as I had flunked high school chemistry and barely squeaked by in algebra. At the time, my parents and teachers had attributed my problems to general adolescent laziness. I just needed to try harder, they said. I needed to focus.
My father, a chemist, tried helping my daughter with her homework. She stayed for extra math sessions after school. We hired a private tutor. Nothing seemed to help. Finally, I took her to a psychologist who specialized in learning issues. He completed a full evaluation, and then she and I sat side by side while he explained the results.
"Look," he said, placing a Rubik's Cube in front of me. "This is the pattern I gave your daughter. I asked her to replicate this pattern on her own cube, and she couldn't do it."
He stressed the last three words, then paused. I stared at the perfect part in his chestnut hair.
"See," he tried again, "this is the pattern, and all she had to do was turn these four blocks on her cube to end up with the pattern I showed her."
He rapped the table, pushed the cube closer to me.
"Wow..." I ventured.
Outside, the cherry trees were blooming, and a robin darted in and out of a hanging feeder. My daughter rocked back in her chair, her dark eyes fixed firmly on mine. Then she lowered her chair and turned to the psychologist.
"She can't do it either," she said.
He smiled, raised his perfect eyebrows at me.
"You -- you can't see that either?" he asked.
"Not... exactly," I said.
I shrugged and smiled. He slowly shook his head.
"Did you know that learning disabilities are most often inherited?" he finally asked.
I nodded. I did know that. Neither one of us could do math. So what? Over the years, I had learned to work around it, to focus on things I could do. After high school, I had gone on to college and graduate school, and now I taught college English. I entered all of my grades into Excel for averaging, so the most math I ever had to do was converting a letter grade to a numerical grade. My daughter would just have to choose a career that didn't involve higher level math.
But the psychologist didn't want to talk about math. He wanted to talk about Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
"I'm going to write her a prescription for Ritalin. And," he added, pausing just long enough to make sure I was paying attention, "I'm going to suggest that you try taking some too."
I laughed heartily, almost uncontrollably. Later, reading about the classic signs and symptoms of ADD, I would learn that my wacky, inappropriate sense of humor was typical of people with ADD. For years, I had laughed at all the wrong times, at funerals and weddings, in church and meetings and classes. Here, finally, was a medical explanation for that, an official diagnosis. Here, finally, was a term for going to the grocery store and coming home with everything except what I went for in the first place, for making myriad lists so I didn't forget things, then immediately losing the lists.
Knowing that at least one psychologist believed I had ADD did very little to change my life. I didn't want to take medicine. I had made it this far. I might as well keep plodding along. Besides, I had chosen the one career path where being wacky and inappropriate was actually an asset: I was a writer.
What this diagnosis did do, however, was make me feel less inept, less guilty for the things I did not do well, and it caused me to reflect on the unique strengths of ADD parents. People with ADD/ADHD tend to be spontaneous. We tend not to sweat the small stuff. We tend to be funny. We are often creative, and because we know how to nurture creativity, we often pass that gift along to our children.
My three children (two with ADD, one with such an intense ability to focus the rest of us sometimes find it alarming) are now all in their mid-20s. They are successful, happy adults, though whether that occurred because of my influence, or in spite of it, is unclear. Perhaps their childhoods would have been richer or fuller or easier if I had taken medication. Then again, perhaps not.
If you asked my children today where I failed as a parent, among other things, they would emphasize, I'm sure, my squirrel-like attention span. But perhaps they would also mention the rainy day picnics in our living room, the impromptu hikes in the woods, the pictures they drew in shaving cream sprayed on our kitchen table, or the late night trips to the dairy bar in our pajamas. What I know now but what I wish I had known years ago is that, ADD or not, you cannot measure your worth as a parent simply by the countless things you've gotten wrong. Sometimes, you have to look at the sum of the equation and realize there were some things you really, really got right.