This mug is my most precious possession. Why? Because it was the way The Cat told me, very clearly and for the very first time, that he loves me.
Shortly before Christmas, my lovely Mum in New Zealand sent each of my boys £10. As soon as The Cyclist (my husband) got home, The Cat announced to him, in the most terrible stage whisper, that he wanted to go to town straight away and buy me a Christmas present with it. I don't think it had ever occurred to any of the children to give me a present before, although they were good at telling The Cyclist that I might like sharing-sized portions of their favourite sweets for my birthday. I had a slight dampness in my eyes at overhearing this conversation, (which of course I DIDN'T overhear, because that would spoil any later surprises) but assumed that as the shops were already closed that night, he'd forget his lovely idea and spend the money on Kinder chocolate in various forms. Or Lego. Or lose it somewhere in the house. Also, The Cyclist hates town and shopping more than pretty much anything, so I thought he might be inclined to conveniently forget that particular mission.
But no. The Cat persevered, and on Christmas morning, eyes shining, my little Christmas-obsessed boy went straight to the gift he'd chosen and presented it to me. Even before opening his own stocking and gifts. And at that moment he was bursting with happiness, so excited to give rather than to receive. (Although he was also pretty darned happy when he got to the receiving part!) And he had chosen this beautiful mug, 'Because mostly what you do is drink tea and shout about shoes'. I think a bit of me melted at that moment, and a bit more melts every time I use the mug, which is at least twice a day. I'll be a pool of muck by the end of the year.
Why does this mean so much to me? Because not one of my children has ever told me in words that they love me.
I only realised this a little while ago, and although I know they love me, it was one of those days when I was exhausted and so those three little words suddenly mattered an awful lot. The boys were going through a non-sleeping and constant fighting and whining stage, and I was too tired to snap us all out of it. I'd just put them all back into bed for about the forty-millionth time, sometime near midnight, and forced myself to say 'I love you' as I tucked them in. I hadn't had dinner or cleared the table of their mostly uneaten meals or done my washing or had a moment to myself or without conflict since school pick-up and I was finding it difficult to squeeze the words out, let alone feel any meaning behind them. And just as I felt the love again in spite of myself, and alongside a hearty dose of fury, it hit me that not one of them had EVER said, 'I love you too'. Not even as a response, let alone the kind of spontaneous declaration that seems to burst out of me without my control when we're having a good day. (Seriously, I mortify them with the cuddly stuff on a regular basis - even, shock horror, IN FRONT OF THEIR FRIENDS.) I stumbled downstairs, flopped on the sofa and cried. Of course The Cyclist said all the logical and true stuff about them loving me, and I knew it was logical and true, but I just felt way too unappreciated and put-upon to listen to anything he said.
And then it turned out that The Big Boy had overheard me. He of the flappy ears. So the next night as I was reading to him at bedtime, he suddenly announced, 'And it is true that I love you, like Daddy said, because, well, why wouldn't I? It's just that I don't know why I'd need to say it because you're you and I'm me and it's obvious that I think it.' And he was so awkward and flustered that he could barely put words together, although he'd obviously spent the day building up to - horror of horrors for The Big Boy - saying something about FEELINGS. So I gave him a big hug and told him it was fine, and that of course I knew that he loved me and I'd just been having a bad day. Clearly he's never felt the need to mention the 'L' word again.
And it all got me thinking about autism again, as most things around here do. Only The Dog managed in his toddler years to pick up some of the social cues that were floating around us. And to be honest, he was too busy bouncing around to do much about it most of the time. (We were astounded by what he could actually manage once we got his ADHD meds in place, but that's another story.) The Cat was just The Cat, and he was doing things his own way from Day One, not naturally picking up social norms and niceties or caring about them when told. He was also more likely to go totally silent in a social situation, or to meow, purr, or growl if feeling sufficiently comfortable to attempt communication. The Big Boy had been desperate to please and learned 'please' and 'thank you' early on, and as he got older he learned to follow every rule in order to feel secure and in control of his universe, and to avoid upsetting people. When we taught things, he learned them and remembered them, although it was pretty clear that it was learning by rote rather than an understanding of any depth. I do remember his grandfather telling him rather crossly that he should respond when people say hello, and that The Big Boy (then far from Big and just learning to talk) blurted out the actual word 'respond' (or 'we ponn', more accurately) to the next family member to greet him, with a look of utter terror on his face. It was at that point that we figured we should teach him a few 'to and fro' conversational norms!
And somehow, among all this, it never occurred to us to teach our boys ways to respond to the most heartfelt communication of all: 'I love you', spoken by a parent. At first we didn't know about the autism and hadn't realised that the social learning wouldn't be automatic. Neither did we know how hard it might be for our children to identify, let alone articulate, the overwhelming feeling of deepest love for another human being. A lot of autistic children are unsettled or even frightened by strong emotions and the physical reactions that go alongside them, whether they are emotions others might consider positive (love, happiness, excitement) or negative (anger, sadness, fear), and really need help to interpret these 'mind and body' experiences. It finally makes sense to me, years later, that the boys used to behave in some pretty extreme ways after I'd read to them, tucked them in and told them I loved them, from hitting me to yelling at me to stay with them and clinging on to me physically. Neither did I have a clue about 'theory of mind', which is certainly worth a quick google if you are new to the world of autism. It's all about perspectives, and assuming that everyone has the same perspectives and ideas. In my boys, sometimes they seem to expect me to mind-read, as surely what's in their heads is in mine too. It can be starting a story in the middle, because they've somehow assumed I know the beginning, or not bothering to tell someone how you feel (even if you are lucky enough to observe a particular feeling and know the name that goes along with it). It can be The Big Boy saying, 'It's just that I don't know why I'd need to say it because you're you and I'm me and it's obvious that I think it'.
But before all this knowledge and understanding, it just seemed like it would be weird deliberately to teach kids to express such a powerful and personal emotion. Surely it would come to them naturally at some point, just as it had to other toddlers around us? I said it religiously - yes, some really tough days it was a dodgy exercise in 'fake it 'til you feel it', but I always said it, and just saying it would remind me that I meant it deep down. I assumed if they heard it enough from me, they would feel it and say it back one day. Also, I didn't want them to learn that they should say, 'I love you' just because somebody else did. I wanted them to say it because they meant it. It's a powerful, powerful phrase, and going around saying it just because there was a 'rule' was hardly going to prepare them for adult life. (Because clearly their futures would be full of adoring would-be partners making so many declarations of love that each might require careful handling.)
So now I realise I have another teaching task on my hands: to help them identify the emotions and physical feelings that we might label 'love', and to apply language accordingly. But can you see my Christmas miracle now? In a family where all this 'natural' stuff must be learnt, and nothing is ever particularly straightforward, something happened spontaneously And not just anything: something really wonderful. It didn't happen in words, but my little Cat-boy very definitely experienced the emotion of love and then identified an appropriate way to express it. It means more to me right now than ANY OTHER THING.
And so, I share with you, in a mood of wonder, hope and eternal warm fuzzies, the I LOVE YOU mug. From here on in, washing pants and socks will be (slightly) less of a chore, because one of them finally showed me he loved me. Woohoo and yippee!