Independent Functioning

Sam does not function independently. This is a problem. I know it’s a problem because she needs an Independent Functioning goal in her IEP. I know it’s a problem because teachers worry about her ability to function independently. I know it’s a problem because her dad and I worry about her ability to function independently. We need to help her learn to function independently.

Right now we are writing her IEP to focus on transition, so my brain is drowning in independent functioning questions. And I’m feeling irritable and contrarian. I’m sick of independent functioning. I’m tired of the cultural imperative. I’m tired of my own buy-in.

Yesterday I was waking Sam up for school, as I do every morning. I gently stroke her hair and quietly deliver the weather report to get her brain moving, and this is the conversation I had with myself:

Self: She really needs to start getting up independently. Make her set an alarm.

Self: But her day does not go well if she’s jarred awake. We will all pay a price if she relies on an alarm clock. And that’s assuming she actually gets up.

Self: She’ll never learn if we don’t start now. Kelly started setting an alarm two years ago, all on her own initiative.

Self: Yes, but Sam has never said she wants that. Also, my favorite part of the day used to be waking both girls up. I miss singing to Kelly and giving her a morning back rub.

Self: Sam never let you do that anyway.

Self: True, but the morning connection is so important to Sam, and she doesn’t have that many other connections to fall back on. 

Self: OK, but what happens when you die or when Sam moves out on her own?

Self: When that happens she will have to learn some new skills. Just like I had to learn new skills when I moved out. When that happens she might not have to be out the door at 7:15.

When I was in third grade, I had to title every paper, in cursive, in the right hand corner:   

Barbara Cohen
Matzke Elementary School
Mrs. Dahlberg

It seemed like such a waste of time and paper. Mrs. Dahlberg explained to us that we needed to practice the header to prepare us for high school, at which time we would be required to label our assignments the same way. Why, I wondered then and still wonder now, did we need to practice this skill for six years? Why not just learn it in ninth grade (by which time I’d moved to a different state and we labeled our papers with our names, class periods, and date)?

So part of my contrarian feeling about Sam’s independent functioning is the same: she will learn this skill when she needs to. For now, the current system works for both of us.

A bigger part of my current contrarianism, though, is the whole independence imperative. My friends and I all have “issues” with asking for help. We apologize, we offer return favors, we ask rarely. We feel like we’ve failed when we can’t solve a problem on our own. Cooperation, group projects and interdependence are all good, but only when we are asking other people to join us, not when we clearly could not succeed without them. The goal is always to maintain as much independence as possible, even when that means asserting the choice to establish interdependence I’m very independent, and I’m not always sure that it serves me or my loved ones so well.

From a developmental perspective, I get the desire for independence. “I can do it myself!” rang through the house as the girls learned to put on their coats, to tie their shoes, to cross the street without holding my hand, to walk to the corner coffee shop unescorted. Like all kids developing these skills, they beamed with pride. And if anything, Sam is more interested in doing for herself than is Kelly. I’m not sure Kelly knows, even now, how to butter a slice of toast. But then again, she scheduled an appointment to have her hair cut by herself the other day. Independent functioning does not look the same for everyone.

I also get the desire for independence from an I’d-like-my-own-life perspective. The few days I have needed to attend early morning meetings entailing a pre-6:30 departure, the change in routine has causes all of us stress. When I see that a job will require overnight travel, I reject it immediately. Still, I believe this has been my choice, and if the family needed to adapt, we would.

Then there’s society. My buy-in is complete. I’ve noticed that every time I describe Sam, I begin with a list of the ways in which she can function independently. Maybe it proves, in my mind, that she merits attention. Do not write her off. Certainly it proves, in my mind, that I am a good mother. Just look at all of the ways I’ve scaffolded her so that she can [fill in the blank] by herself! Isn’t that the pinnacle of good mothering?

Years ago I read a wonderful book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. In it Fadiman follows a Hmong family that has been relocated to California. Their young daughter suffers from epilepsy. The Hmong understand epilepsy to be evidence that the child has been chosen as a vessel for a spirit; epilepsy is a gift. The American doctors of course disagree, and for a time the parents lose custody when they fail to adhere to the medication protocol ordered by the doctors. Both sides obviously want what is best for the little girl, but their cultural chasm is so deep that they never find common ground.

I think about this story often when we discuss independent functioning. Learn to self-soothe. Do not need a hug in order to feel better. Somehow I doubt that every society everywhere on our planet defines this as a goal worth achieving.