ADHD: The gift I didn’t want to give

By Marissa Marangoni

I think it’s a common experience for people to tell you that your child is your mini-me, that they look just like you. No one has ever said that to me, nor will they ever (unless something drastically changes as J grows up). That said, this kid is, without any doubt, my mini-me. He may have red hair and will likely tower over me by the time he’s 10, but he is me in so many ways it’s almost like we share a brain. And that’s cool, but not.

When J was a baby, we shared a bed until he was 8 months old. The reason we stopped was that we were waking each other up. And I don’t mean that he would cry and I’d have to nurse him, I mean that I’d move my leg, and he’d wake up. He’d brush my arm with his foot, and I’d wake up. I’d just open my eyes in the dark room and not move a muscle, and his eyelids would flutter open. Our connection as mom and baby was strong, so I figured we just could subtly sense each other’s changing states of consciousness, but when he started sleeping in his own room with the door closed, it still happened. 

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In the room across the hall, I’d hold my breath and keep my eyes closed though my brain had awakened. I’d let my arm fall asleep to the point of going numb to keep from making any sound by moving, and I can’t tell you how many times I ignored my bladder to avoid getting out of bed.  And yet, inevitably, seconds after my body woke, the light on the baby monitor at my bedside would flicker and a few seconds later, there’d be a cry that I’d have to answer. The whole thing was maddening, but there was also something kind of comforting about it; like even though we were apart, we always knew where the other person was.

In August of 2019, I was diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). It wasn’t a total shock because I’d done a lot of research and was, like, 98% certain I’d finally found the thing that explained so much of what I had always just chalked up to me being kind of dense and having some defective personality traits. The diagnosis felt good. It was a relief. There was finally a reason I always felt out of place. It’s like I’ve been living my entire life in the dark with only a flashlight to get around, but after all this time, someone reached into the room and turned on the lights. 

I’m still squinting.

Here’s where I’m headed with this, and I’m sure you see it coming: ADHD is hereditary. When a parent has ADHD, there is over a 50% chance that their children will have it as well. And I think that J does. 

While I am hesitant to trust my intuition because I can talk myself into and out of anything—and I mean anything—I was right about my own diagnosis, and I see so much of myself in my child, so much of me as a child in my child. The hardest part of suspecting that J has ADHD is swallowing the fact that I passed it to him, and, because of it, he has some big challenges to face.

Part of the reason I sought a diagnosis for myself was for J. Even before I knew I had ADHD, I suspected he did, too. He’s different than other kids socially, he has an overabundance of energy, and he is very spirited and sensitive. Last August, I knew that being diagnosed would help me know more about myself and my child and set me on a path to be able to advocate for whatever needs he has once he gets to school. It is not common to seek an ADHD diagnosis for a 4-year-old unless their behavior is extreme, and though a lot of his behavior is likely above the average, it mostly still falls into the typical stages of development for his age. 

Unfortunately, I was counting on this year to be the year that would help illuminate some of the struggles J might have in kindergarten and beyond, as he was supposed to go to preschool. Thanks to COVID, he’s not going to preschool this year, so there went that idea. And, as an added bonus, he has a June birthday, so he’ll either go to kindergarten next fall and be behind socially and maybe get into trouble, or he’s going to go the following year and be bored academically, be a little better socially, and definitely get into trouble.

When I was in kindergarten, there was a lot of coloring. I recall one coloring page with Grover from Sesame Street. I had a pretty specific image in my head as to what the finished coloring page would look like. It was going to be neat, the colors I chose would be the right ones, and there would be no scribbles outside the lines. In other words, the characters and scenery I was coloring would look just like they did on TV, and my teacher would be very proud and hang my art on the wall. It was going to be easy because I could already see it.

I worked slowly and carefully on the page, even staying in for part of recess to finish it. By the time I finished, I was frustrated. Grover was the wrong shade of blue. I couldn’t keep all the colors inside the lines. The page looked nothing like I’d imagined it would in my head, and when I looked around at my classmate’s finished pages, I felt even worse about my own.

The problem with ADHD is that I can see the end result of anything I want to in my head, but when it comes to the plan to get there and then actually executing said plan, I have to fight pretty hard to reach the finish the way I imagine it. This includes, but is not limited to, getting places on time, having conversations like a normal person, painting walls, washing dishes, grocery shopping, and cooking. It is frustrating beyond what I can effectively describe to fall short of your goals, but at this point in my life, I’m relatively used to it. 

I’m also relatively used to beating myself up for every single thing I don’t get right. Out of all the things I have learned so far about ADHD, perhaps the most eye-opening is that I am not very nice to myself and never let myself off the hook.

I already see my child struggling with what he considers to be his shortcomings, and it physically pains me. Ask J math questions, and he will happily try to perform simple addition. Ask him what letter starts the word “cow,” and he will try his best to come up with it, even if it takes a few tries. But ask him to look at the letter M and reproduce it, and you can forget it. To be quite honest, I am dreading school if the work I do with this child at home is any indication of our K-12 future. 

J can write his name, and he might scrawl a shaky M if he’s feeling extra patient, but because he can’t make that M with perfect points and straight lines like it has in the example, he quits. “I can’t do it right,” his little voice will break. I watch his face go from trying to tears in just a few seconds, and the pencil he was gripping flies across the room.

It is difficult for me to watch J struggle. He has incredibly high expectations for himself—and that comes from within. It’s not like I look for anything like perfection from him. He’s only 4. Plus, he has me for a mother.  However, I can relate to him so much that my heart drops when I watch him disappoint himself. I wonder what the voice in his head is telling him. I know I’m going to have to help him soften it. Having ADHD is bad enough when there are standards that are hard to meet—but it’s even harder when you have the version of ADHD that makes you believe you not only have to meet those standards but exceed them. 

I guess all this is to say that I am well aware that all parents pass things on to their children that they’d rather they didn’t, but I wish we could pick and choose those things. I’d pass J unruly eyebrows, lack of style, and maybe even the crossed eyes, but, as it stands at this moment, I wouldn’t gift him with ADHD. I don’t want to tell him that of all the things I could have given him, I gave him the thing that is going to impact and complicate every single part of his life. 

And then again, I’ve done pretty well for myself (as much as I hate saying such a thing)—and that was simply by white-knuckling my way through everything without ever having any idea why I had to. At least J will know what it is that’s making things hard for him. And because he will know, he will also have the support he needs to not have to work so hard. He will learn how to work with his ADHD and not against it. 

While the disorder is the thing that he will never be able to get rid of, it’s also the thing that will make him resilient. He’s going to get up so many times after falling down that he’s not even going to notice he’s on the ground half the time. 

He already doesn’t.

Unless, of course, I am totally wrong and he doesn’t have it, in which case, you can disregard most everything I just said.

Marissa is the co-author of Urine Luck, but sometimes she writes about things other than bathrooms. Marissa has been writing for the Devil Strip since August of 2015.