Steven’s piece “I Like You,” is about the emotional and even physical struggles of parenting and the curve balls that we are often thrown in the process. When visiting his parents and old hometown of Romulus, Michigan, more than just stale memories are stirred up, and the bigger issue that Steven and his wife are unaware of surfaces from the behavior of their youngest child. What seems like mere hyper-sensitivity and temperamental flare-ups on their son’s part unfolds into what’s known as Sensory Processing Disorder. This story is heart-wrencing and grueling at times, not to mention vulnerable, but it exemplifies the kind of self-reflection that we are capable of and that fuels us to overcome our greatest obstacles.
Upon reading your story it appears—that for all intents and purposes—it is going to be about your daughter (suspected to be an only child from the first paragraphs), and that there would be some profound coming-of-age anecdote or the realization of a father truly understanding—or as much as a father really can—his daughter. This assumption was completely wrong however, and the story is refreshingly about a father and his son and the struggles they both share.
How was it to not only write about something so personal and intimate as your parenting skills—the good and even the bad at times—but to showcase it for readers of this story?
Writing this story was challenging in that it required brutal honesty and a certain openness that is easier said than done. I guess the thing that sort of drove me to write this was reaching a certain humility in my parenting and in life in general. At some point you realize that parenting is incredibly difficult—add in a special needs child—and it becomes even more difficult. So instead of pretending you have it all figured out—you sort if find power and hope in understanding your limitations and fallibility. Because that opens doors to other people sharing their limitations and fallibility—and in that discourse you might have a shot at becoming better.
You write that in the moment of trying to disarm your son, both literally and metaphorically,
“I had spent years trying to move on from this place [your home of Romulus, Michigan]—trying to somehow be better than where I came from, but in that moment I was significantly worse.”
This must have been a hard realization to swallow, like that you had seemingly left your town far behind only for it to catch back up to you, but to then feel or know you had never really left it behind at all.
How did you reconcile that?
I come from a true blue collar background—and when you come from that place you are given some great gifts—resiliency, humor, the ability to survive and stand up for yourself. These are things I am grateful for and carry with me. At the same time, I do not look at where I come from in an entirely romantic way. There is a lot of close-mindedness, anger, and pettiness as well—and a general feeling of being just outside the anointed caste that gets to be affluent and beautiful and well adjusted. So I have always been ambivalent about where I come from—and I think that struggle comes through in this piece. I will always be a member of the proletariate and I am not ashamed of that—but it is a complicated and often dubious place to have come from.
How, too, were you also able to admit quite vulnerably in your piece that in all the pandemonium, your son and his struggling at the ice rink were second in concern to how your parenting was being perceived by the on-lookers? What you felt in that moment is something all parents seem to be guilty of but don’t want to acknowledge and it shows a broader self-awareness.
Yes. I think I just didn’t want to let myself off the hook. I think a lot of parenting does have a dotted line to ego on some level. Your children are inextricably linked to—and are an expression of—you. On our best days—we meet them where they are and take pride in them for who they are. On our worst days, our esteem and sense of well being hinges upon how they act at the mall. I couldn’t write this story and pull a punch in that scene—I had to admit that my ego was a factor—right or wrong it was there—and that level of honesty seemed important—maybe folks who read this piece will relate or connect.
Reading further into your piece we learn that your son, with all his melodramatics, is actually justified in—or at least exonerated from—his behaviors because as you also come to find out, he has SPD, Sensory Processing Disorder.
Was this frightening for you and your wife to hear or was it more of a relief in that you guys discovered the root of these small fits and could then try to effectively combat them?
It was both frightening and a relief. It helped to have an angle on what was going on—but SPD is tricky and the school of thought regarding SPD is still sort of forming—so it was far from finding a tangible, magic bullet cure for the situation. It was more like trial and error and discovering things that seemed to help and building from there.
Stories of creative nonfiction, such as your own, are so often about growth that spans definitely longer than the couple of pages that it gets condensed down to.How long did it take after finding out about your son’s diagnosis for you to begin tackling and writing this piece?
It was a couple of years—it took that long to get a handle on it and have some sort of narrative distance to create an arc for the story.
Lastly your witticisms in your writing and the seemingly self-deprecative but humorous asides that you make must be touched upon. You and your wife are very self-aware, environmentally-aware, and just aware in general. You make the point of mentioning that you both eat Greek yogurt and do hot yoga, which you stylistically include for readers to better comprehend who you are and what you are about. Yet when you make the change to riding your bike to-and-from work, you admit that it isn’t just you doing your part to protect the environment.
How much of these little nuances, which are probably quite characteristic of you as a writer, do you actually include in your other writing?
I write theatre and fiction as well as nonfiction and in all of my writing humor tends to find a place—but more than that—the telling detail is almost always there. To me, specific details—the quirky specifics and stuff of life—really go a long way to creating character and moments within a piece. They are economic, telegraphic impulses that say so much more than is evident at first blush.