The Courage to Become | Christine Potter Mulhearne
CHH: Christine, welcome. We are so glad to have you here. Tell us a little bit about yourself:
Christine: I’m the advertising Style Director at O, The Oprah Magazine in New York City. I’ve been in that role for the past 11 years, prior to that I was at SpaFinder.com and Bon Appetit Magazine. New York is where I now call home. I’m originally from New Orleans but after being on the East Coast after college in Rhode Island and living in Boston (let’s go Red Sox!), I guess I am no longer a Southerner - I’ve lost the accent and all (heavy sigh).
And to quote Mean Girls, "I’m not a regular mom, I’m a cool mom.”
I’m the lucky mom to my seven-year-old son James. Some days he thinks I’m cool; other days he tells me to give him a kiss in the car so no one sees me do it when I drop him off at school. Right now, I’m just grateful that I can still give kisses and cuddles and he isn’t overly appalled.
CHH: Christine, what was one thing you always dreamt of doing, were afraid to do, but did anyway?
Christine: I didn’t know it was a dream but more of this nagging feeling that the life I was living was not meant for me. In the beginning, those thoughts made me feel horrible. I should have been grateful for the wonderful job I had, the husband that I married, the house that we were renovating and the baby that we just had. Everything in my life was something that I had chosen for myself, no one put any pressure on me to live the life I had been given. So then why did I feel so unfulfilled? Why did I feel like this life, although it was a good one from the outside, feel like it didn't belong to me?
CHH: You are not alone. We have all felt that way at one point. Fortunate and yet, still not fulfilled.
Christine: I beat myself up for not being more grateful, for not being more understanding - didn't I realize that every marriage had challenges? I tried to think realistically and tried to comfort myself by saying that life was hard for everyone - commuting three hours a day, 5 days a week, raising a baby without a family or in-laws close by was tough and everyone’s husband worked six days a week. That’s just how adult life was supposed to be, right? So, I kept my head down and just made it work because life is full of tough times, you just got to make it through.
CHH: I hear you and feel you. That kind of pressure can almost numb everything out. How did it feel when you started to make your way out of that situation?
Christine: Trying to find my purpose was overwhelming and scary. And people don't usually don't usually chose to go on this journey. The journey choses them. And the journey usually presents itself when you hit rock bottom and that’s exactly where I was, rock bottom.
CHH: I’ve been there too. The one thing I like about rock bottom is that the choices become clear.
Christine: I remember the day when my ex-husband and I were at the neurologist’s office with James, who was 18 months at the time. James wasn’t speaking or reaching most of his behavioral or cognitive milestones. I had no idea what to do because he was my first child. I didn’t know when children should start talking, I just googled things and read baby books that told me James should be a lot further along than he was.
After a two-hour exam, crying, and multiple meltdowns - the doctor said to us, "I’m sorry to tell you this, but your son is on the Autism spectrum." I was numb but managed to say, "So, are you telling me that James is Autistic?” He said, “Yes.” I looked over at my baby who was sitting in overalls and banging objects together with a farm house and I just started to sob. That sobbing went on every day for two years.
CHH: I am so very sorry. That must have been frightening. What were some of the obstacles you faced when you started on that new path of facilitating life and joy for James?
Christine: I didn’t tell anyone about James' diagnosis for nine months. I was ashamed and embarrassed, I don’t know why and that is a terrible thing to say, but I was.
CHH: It’s not terrible. It’s honest. It’s raw.
Christine: I was so afraid for James - afraid that he would be judged, that he would have a label, that I would be judged, and that people would treat him differently. I was also afraid that people would treat me differently and that people wouldn’t include James in any play dates or parties or be included in anything because he couldn’t behave the same way other kids could.
So, I decided that his secret was safe with me.
Keeping James’ autism a secret weighed on me every second of every day. I was constantly thinking that I should be doing more or pissed at myself for letting it get this far. Should I have done something sooner? To make matters more complicated, my mom was very fragile in those days. On the night that I got engaged, my dad died unexpectedly, and his loss turned our family life into chaos.
My family and I ran my dad’s business for about a year since our house, cars and income were tied to his business and there was no back-up plan in place. After about a year, my mom had to return to work after thirty years, so she rented out our family house in New Orleans and moved in with her sister back in her hometown of Oswego, New York and luckily, got a job as a teacher. She would wake up at 5am every morning, was on the road at 6am with an hour drive to her school and then teach all day. My mom had to put her life back together after she was completely uprooted, so there was no way I was going to put more on her plate with my news about James.
And at work, I didn’t want my boss to think that I couldn’t handle my responsibilities. I’m in sales, so I work in a high pressured environment and must hit a yearly revenue quota in order to make my commission. Believe me, I needed that money and I wanted my boss to feel as though I was a dependable employee, so I couldn’t tell her either.
That all lasted about nine months until I just couldn’t live in secrecy anymore. I was terrified that someone would find out and my secret wouldn’t be safe. I wouldn’t even share stories about James at work or with friends because I was so afraid that people would think - oh wow, Christine is so excited that James just said, “mommy,” but he should have been saying that a year ago.
The thought of people knowing how delayed my child was kept me living a double life.
CHH: That all sounds so exhausting. How did you manage to keep going?
Christine: The amazing thing about life is that you are so much stronger than you think you are. Once I had this diagnosis, I went into Christine "fixer" mode and we were off. The stars aligned and brought me the very best therapists in the state of New York along with a social worker who could navigate the Early Intervention program that I knew nothing about.
God was on my side and allowed me to receive 20 hours of ABA services (Applied behavioral analysis) a week + speech therapy 3x a week + OT therapy (occupational therapy) 3x a week. Don’t forget that James was only 18 months, this amount of services (26 hours a week) is absolutely unheard of. But not for my baby, he was the exception. I wanted to give him as much or even more help than he needed.
In the beginning, therapy was rough. Both my ex-husband and I were commuting 3 hours a day and working full time 5 days a week in Manhattan. So we had to have five different therapists visit James at his day care to give him the therapy he needed.
Some days were really rough.
In one day, James could have 6 hours of therapy while he was in day care for 8 hours. That only left 2 "free" hours and so he would nap. This was aggressive and I constantly had inner battles with myself -- was too much for such a little baby? Or, if I don’t give him the therapy he needs now, will he recover?
From there, one of his speech therapists was a teacher at a special needs school for two year olds and recommended this option for James. First of all, I didn’t even know they had school for two year olds! I declined and said that school 5x a week for James would be impossible, I worked full time and had James in day care. There was no way that I could afford to hire a nanny to pick up and drop off James to this school every day. The teacher said that the state gives free bus services to children going to school and the bus could pick James up and drop off at his day care. Problem solved. But I cried myself to sleep that night thinking about how I would put my precious two year old in a car seat on a school bus. Why was God doing this to me?
Then, God intervened and presented me with a job share at work. That means, I had a partner who worked Monday, Tues and Wednesday and I worked Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. I was given the gift of two days with James to help him as he embarked on his new school journey.
CHH: Agh. A gift. This brings such a huge smile to my face.
Christine: Each Monday and Tuesday, I would take James to school, meet with teachers and therapists to learn the skills that I need to incorporate at home. It wasn’t enough for James to receive the therapy at school, I had to model this behavior at home for consistency so that James could excel. Everyone was so patient with me and I was watching my child transform before my eyes.
James went on to attend school at three years old in a self-contained classroom (all students with a special need) and at four years old, he was placed into an integrated classroom (students with special needs and without). And then by Kindergarten, James was declassified.
James had successful years of Kindergarten and First Grade in standard classrooms. He is now in 2nd grade and still thriving! James still has a few challenges and receives OT services 3x a week as well as movement breaks twice a day but I know that we can overcome anything. Last year, he was diagnosed with ADHD and although no parent wants to see their child struggle, I feel like this is a walk in the park compared to his pervious diagnosis and struggles of just learning how to wave hello.
CHH: What are some of the lessons you learned while walking that path with James?
Christine: Only now can I look back on this experience to see it as a wonderful lesson. I would try to remind myself that this wasn’t happening TO me, this was happening FOR me. This experience brought out the very best in me. This required the best version of myself, to use my God given talents of being a cheerleader with optimism and enthusiasm. There was not a day that went by that I didn’t give James a high five for what he had accomplished and some days that was just simply to point to an object because he couldn’t talk yet. Most children point on their own, this isn’t something they need to be taught. My son’s brain is a little different and learning to point was a major accomplishment. That got him a high five, hugs, kisses and as much love and excitement that I could offer him.
This experience reminded me what is important in life. Often, we say its family but I wasn’t living that.
I’m too busy, I have to get to the office, I have to do laundry, or I need to clean the house.
This experience brought me to my knees and God had my full attention. I was ready to do whatever I needed to so that James could get what he needed. I was reminded of my persuasive selling skills that I use in my office, and I used those skills in meetings to advocate for any services that James was denied. I used my optimism to remind me that there was a purpose to this pain and I couldn’t wait to see how it was going to unfold. I reminded myself oh how lucky I was that James had me on his side. I was given every single talent, skill and personality trait that he needed for me to fight this battle for him. I felt lucky and this experience awakened me to bring everything that I am to the table.
I'm Catia, a woman, wife, mama, sister, sister friend, you know -- I wear a million hats just like you.
One of my biggest whys is that I want people to feel good about ALL of who they are. Including you.
If I could choose ten words that best describe me I would say: honest, welcoming, giving, curious, loving, earnest, empathetic, spiritual, playful, and sassy. Let's add: adventurous. That's 11.
Nice to meet you!