Solitary isn’t the same thing as lonely

My story

I’m the mom of two teenage sons and I live in New Jersey. My older son has a nonverbal learning disability that makes social interaction very difficult for him.

What I was doing

When I left the hospital with my newborn son Adam, I was already planning his social life. In my mind, making friends wasn’t just important for Adam’s development. It was part of what would make childhood fulfilling and, well, fun.

It didn’t take long for me to see that Adam had other ideas. He cried his way through kiddie classes. He wandered off during playdates. Birthday parties were his worst nightmare.

In fifth grade, Adam was diagnosed with a nonverbal . And though he eventually got too old for a “mom-manufactured” social life, I kept plugging. We enrolled him in social skills classes. In high school, I pestered Adam to ask girls to the prom. My efforts to “protect” Adam from loneliness got him out of the house. But I mostly managed to make my son feel embarrassed and ashamed that he wasn’t who I wanted him to be.

What I wish I’d known sooner

Eventually, Adam carved a life for himself in high school. He developed a small circle of friends and was dedicated to his debate club. Yet he still spent a lot of time on his own. Why, I obsessed, would he choose to sit at home when his friends were out having fun?

The answer, it turned out, had long been right next to me in bed. My husband, David, doesn’t face the challenges Adam does. But David depends on me to manage our social life and often rolls his eyes when I announce we have a party to attend.

Socializing, it took me too long to realize, may be my way to have fun and relax. But for my husband — and to a far greater extent my son — making small talk and meeting new people isn’t relaxing. It’s work. Sometimes agonizingly hard work. Being alone may indeed be lonely sometimes. But for Adam, it’s the one time he can be utterly at ease.

As Adam went through the college application process this year, I marveled at how far he’d come. He sailed through interviews and overnighted on students’ floors. I don’t regret the social skills classes and pushing we did, because we have given him tools he needs to be part of society. But if I’d known then what I understand now, I would have given my child the right to be very different from me — and the luxury of enjoying his own company.

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