By Robert Watkins
Photo By Conner Cummings
Robert Watkins is contemplating family. In his self-analysis he learns how camouflaging, anxiety and trust have impacted his marriages.
When I heard that the theme of this month’s issue was to be Family, I must say I had to stop for a moment. Family. There have been some serious upheavals in my family life recently, so I’m not sure what to think. As many a writer will tell you, the act of writing is more than just a way to express thoughts, facts, and opinion. It can, when moment and topic converge in just the right way, be an incredibly cathartic experience that will lead to growth in the mind and heart of the writer. I’m going to let the words lead me; where I will arrive, I know not.
There are two ways to think of what “family” means
As I see it, the traditional meaning of the word, your family are those to whom you’re related by blood, adoption, or marriage. The people that are a part of your life, for life. Most of us, however, have a broader understanding of family, which includes those on whom you can really count on in a time of crisis, and with whom you share your moments of joy and triumph.
Far too often, this second definition excludes some, possibly even all, of those who are family in the more traditional sense. There is an expression, “you can’t choose your family”. Rubbish. You may not be able to choose those to whom you are related by blood, but whether or not you consider them family is most certainly a choice.
Chosen or blood, family for me has always centered around women. I was raised by my mother. Even after she remarried she was, for all intents and purposes, a single mum. And her mother, my dearest Gran, was the lifeblood of our extended family until she was consumed by Alzheimer’s. As an adult, I tried to create a family of my own by marrying. And now I have a daughter.
When I talk of or think of family, a woman is at the heart of it.
My daughter is my family
My daughter lies somewhere in the middle of “blood” and “choice”. She is adopted. My second wife and I took her home when she was only nineteen days old. So, while she’s not strictly a blood relative, I couldn’t love her any more if she were. And while we did “choose” her, adopting her as a baby makes it about as informed a choice as if we had given birth to her.
I was in bliss as a father when she was younger. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel joy in the role of father, but it’s gotten more complicated — and not just because my girl is now a teenager (which by itself is a lot for any parent). It would not be fair to my daughter to reveal any of the detail, so I’ll leave that out. Suffice it to say that, now that I have left my third wife, my daughter is back in my life. I’m getting far more resistance from her mother than from her.
We are healing and that is the best thing in the world. She is my family now.
Marriage, marriage, marriage
I’ve not done terribly well with the family (or, more accurately, families) I have chosen. I have been married three times and will soon be divorced for the third time. The first time was just a mistake. We were together for about six years, but our marriage lasted only eighteen months. We were in our twenties and I realized that I didn’t know myself well enough to have made a good choice. My second marriage lasted a good while, seventeen years, but that just reveals how long it took me to walk away from an unhealthy situation.
My third marriage, the one that’s over in every sense but the legal one, still has my head reeling. I really thought I’d nailed it this time, and for the first couple of years it seemed I had. As often happens, however, much is revealed in the unravelling. It turns out that I had been manipulated constantly during our five years together but hadn’t the guile to recognize it. And in the very last days I was astonished to have been subject to abuse, lying somewhere between the physical and the emotional. And this by a woman who suffered domestic violence in her two previous marriages. She is the only one of any of my former partners for whom I feel no tenderness, and that’s hard for me to wrap my head around.
Now, I don’t claim to be blameless in the demise of my marriages. Rarely does such a thing rest on a single set of shoulders. Blame, however, isn’t even the issue. With each failed marriage I have learned more about myself. The first marriage taught me that I can’t be happy with someone who doesn’t want to share a life together. Living mutually independent lives may be fine for some, but not for me. My second marriage taught me that I trust too much. I say that, and knew it to be true, but still made the same mistake in my third marriage. What I learned from this most recent marriage sheds a light on why.
Camouflaging, social anxiety, and trust
When I’m by myself, as I am now, I do pretty well. In fact, I revel in being at home, by myself, in silence. Because I have few noticeable impairments, the world expects me to glide through my day as would a neurotypical.
Much has already been written about camouflaging — putting on a neurotypical guise so as to get through the day without making others uncomfortable — so I won’t go into too much detail here. But a day of camouflaging is exhausting. And it can be stressful for others. When I had a family, coming home after work wasn’t always … comfortable. Eight hours or more of constant camouflaging was about my limit, so when I’d get home I no longer had the emotional energy to keep it up. Consequently, all the stress and anxiety of the day would spew out.
I’d be extra OCD about what the kids hadn’t done properly, and I’d be less aware (and thus less tolerant, albeit not knowingly) of whatever my wife had dealt with during the day. So being alone now is easier — there is only my cat, and she is my familiar — because there is no need to put on airs when I get home. I can let it all hang out, which is really what everyone needs.
As my third marriage fell apart I came to the realization that I had been putting too much of a burden on my wife where social interaction was concerned. Because of my own, long-standing but little-understood social anxiety, I felt I could finally relax with a neurotypical guide as my partner. I didn’t have to try to figure out what pleased everyone else, so she would choose where we went and with whom we’d hang out. I didn’t have to build up my nerves of clay to go to social events, because she was by my side.
Whenever she would actually leave my side, to get food or to talk to a friend — whatever — I would find myself standing anxiously alone, in the middle of the room, with all that noise and all those people. I managed because I had to, but only barely. I came to depend on my partner to ease my way through the social world. And this, I’ve now come to realize, has been the case in every serious relationship. At the beginning of any relationship I work my emotional ass off to show my best side, a sustained effort made possible by the bliss of budding romance. But then, when I figured she knew me through and through, I would relax. I had no inkling of the pressure that was putting on my partner. Something I’ve got to work on.
Abdicating so much power in the social sphere not only left me isolated once the marriage was over, but it spilled over into other areas of life. That’s why I still put too much trust in my third wife, despite having been bitten by that very trust in my second marriage. Another thing I’ve got to work on.
More insight gained in its demise than its throes
Family should be a sanctuary, but for all members. Perhaps because I only discovered my autism relatively recently (about 4% of my life ago, to put it into perspective) I did not have the insight I do now; insight, if must be said, that has been far better enhanced in the demise of my marriage than in its throes.
My seeking sanctuary — sanctuary from the neurotypical world — came at the expense of the sanctuary that others were seeking. There was no malice; I was merely letting go of my day. There was no awareness either; letting go of my day was like dropping it off the side of a cliff rather than placing it gently on the side table. One more thing for me to work on.
A few years ago, I was asked to sit on a panel to discuss autism and human relationships. (Oh, the irony.) At the time my third marriage still seemed perfect to me. So, I spoke with confidence and clarity. There was a couple on the panel, the man being autistic and the woman neurotypical. During the panel discussion the woman said that the ideal partner for someone autistic is a super-nurturer. “Ha!”, I said to myself. My partners have never been super-nurturers, and my marriage is great! Now I suspect she may be right. And I now count that couple among my friends; they are both marvelous people whom I respect and admire.
Spread out and better for it?
Fortunately, I am one of the lucky ones when it comes to blood relatives. I love all of them and am happy to call them family. A factor that may play a big part in this, though, is that we are a nomadic bunch, spread out across the globe.
I was raised in the UK, London being where my grandparents lived. But now my mother and brother live in Vancouver, BC; one aunt lives in Fairbanks, Alaska (which is where I was born), and another aunt lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My dear, darling, departed uncle divided his time between a village about an hour north of London and a small cottage in Ireland. In addition to the places already mentioned, I’ve got cousins and nieces in Stockholm, the Shetland Islands, Spain, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Aberdeen, Calgary, Boulder, Portland — the list goes on. And I’m now in Atlanta. So, we don’t see a great deal of each other.
I’m not sure if that is a critical factor, but we all get along.
Especially my mother. While discovering my autism has helped me to understand why I have failed with the families I have chosen, it has also inexorably strengthened my relationship with my mother.
When I was a kid, things were cool. My mother doted on my brother and I, giving us an abundance of love and affection. I attribute everything good in my life to my mother’s love. But as adults we didn’t always get on. I know, now, that I was too rigid and impatient with my mother. I’ve written about this elsewhere but it bears repeating: Once, when I was in my early twenties and living in France, my mother sent me a long, lovely letter. She has always been a wonderful letter writer, but, erm, not the best speller. So, in order to help her out, I sent back a copy of the letter with all the spelling and grammar mistakes corrected. I actually thought I was helping her. Really, I did. Instead I hurt her.
Since gaining the insights that have come with knowing myself to be autistic (and fresh insights are still coming) things have been much better between us. I am far more aware of the dynamics between us and inside myself. We speak about once a week, usually for about an hour. But I can, for example, say to her, “Mum, I’ve had enough of the telephone. I’m going to go now”, and she gets it (I’m not a big fan of the telephone). I can also swear and belch and fart with my mother. She’s cool people. And she’s in her 80s.
The thing that makes me laugh (imagine a self-deprecating chortle with a tinge of irony thrown in for good measure) — what makes me laugh is that my mother is, beyond question and without a doubt, a super-nurturer. This is not to say that I’ve got to find me a super-nurturer — I am a long off way at this point from being ready for or even wanting a relationship. But when the time comes, I’ll likely pay more attention to that aspect of the women I’m attracted to.
At the outset I said that I was going to let the words lead me, but that I didn’t know where I’d end up. With an article as personal as this one, the author is just as much the reader as you are. When I began I didn’t know I’d be writing about the women in my life, nor that I would come to the realization that family for me has always been about women.
With it all laid bare, it seems rather obvious, but I’d not thought of it that way before. This article is just the burgeoning of catharsis. I’ve loads more contemplation to do.
An autistic self-advocate, Neurodiversity Ambassador and public speaker, Robert Watkins reinvented the workplace with and for autistic people. His writings on Autistic.ly focus on increasing awareness, understanding and accommodations for people on the spectrum so that they can contribute their best and lead fulfilling working lives. He writes about his personal journey and autistic representation in Hollywood on Geek Club Books blog.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Robert Watkins passed away suddenly on March 31, 2018 of heart failure. This is the last article he wrote and it was so deep and personal in nature. We wanted to honor him by publishing it as we know that it will touch and impact everyone who reads it. Robert was a brilliant writer and positive advocate for the autistic community. His writing is his legacy and it will live on forever as his “voice” − A voice calling for societal and workplace change in support of a community he loved so dear.
Read more articles in Zoom Autism Magazine, Issue 13:
- Lights, Camera, Activism! Up Close with Matt and Ed Asner by Lydia Wayman
- Walking with Owen by Walter Suskind
- I Will Never Go to Harvard…And That’s Okay! By Jacob Fuentes
- Parenting, Spectrum Style by Maura Campbell
- “I Have Stopped Using the Word ‘Family’ and Have Never Looked Back!” by Becca Lory
- Cummings and Goings: The Manyness of Family by Conner Cummings
- How I Found My Happy Ending by Megan Amodeo
- What Does the Word Family Mean to You?