Question of the Day: “What is normal?”

Normal. We throw this word around to describe typical things, the ordinary, the usual, the suspected. It’s a label, really. An arbitrary term subjectively applied to people and situations, and it seems more about people’s opinions than fact. Defining “normal” is difficult, though it is used most often to explain why someone feels comfortable or uncomfortable. A situation yesterday has me pondering the meaning of this word and asking the question, “What is normal?”

Friday was the first day the Philadelphia Art Museum opened its doors, so I thought it would be a perfect day to take the family. Jonah has always loved the impressionists, but this year his focus was more on seeing the cubists, most specifically, Picasso. Cole has no love for museums or art and needed to be lured through the day with a promise of Starbucks and possibly the Nike store. My husband is also not a huge fan of museums, but overall he is easy to please.

The boys looking out the window of the museum. (LOL)

One of my close friends is a conservator at the museum. Time and kids interrupted our getting together as much as we would like, but I was excited when she said she could take a break from her work and pop down and see us as we walked through the Early American exhibit. As we spoke, both boys flocked around me. They were poking and laughing, doing anything the could to get my attention. Honestly, it was the most they’ve paid attention to me in weeks. Typically, they are doing their own thing, but it seemed the moment I was preoccupied and talking to a friend was the same moment they wanted me to look at them. As I ignored them, they persisted. Jonah making his noises and Cole patting my head and saying, “Mom, mom, mom.” My friend and I joked about the added attention until Jonah said something (I can’t recall exactly what it was), but I felt instantly embarrassed and I said…

“Jonah, could you please just be normal.”

My friend stopped and looked at me. “He is normal,” she said. Jonah looked down, and I instantly felt bad. Jonah’s autism often makes him the subject of comments, looks, and derision. I try very hard to not cause him to feel weird or even unsure about himself, but my current misstep felt heavy.

“Right, yeah, he is,” I started to say, but the feeling around us had changed. My friend and I continued to talk for a bit and the boys went off to find a bench to sit and wait out their time is that part of the museum.

Now, a day later, I am still ruminating over my words. How many times have I expected Jonah to be “normal”, not for his benefit but for my own? How many times have I insisted on a certain behavior from my boys or even my husband so I would not feel embarrassed or ashamed? What is normal, anyway and why am I so afraid of the opposite?

I think back to when I was young. There was a pressure there, but it was not so much to be “normal”, but to be acceptable. Same thing, I suppose. My family wanted concession and assimilation, but to their version of normal, not necessarily the society around us. My father and stepmother would mock “typical” families and exalt how our family was not “normal”. This was something we should be proud of: my father’s inappropriate and racist language, my stepmother’s dislike of the PTA and school functions or even being able to have friends over, our families disjointed behavior from that of our neighbors. We were the oddballs, and for this we could be proud, but I never felt proud of that family dynamic. I felt sad and embarrassed. I just wanted to be like everyone around me.

“Perhaps,” my husband said as we discussed this on the ride home, “this is why you want our family to be normal.”

“Yes,” I answered. “That makes sense.” But even as I said it, I knew there was more. Yes, I want the opposite of my traumatic upbringing, but I feel like I am clinging to something. Perhaps it is just the base desire of wanted others to approve of my family. Maybe it is a deeper longing to be someone I’ve always wanted to be in the eyes of those around me. Yes, it could be all of those things wrapped into one package. The final and overarching need to belong somewhere and feel complete. I thought this would lessen with time, but it seems to have only branched out and entwined my current family and their behaviors.

Are we normal? I don’t think so. Is that okay? Lol, it is my final question that allows me to know there is more here to uncover.

Love and Light!

Photo by Abdullah Ghatasheh on