My Life in Color: On breakdowns, breakthroughs, and bricks, oh my!

My Life in Color

I am sitting in the back of my mother’s car between two large car seats.

It’s late November 2019, and it’s cold and snowing. I traveled with a 2-year-old and a baby for several hours (airport to airplane to airport) from Central California back to our home in the mountains. As my baby, Daphne, starts to cry, I try reaching into my canvas diaper bag on the floor for something to calm her. I find that my seatbelt is locked. I keep leaning forward, only to be blocked by the safety mechanism in the seatbelt. Over. And over. The baby keeps crying. My toddler starts to fuss. I am trapped. Emotionally, mentally, and physically. I scream (literally), to the benign bewilderment of the children next to me and the complete astonishment of my mother and husband in the front seat.

Photo credit Meg Bird Photography

We close out 2019 with a total of 31 different therapy appointments for my son, attended at various stages of pregnancy and (when the pregnancy leads to a newborn) with a small baby in tow. We then enter 2020. With a pandemic. An earthquake in our mountain home. Civil unrest. Political unrest. More speech therapy appointments. Juggling an inordinate amount of time with small children, jobs, life. I am simultaneously still feeling stuck in that back, middle seat while also feeling like I’ve been let go from whatever has kept me tethered to the earth my entire life. One year after my middle-seat car ride, on a foggy December day, my oldest child Calvin is diagnosed with autism.

I stare at a green hedge out the window of my mother-in-law’s office back in Central California where we are staying for the holidays. It is the only color I remember from the day. The psychologist gives us the diagnosis, and denial follows swiftly afterward. Then anger. Then denial again. I keep staring at the green of the hedge. As soon as we end the Zoom call I drive, aimless, through the neighborhood streets. I am surrounded by pockets of fog—the vast pavement of the West Coast infrastructure neverending beneath the car. It is a gray winter day in the San Joaquin Valley.

Life feels like it will never be anything but gray.

There’s no rulebook for motherhood, but the picture-perfect ideas on Instagram and Pinterest provide a cloyingly nice framework for a lot of “should”s. Childhood should look like a rainbow of food for every meal. It should look like no screen time. It should look like well-rounded Montessori experiences. (It should look like less-than-colorful language.) It should look like a mother who has every moment curated and planned to climate-controlled, sterilized perfection.

Everyone says there’s no rulebook, yet we all somehow fail to say how we subscribe to an unspoken rulebook anyway (rules may vary).

A rare look at the end of a breakdown. We’ve all been there

About a month before Calvin’s diagnosis, I am on the hardwood floor of our home, sitting and weeping on the landing to our garage (because meltdowns never happen in comfortable, convenient places). I’ve had numerous meltdowns this year, yet for some reason this is the one where I begin to realize and decide that I have to let go of some things. I begin to see myself on a metaphorical path. Not on Calvin’s path, since that’s for him to traverse and cultivate. I’m on my own. Our paths are near each other (so if he stumbles, as we all do, I can help him up), but they are separate. Distinct. And while the basic words we’ve been grasping for in speech therapy and the developmental milestones we have yet to reach are somewhere along his path (with continued therapy and intervention), I can no longer try to drag him along to reach them at the pace I want. I can only focus on my path. I allow myself to give him space—to learn, to grow, to throw the tantrums (as much as they can make day-to-day so difficult).

Calvin on the first day of Kindergarten. A milestone I couldn’t imagine reaching.

What I didn’t anticipate was that in turn, I allowed myself space. To learn, to grow, and to throw my own tantrums. (Remind me to tell you about the time that I literally smashed a pumpkin outside after my kids went to bed because I was raging through my emotions.) (And remind me to tell you how damn satisfying it was.)

All of us. Photo credit Meg Bird Photography

With an autism diagnosis, I am forced ,(by a sheer survival instinct), to stop believing in a rulebook.

Remember in the film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz? How Dorothy is swept up in a black and white and gray tornado and wakes up in technicolor? I wish I could say this journey was like that–the tornado comes and instantly I’m dropped in a rainbow world of saturation. It would have been easier. Cleaner. A much more comforting story to tell.

But, in my experience, life isn’t typically like that. The transformation on my bleak, foggy, gray path happens brick-by-yellow-brick.

No higher significance. Just me in my dream van in my favorite color.

I begin a gratitude journal (my last-ditch attempt at believing in a gratitude practice, as I had never felt the efficacy of one before). I purchase a book called Living with Color, and begin to notice the nuances of color all around me. Even in the grayest of grays (is that a little bit of yellow I see? some blue?). I take a job as a graphic designer for a company that celebrates crafting and color and creativity. I tap into my English roots (pun intended) and begin gardening and finding an oasis of color even in the most frustrating of weeds (I find some fuchsia-tinged clover at one point and am still in awe that that color exists in the physical realm on a plant I don’t want to leave in my yard). (I won’t mention the colorful language I start using as I cope with parenting two small, difficult humans.)

Teaching my daughter to love gardening

I follow the path of what I love—what lights me up from the inside out: flowers, patterns, colors, design, typography, lettering, (swearing, apparently), reading, making, yoga, gardening. I don’t know where my particular yellow-brick path will lead, but I know that with each clue, more color is brought into my life. And I come back to myself, more fully and completely.

Photo credit Raquel Acevedo Photo


Children with autism are officially diagnosed with “autism spectrum disorder.” My son’s spectrum has allowed my spectrum, and the spectrums of other members of my family, to become more fully saturated. We’ve created a veritable rainbow.

All of us. Photo credit Meg Bird Photography