It was a cold December morning in 2015 when I waited anxiously in a brightly lit doctor’s office with my young son, feeling both hope and dread in anticipation of a diagnosis that would explain his recent behavior. Max, then 2 years old, sat in the middle of the floor ignoring the various toys scattered around him. He seemed distant and wouldn’t look at me. Shouldn’t he want his mother right now? I thought. Shouldn’t he be anxious?
As a baby, Max had been lively and sweet. He loved our bedtime-reading routine and playing with his stuffed animals. But my boyfriend, Eric, and I started noticing changes in Max’s demeanor around his second birthday. He stopped making eye contact with us. When we sat on the floor to play with him, he seemed uninterested, almost as if he was lost in his own world. He wouldn’t respond when we called his name.
I don’t know what I was expecting that morning, but I think part of me hoped for some reassurance that my son would simply progress in his own time. So, when the doctor told me Max had autism, I didn’t know how to respond. A flurry of questions arose in my mind: Would Max ever start speaking? What did this mean for our family? If Eric and I got pregnant again, would that baby have autism, too?
Suddenly, I was trying to recall every detail of my pregnancy: the nights I’d stayed late at work, what I’d eaten, how I’d slept. Had I done something wrong? Was this my fault?
I work as a TV news anchor-reporter, and I’m often first on the scene to cover homicides and other high-stress events. I’ve always been able to remain calm and confident under pressure. For the first time in a long while, I felt scared. What would the rest of my son’s life be like?
The first few months after Max’s diagnosis were overwhelming. I often felt like every parenting choice I made — the groceries I bought, the places I took him to play — would have a significant impact on his well-being. Suddenly, the weight of those decisions seemed twice as heavy.
Eric and I didn’t know whether to put Max in daycare or to look for a place that could offer him more specialized attention. Our calendar quickly filled with new appointments with specialists: occupational therapy, speech therapy, behavioral therapy.
Trying to balance it all while also working full-time — and working with Max at home — began to wear on me. I worked in the newsroom until midnight sometimes and then had to be up early the next morning for Max’s therapy sessions.
Eric and I had opposite work schedules and were like ships passing in the night. When we were together, all we talked about was Max’s cognitive development or whether we should join a support group for help in coping with parenting a special-needs child. It began to feel like Max was a project we were tackling rather than our son who just needed our love and support.
I started eating when I was stressed, which was nearly all the time. If someone brought doughnuts to the newsroom, I’d go back for seconds. I began to linger at the office into the wee hours, poring over books on autism while munching mindlessly on popcorn.
In just a couple of months, I gained 15 pounds. I felt sluggish and weary; I didn’t recognize my own reflection.
I was once an active person — I played basketball in high school and college and loved running and working out. I always imagined having a child who would play sports with me, who I could take into the newsroom to cavort with my colleagues. I felt confused and uncertain about what Max’s diagnosis meant for the life I’d envisioned for us.
Most of all, I wasn’t the best mother that I could be — and I knew my son needed me.
One Step at a Time
Max’s therapists recommended that we try to socialize him as much as possible, and we immediately thought of the Child Center at the Life Time near our home. Eric and I had often brought Max to the club with us when he was younger, and he crawled around on the mats at the play center while we worked out.
I knew I needed to recommit to a regular fitness routine; it would be a better stress reliever than late-night snacking. Plus, it would be a win for everyone: Max could spend time around other children, and Eric and I could get some much-needed exercise.
Each time we opened the door to the Child Center, the staff there greeted Max with huge smiles and called him by name. That spring, he started looking them in the eye and smiling back. Outside, he climbed on the jungle gym and ran around with the other children. He looked just like any other 2-year-old: active, boisterous, and happy.
Eric and I began going to the club more regularly, excited about the progress Max was making. It was such a comfort to take him to a place that embraced what makes him special. Driving home after each visit, we were relaxed and happy, a far cry from the overstressed, disconnected family we’d been just a few months before.
Walking the Walk
Once I got back into a regular fitness routine, I realized what I’d been missing during all those months of sleeplessness and stress-eating. It was like a chain reaction: I’d found an active outlet for my stress, so I was sleeping better; that gave me the energy to make healthier choices. I started prepping meals with fruit and lean proteins to take to work, which made me less likely to reach for chips or popcorn. I began drinking more water — and less coffee — and found myself feeling vibrant and energized.
These days, I’m showing up more fully at work and at home. Feeling more rested and purposeful has made my mornings less hectic, so I can have quality time with Max before I head into the newsroom. I’m able to work ahead on stories, so I feel more prepared and less rushed. And since my clothes are fitting better, I’m more comfortable on camera.
As we watched Max become more active, and as Eric and I grew stronger and fitter, we realized how important it is to take care of ourselves. Last October I ran a half-marathon. I felt so proud crossing the finish line, knowing I’d accomplished something great while also modeling healthy behaviors for my son.
That summer while I was training for the half-marathon, Eric and I would take Max to the pool at Life Time. Watching him giggle and splash around in the water was a welcome reminder that while Max may have his challenges, he’s still so full of life and love. And we know that living a healthy lifestyle will make us better prepared for any challenges the three of us might face together.
Meet: Christina Coleman, 32, a news anchor-reporter for the NBC affiliate in St. Louis, and mother of Max, a 3-year-old with autism.
Big Achievement: Alleviating some of the symptoms of Max’s condition and easing her own parental stress by prioritizing physical fitness for herself, her boyfriend, and their son.
Big Inspiration: Seeing how well Max interacted with other children at a child center. “Hearing the staff talk about how much his behavior was improving really gave me hope in a difficult time,” she says.
What Worked: Going to the health club on a regular basis and communicating Max’s behavior at the gym to his speech and occupational therapists.
What Didn’t Work: Binge eating to alleviate her stress; avoiding the gym.
Words of Wisdom: “Whatever struggle you’re going through, you have to take the time to care for yourself, both physically and emotionally. Embrace what makes your family different, learn to adjust, and push on. It will get easier.”