The National Women's Theatre Festival

G@#$%?&! They Get It From Us!


 As a parent to an autistic child, this phrase haunts me.

In my early 20s, I worked  at a school in Manhattan for kids on the autism spectrum. Born and bred Upper East Side parents would come in for parent-teacher conferences with requests like, “Please don’t let my child appear in photographs. We don’t want the fact that he had to go to this school to come up when he runs for office one day.” Others, overwrought, would ask pleadingly, “How did this happen?! Was it the lead paint?!”

At that time, society had a very different cultural understanding of autism and autistic people. But back then, I believed similarly to now: With just about any kid, you can simply look to their parents and understand why they are the way they are. 

It’s Nature. 

It’s Nurture.

It’s never from licking the walls.Take my 10-year-old for an example. As a neurodivergent parent (Oh, hello ADHD!) to a neurodivergent child I have now seen firsthand how traits are passed along. In addition to neurodivergent brains, we share the same broad smile and a passionate love of profanity.

Yup. I love cussing. I love it so much that one of my husband’s first “critiques” of me was, “Maybe don’t drop so many f-bombs when you’re on the phone with my mother.” I know, she’s my mother-in-law, but talking to her made me feel comfortable…And if I’m comfortable, I’m cussing! 

My son was mostly nonverbal until age 5 maybe that’s why I never stopped cussing in front of him. But I wasn’t the only one! Howard Stern cussed in front of him. My own trash-mouth Philly mom cussed in front of him. And I was far from the only person to take delight in “GODDAMMIT” being one of his first words. 

We are a happy neurodivergent family and we let our child cuss!  There are rules, of course: 

You can cuss at home.

You can cuss with family. 

And we all understand that other families have different rules.

(As parents, we get that not all adults can deal with a cussing kid out in the world and frankly, we can’t deal with unsolicited parenting advice from strangers.)

A few weeks ago, we were at the park on a playdate. He kept acting out a scene  in which he repeated “What the HELL was that?” Over. And over. Very loudly. Everyone around, mostly mothers and toddlers, began staring at us. 

I quietly asked, “Hey Bud, remember our rule? Can you stop saying ‘Hell’ out here on the playground?”

He says, “Dad says Hell isn’t a cuss word.” 

“Yeah . . .  but . . . it kinda is. And I’d like you to stop saying it right now.”

If you too, Dear Reader, have ever parented a 10-year-old, you know that this was not the end of our discussion. He became really  agitated. As he’s escalating I tell myself that he’s just trying to find a loophole in our rules. But as I listened to his words, I realized that cussing wasn’t the root of his upset.

He genuinely believed that Hell is not a cuss. It felt impossible to him that Dad could be wrong. He was spiraling out, wondering.   “If Dad and Mom don’t have the answers, how can they keep me safe?”

You see, my son recently lost two very close grandparents in quick succession. The suddenness of Death entering his world, twice, has changed him. It has changed how he views the world and his place in it. Everything depends on Dad and Mom really knowing what the fuck we’re talking about. 

I realized that what my son needed from me was to prove his Dad right on the whole Hell thing. Proving it is not a cuss word was key. Even more important than stopping the looks of disgust I was receiving from the other mothers. 

So we did what any modern parent would in a moment of not-knowingness. We Googled it.  The internet states that Hell’s status as a cuss word is conditional on its context. Fantastic! What followed was two weeks worth of “grammar lessons” parsing out when Hell is a cuss and when it is not. 

Even for a big, huge fan of cussing such as myself, this is exhausting. But not nearly as exhausting as contending with the big kid feelings behind it all.

“I’m going to stay 10 forever,” he tells me all the time.

Convinced that he does not have to grow up, his logic is perfect. If you grow up, you get old. If you get old, you die. 

We all know he can’t fight what’s happening inside his body and brain. He is growing up. He’s maturing, and becoming more curious about understanding the world around him.

This he also gets from me. This desire to know and to understand and to create. We are big-hearted adventurers with epic dreams and smart mouths. But we didn’t get that from lead paint or “something in the water!” We are this way because of each other. 

We may get a lot of dirty looks on the playground. And our methods may look like madness to some. But in this family we believe that there is room for ALL (neuro)types, we believe in Googling the answer, AND we believe in cussing.

Written by Johannah Maynard Edwards, Executive Artistic Director of the National Women’s Theatre Festival.

Johannah & Son on epic cross-country road trip last fall. Pictured here with sun setting over the Grand Canyon!

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