With his cousin’s arm around his shoulders, my son is focused, smiling at the camera and the world. He is fully present, just another boy on a day trip to the zoo. Yet the previous photo, snapped just a moment before, tells a different story. Before his cousin’s gentle touch guided him back into reality, he was somewhere else entirely, his vacant expression and flat affect advertising his isolation from those around him. In the space of that magic touch, my son traveled worlds, transformed from a lost soul into a found one.

It would be so easy to frame his smiling self, and pretend that this single shining moment defines him. Perhaps others would choose to dismiss this moment as an anomaly, and embrace the other photo, the one that captures his otherness. Certainly such a position would decrease the tension and responsibility I feel at every moment. Yet these photos are the two sides of my son, and I struggle to embrace both of them, despite their extremes.

He lives in the chasm between these two worldsI recognize that neither photo tells his story. He lives in the chasm between these two worlds. As his parent, I constantly struggle to locate him amidst these shifting sands.

There have always been two photos. In nursery school he had a best friend, and they shared an unusually close relationship. Yet to his teacher he was standoffish and removed. “I don’t feel like he relates to me the way the other boys do,” she explained to me towards the end of the year. “Maybe there is a language issue.” I looked at this woman, who had taken my son into her home overnight when I had to spend a night in the hospital, and I trusted her judgment. That was the beginning of our quest into the world of speech therapy.

Since our family is bilingual, my son received speech therapy in two languages. Today he moves between the two with fluidity and ease. His vocabulary is large, and he utilizes it well. Yet the issue remained—that vague unease that made his teachers turn to me again and again to say, “There is something here that I can’t put my finger on; something is going on under the surface.”

Parents face a constant struggle over how much to intervene. Too much parental intervention is stifling. Not enough is neglectful. There is a part of me that would like to let whatever lurks under the surface remain under the surface, unlabeled and undiscussed. Sometimes this part of me tries to convince me that this will protect my son. How can something exist if nobody acknowledges it? This is the emotional equivalent of the riddle “If a tree falls in the forest.”

Yet I would never tell a cancer patient to just let their disease lurk in the forest unheeded, as though ignoring their growing disease would alleviate its menace. I would tell them to fight it, even if fighting it entailed solidifying the menace into something tangible.

So we fight. Yet progress is not linear. For every step I take towards acceptance and understanding my son, something in me takes a step back, rejecting what I already know to be true.

“We all space out,” I tell myself. “So what if he doesn’t realize what he is doing sometimes? How much self-awareness does a kid need anyway?”

This works for a while, until it doesn’t. One night, as I am putting him to bed, he kisses me gently on my face and my ear. The pain is sudden, sharp, and unexpected. He has bitten me.

I struggle to hold onto my awareness of his strengths and limitations at all times“You bit me,” I exclaim, pushing him off my lap. He is as surprised as I am by his action; somehow he slipped unaware over the boundary between love and aggression. As the bruise on my ear swells and burns over the next few days, once again my defenses crumble.

The hardest part of this whole thing is that you wouldn’t know anything by looking at him. You wouldn’t know the love and gentleness that he is capable of. You wouldn’t recognize his capacity for aggression and destruction either.

Yet as his mother, it is my job to know. I struggle to hold onto my awareness of his strengths and limitations at all times.

I struggle to hold two those photos in my heart always, even as I frame only one of them.