The first few years of parenthood felt like an emotional roller coaster. Everything about being a new mom was both thrilling and terrifying at once. My expectations and emotions rose and fell quickly depending on how much my son ate, slept, or smiled at me that day. I anticipated a few twists, turns, and dips taking us from infant to toddlerhood. But we came to realize that our son’s abilities were not typical. He has special needs. Our car jumped the track. We no longer even rode on the same ride as other parents.
We are parenting a child with invisible special needs.
Both my husband and I have been called “Type-A Overachievers.” Our pre-marital counselor labeled us existential control-freaks. Perhaps it’s only fitting that our four year old is the one teaching us to slow down and to focus on character more than accomplishments. In a world that’s constantly telling me otherwise, I need that reminder—just as often as he gives it.
We are not raising a child in pursuit of the typical American Dream: a future based on success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative. That definition could also be summarized as achievement based on self-sufficiency. Instead? In his own unique way, my son teaches us the necessity and beauty of need.
I had a lifetime’s worth of achievement awards.
As a young person, I wrapped up my own value in what I did and how well I did it. I carried that into adulthood—and straight into my marriage. There, I also struggled to learn the difference between having desires and having goals for someone else. When I have a goal for my husband? I often approach our relationship with an agenda. I begin to view him as a project rather than a partner. And our relationship suffers under the pressure of failure or success. Whereas, when I have a desire? I am vulnerable and hopeful (instead of demanding or disappointed). I confess that I unwittingly approached my parenting the same way.
My son is not my report card.
As my son grew well beyond his peers in height and size, he remained behind in language and development. This combination is tailor-made for unsolicited commentary on his behavior—and my parenting. A continual chorus of unrealistic expectations descend on my son—and myself. It was painfully sobering to realize just how much I wanted approval—or even understanding—for my parenting choices.
Before learning of my son’s disability? I read numerous parenting books and tried countless tactics to “control” or change his behaviors. And after? I learned that perspective is sometimes the first real change that’s needed. When it came to special needs, the ‘unknown’ often replaces the ‘expectation.’ Aside from the initial fear, eventually a newfound freedom emerges. And to be candid? I don’t know if I would have prioritized the value of connecting with my son if I hadn’t realized controlling him was no longer an option.
The real freedom is from my own hidden agenda of success.
Suddenly, there is space to discover who he might be—apart from what he does and how he does it. Every day, I get the privilege of being invited into his world. It’s sometimes slower and louder than mine. The feelings are much bigger and the sleep cycles are much shorter. But he loves me just because of who I am. Not because of my title, or what I look like, or who else does or doesn’t like me. And he is teaching me the beauty of just needing to be who he is and where he is each day. I am trying to learn that for myself as well.
Today, I want him to go to sleep probably more than I want him to go to college. Because a good night’s sleep is what we all need, right now. Not that I don’t also have long-term dreams for him—but every day I am trying to hold my desires for him a little more loosely—while holding him a little more closely. And that feels so wonderfully different from the parenting expectations that once held me.