I follow a lot of blogs. One of my favorites is Special Needs Mom, by a gifted writer named Suzanne Perryman. She posted an entry on April 14, 2013, that pops back up in newsfeeds occassionally and during the past week, I’ve noticed that several of the moms of students in my program have reposted it. Click here to read the post.
As I re-read this post, I realized that I know a secret about parents of kids with special needs, a secret they won’t tell you because they probably don’t even realize it …
The secret is that parents whose kids have special needs are brave.
What else do you call a person who has faced their worst fear and emerged changed for the better? In the past seven years, I’ve met hundreds of parents and I’ve only encountered one who was bitter, a young mom who’s daughter has cerebral palsy and who told me that her daughter was too disabled … more disabled than any other child and couldn’t possibly be part of my program. The rest of the parents I’ve met are … well, they are just brave. And brave people rarely tout their bravery.
They didn’t start out that way.
They started out on the road to parenthood just like I did … with a vision that did not include hospitals, therapists, resource classrooms. They were a couple with a shared dream of creating that perfect family that we all want. Maybe they imagined their child would be a great athlete or a great artist or a great engineer. While they were expecting, they imagined all those life events their child would experience … playdates, school plays, college, a wedding. For some of them, that imagining came to a halt during pregnancy, for others the end of the dreams didn’t come until later.
But at some point, life said to the parents I know:
“Sorry, you don’t get that dream. You better get busy trying to imagine a different one.”
And so that’s what they did.
They’ve taken the disappointment, the fear, the anger that they must have felt and have turned the other cheek. They refuse to let anything negative shape the rest of their lives or cast a shadow on the lives their children will have. They were dealt a blow that must have laid them flat on their backs, but they’ve gotten back up again, put a smile back on their faces and they’ve re-imagined the future without rancor and without regret.
There must be times when the heartbreak returns. Maybe a girlfriend tells them about her daughter, who made the cheerleading squad or maybe their buddy tells them about teaching his son to drive – and there it is … that pain, that regret, that feeling of, “Yeah, that’s what I thought I’d be doing.”
I think bravery is doing something, even when you don’t want to or are afraid and never allowing yourself to become resentful about it. Which is exactly what the parents I know do.
I’ve experienced a miniscule taste of what it might be like. Austin began to lose touch with his classmates around 9th grade and for the rest of his high school years, we were caught up in the drama of drug addiction. A few weeks ago, I ran into the mom of one of his kindergarten classmates and was startled when she told me that her daughter had graduated from college back in May.
“Wait a minute,” I thought to myself. “If Austin hadn’t spent six years using drugs, he’d be graduating from college now?” For a brief time, I let myself think about all that we missed … prom, high school graduation, fraternities and campus visits.
And as I thought about those lost dreams I’d had for Austin, I wondered if I would have turned out like that one parent I met who was bitter that her child had cerebral palsy or if I would have been brave enough to embrace an unexpected and uninvited path.
Once I said to a parent, “I don’t know how you do it,” not realizing that this would be offensive to her. Parenting her child was not some onerous task, some hardship she had to endure … parenting her child was a gift in life.
Was she like that to start with, before she knew her child would have a disability?
Or did having a child with a disability turn her into a resilient and brave woman who could accept that she was going to have to travel a road she never asked to travel?
Some of the bravest parents I’ve met are ones whose adult children have disabilities … those parents who insisted on bringing their children home from the hospital back in the days when doctors told them not to.
One father told me that when his son was born, in 1960, the doctor said,
“Put him in an institution. You’ll visit him once a week at first, then every six weeks and before you know it, you’ll never even remember you had him.”
Those parents brought their children home when there were no resources, no therapists or early interventions, when their children were not even allowed to go to school. I know so many parents who have retired and still have their children living at home and imagine that they worry every single day about what will happen if their children outlive them. But that doesn’t stop them from fully embracing the path life placed them on, despite what they might have imagined one day so long ago.
All I know to say is … that’s what bravery looks like.
The next time you see a parent of child who has special needs, remember this secret they will never tell you … when you see them in the grocery store or at your school or at your church …
You are in the presence of a person who is truly brave.
And the next time you are disappointed in something or life hands you an unexpected twist, and take inspiration from their bravery.