I don’t know which love is greater, the love I share with my husband, or the love I have for my children. More than intertwined, they are deeply tangled. To try and choose, would require unraveling their knots of time, and pulling them apart would cause too much pain.
Both of these loves began with worry. Early on love's seed was barely planted, still loose beneath the soil. I should have been nurturing it's newness but instead raced ahead. I was worried about what loss would feel like, before love even had time to take root, grow and blossom.
The story of my husband and I began with a dance. Something moved in me that moment when he took me in his arms. We danced the way my parents did, after spending half their lives together. And like my parents, my husband and I are both tall, yet still somehow I felt small and light within his arms, as if we were floating across that room.
Zoe just turned eleven! And after these eleven years of mothering her, I know better now, what I want for my daughter.
Acceptance, Open your eyes. I want others to accept my child for who she is, to look close and see her goodness. At first glance you might miss her amazing sense of humor, the way she can make you laugh or the positive light she radiates, and really.. that is your loss. My child greets everyone she sees with “Hello” , and tells each person she meets, store clerks included, goodbye.She has taught me how meaningful this simple gesture is-because what she is really saying is.. “ I see you. “ Zoe knows that when people look at her, they first often see her “ equipment”. She has accepted that kids stare (a lot) - but seeing the person behind the wheelchair is important. Acceptance starts with a simple and meaningful “ hello”.
This Mother's Day there will be thousands of Moms who don't receive handmade notes, or home crafted, crayon colored cards. These moms mother for a smile or a tender touch, they mother because that is simply what you do as a Mom. This letter is for the Special Needs Mom , whose child is unable to write or say the words this Mom may long to hear.
Even without my words you always know what I need.
When I am hurting or afraid, frustrated or weary, you gather me home into the safety of your arms.
You know what makes me smile, and fills my face with light.
You make my happiness when you sing my favorite song, and sweep the softness of my favorite blanket, across the curve of my cheek.
Thanks to HuffPost Parents, AOL Lifestyle, Yahoo Parenting, and all of the other awesome places this has been shared 500k+ times!
Special Needs Moms are lonely. I yearn for more time with friends and family. Authentically, I have a positive attitude and most often you see me smiling. I may even look like I have this SuperMom thing down, am super busy, and have enough help, but I am lonely. Being a Special Needs Mom doesn’t leave me the time to nurture and maintain the relationships I really need.I could get super detailed here about the hands-on caring for my child ( Do you remember when your kids were toddlers? That hovering thing you had to do? It’s that plus some.) The plus-some includes spreading my Mom love around to my other child and my husband, who on a daily basis are put on hold, waiting for my attention.I don’t have much time to call or email my friends and even family...and if they don’t call or email me, well then I feel massive guilt about the time that has passed. More negative stuff that I pile on my shoulders. Getting out is tough. I really miss the day’s when I had playgroups with other Mom’s, open-house style, dropping in and drinking coffee at a friends’ kitchen table with my child playing nearby.
Special Needs Moms have to work extra hard to preserve their marriage. This goes with counter-balancing the high stress of special needs parenting and directly combats the sky-high divorce rates for special needs families. I put extra pressure on my husband, he is my best friend and sometimes I expect unrealistic BFF behavior from him at the end of the day( see #1). He is my hero,supportive, patient and loving- and my kids would be totally lost without him. The success of our marriage, will affect the health of our children. My husband and I haven’t spent a night away from our kids for six years, we “ date night” out of the house every few months, for a two-hour sushi date. Our marriage is a priority so we “ steal” our moments when we can.
My girls are twenty months apart. " O" the big sister, is almost a teen- she wears wedge flip-flops, designs elaborate doodle drawings and can master most online games; All enviable accomplishments to her little sister, Zoe, who does her best to follow in her sister's footsteps. Where " O" can run , Zoe uses her walker. When the girls do "" Just Dance 4" on the Wii, Zoe has some pretty mean moves that are meant to model the spins and bounces her sister effortlessly exerts. The girls share the same medical diagnosis, however in our house, O is the " typical " kid ,and my expectations for her are great, maybe maybe even sometimes..unrealistic.
Olivia was about 8, when we started talking in detail about Zoe's diagnosis. It was then that I realized through O's little girl eyes, that she was expecting Zoe to get better. The medicines, the therapy appointments, even doctor's visits.. were all meant to make Zoe better, help her learn to walk and speak clearly. O was just waiting for it to happen, and waiting and waiting, until one day when she asked me if it ever would. And I told O what I knew to be our truth,. I watched her eyes fill with tears and waited for her words of grief, and instead heard her little girl voice ask" Does Zoe know, Mom?" She was protective of her little sister, trying to imagine if Zoe knew this, if Zoe, with her great love for life and easy laugh, knew this to be her future or if there was more hurt to come.
Well, technically the question in the packet of papers read “ What frustrates you most about your child?” The questions were typically brief and non-descript and this was the only question that made me pause, put down my pen and sigh. There was less than one line to complete my answer, not anywhere near enough enough space to tell my daughter’s story.
It was laughable really, that someone would ask such an open ended question that sounded so insensitive, at least to a Mom like me. The packet was specifically written for parents of kids with special needs, the question and answer process designed to know my child better.. but frustrates? Typically, when my kid misbehaves there is a “wiring” issue involved in the behavior.. processing, impulsivity, fatigue etc. There is nothing about my daughter Zoe that “ frustrates” me, as in.. “ gets on my nerves, drives me crazy, or really *#**#$* with my day.,..yet really... now that you ask.. almost EVERYTHING about Zoe FRUSTRATES me.
I am about 12 years into motherhood now.. and like a lot of Mom's I know, I still don't feel like I'm getting it right. Mothering kids with medical issues takes a purposeful amount of focus and attention, the kind that sometimes prevents you from being that cool " chill" kind of mom..yet still I try , and every day I learn.
I have learned that sometimes rolling off the bed as a result of a tickle fight is the kind of good clean fun that all kids need, low muscle tone or not.
I have learned that a smiling , happy faced kid, that got that " 5 more minutes!" in the pool she desperately wanted can help you dismiss and not obsess over-the flushed color of her fatigued face.
I have learned that your sad, crying kid- can break your heart at any age- whether a sick toddler unable to tell you what's wrong or a frustrated, overtired 10 year old that just can't verbalize every feeling she feels.
My day today began like any other, I was up at 5 packing lunches and backpacks, while trying to gulp down some coffee. I have an appointment at the office later, so I spent a few minutes standing in front of my closet sighing, before getting dressed and rushing through the morning rituals to drop my oldest daughter at school first.
Later, it is just Zoe and I in the car. The sun is streaming through the car windows. I put on some music and began making small talk with Zoe about her day.
I am used to the starts and stops in our frequent conversation. Zoe, is almost eleven now, and a thinker- yet she slowly forms her thoughts, chooses her words and processes it into speech. There are pauses as she searches for the word she wants, and fatigue can slow the pace, slur the word . Remembering all the years she could barely even communicate, I wait patiently and am still grateful each time she begins to speak.
Her thoughts come in word pieces and listening carefully, I fit the puzzle together ..
“ Mom, when I grow up and become a Mom, would this be a good car for me to drive and how do you learn to be a Mom anyway?” There it is, her question. And suddenly it’s as if the clouds have pushed the sun away, and my daily “ cup half full" approach to life has been smashed to hell. Zoe can't see my face, and I am glad. I don't want her to know the raw pain that is causing me to to hold my breath .
My girl is growing up, and thoughts of the future, are close , more menacing than when she was 5, and although she is an awesome kid doing amazingly well- she still has a progressive metabolic disease. She still has generalized epilepsy, kidney disease and although she grows more steady with the growing size of her body- she will always use a wheelchair and a walker to explore her world.
What I couldn’t say to Zoe is that with her vulnerabilities I can’t imagine her “ being a mom”- that her physical impairments alone ,will prevent her from ever driving a car. I refuse to even contemplate the complex medical conversations we have had about Zoe’s life expectancy, we just don’t go there.
Yet this reality is what sometimes separates me from other Mom’s. Tragedies that take kids too soon are always unexpected. As busy Mom’s we just forget that we are all fragile. We sometimes forget that the messy room, the lapse in homework , the bad grade -aren’t the important things about mothering.
In the last few months, I have heard too many stories about children lost too soon. Within the special needs communities, the families were fighting, and winning. Their kids survived surgeries, hospitalizations, and the everyday challenges that often come with raising a special needs kid. These parents were managing their kids health, their kids were stable, even improving with therapies. Their parents were seeking refuge in that stability that meant success-until the day their kids weren’t stable. Until one day their physical vulnerabilities were cause for taking their child’s life, and they were just gone.
I am guilty of doing it too sometimes. Getting caught up in the day to day. Zoe is doing well, we are managing , we are “winning” and then an illness comes along, a news story, a medical test, or a conversation like this one Zoe and I shared - and reality comes crashing through, grounding me again to what is really important.
And it’s this reality , that I wish every mom knew. It sounds harsh, I know.. - but it’s a secret that special needs moms have learned along the way. It’s something that I think all Mom's should know, or just think about sometime. That all that other stuff- just really doesn’t matter.
Let your KIDS light your soul and commit to be present in their moment , commit to really love your kids, love like they are the MOST important , love with the heartbreaking pain that comes with it. LOVE your kids, as if they were dying.
I think I recognize you! I do.. Before becoming a Mom, I used to live in your world of Black & White, everything in order- in it’s place- I got a plan- got a schedule- a list of finished projects- checked -off checklist and all. How wonderful for you that your life is so structured , so dependable and predictable that you cling to that line dividing right and wrong, black and white, and that you feel compelled to comment when you think someone is coloring outside the lines.
This time though, in your hurry to keep things neat and orderly.. you didn’t see the whole picture. I guess you didn’t see the accessible permit hanging from my car mirror, giving me permission to park close to the entrance. You didn’t see the wheelchair lift permanently installed into the back of my SUV, and you didn’t see me unload my little girl's pink manual wheelchair that we use for “ quick “ trips. Maybe from your view you only saw my older daughter and I, and not Zoe’s bubble gum pink wheelchair.
It was way past bedtime, when emotions often run high. O was tossing and turning - twisting her blankets into a furious ball and after one more kiss goodnight, putting on an audio book and one final threat from me, she asks “ What’s happening with Zoe and I right now? Why don’t we kiss and hug anymore? What’s going to happen when we grow up?”
What’s happening with my girls is the age/ maturity gap is getting wider and O is growing up. What’s happening is it’s summer and it’s hot- and when hot, tired or hungry.. courtesy of their metabolic disorder.. my girls get lethally grumpy. What’s happening is Zoe doesn’t have all the social skills or real life experience to transition, process or adapt to the changing routine or emotional climate. It doesn’t matter why it’s happening really, what matters is it’s my job to fix it, or at least make it a little bit better.
At the end of each day, when the lights are low, the kitchen cleaned up- the computers shut down, the kids tucked in- the dogs curled up asleep and my husband and I finally sit down to enjoy relaxing into the quiet, I try to absorb the contented feeling of what looks like a normal life. And then frantically get a game plan on how to make the next day better.
My girls have had a ton of doctors appointments over the last ten years. And something I have never really shared before , is that sometimes I feel lonely doing them all by myself. They are a long process, as you Mom's know. The driving and the waiting of it all. I am a practical, efficient kind of gal though, and it has never made sense to have my husband leave our small business unattended. It was only after seeing other Moms in waiting rooms, accompanied by BFF's, or their Mothers, that made me secretly wish for my own willing accomplice, just to hang out with me.
There was this one appointment for Zoe, that I won't ever forget. This one appointment, that I especially wished someone had shared with me. Not just because of the tears shed on the drive home, but really , just to share the clarity of what I DID see on that drive home.
It is past 8 o'clock at night, and my ten year old should have been asleep a half hour ago. But she isn't, she had to finish her book, have another snack, get a drink of water and now she is over tired. Her face is pale, her body is tired, and the aches and pains of a busy day have caught up with her. As I check on her one last time, dim her lights and prepare to kiss her goodnight.. I get a verbal recant of all that went wrong with her life that day, and all that my tired girl thought I was to blame for.. I get a litany of not so nice little girl words. Within minutes, I know she will be passed out from exhaustion. She has an ice pack wrapped around her leg, her baby blanket around her neck and her favorite stuffed animal tucked against her chest. I kiss her goodnight and let the words flutter and fall from the air.
To reach for the fun of everyday.. it has to be easy and at- hand- and sometimes simple is best. By that I mean, the seasonal art basket has to be in reach, the kitchen table rearranged so a little girl in her walker can look out the french doors on the side patio to check on her own blooming chalk flower garden, and that access through these doors is quick and easy so chalk sessions on the patio can happen spontaneously in the late afternoon- even though this little girl has had a tough week healthwise and big sister is coming down with a cough.
Because there is no medicine like love and laughter, add some sunshine, chalk and water.. and I believe with that.. we'll live happy ever after.
It's late, so the house is quiet and the lights are low. My box of kleenex is now empty. I hit the remote to turn off the tv and head first to O's room . And instead of quieting my craving to climb in bed and gather my first born's body in my arms, I instead bend down brushing my lips over the tip of her nose , and then close to her ear whispering.. promises. I love you's. More promises. I move next to Zoe's room, her cheeks are flushed yet she sleeps peacefully. First I gently kiss her forehead, and then each cheek. Finally her lips.There are no words for her. Just questions, questions I keep silently repeating. Am I doing my best? Making the right choices? Making memories? Teaching my daughters enough? Loving and Laughing enough? And the loudest question that is buried the deepest in my mothers soul -now is pounding in my head.." Will I have any regrets?"
I had just finished watching the movie Extraordinary Measures. Through mostly tear filled eyes. A lot of the drama for me was the imagery , the kids in power wheelchairs, the machinery, the illness, the fear, the desperation that was ever present. The emotional and open soul of a special needs mom.
The remarkable true story details a father's fight, and race against time, to not just find a cure, but to make the medicine that will save his children's life. Not a new story- and I had already read both books, mostly because I stumbled on them in my local library and I happen to read a lot. First I read " The Cure" written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Geeta Anand , the non fiction life account on which the screenplay is based- and then I read John Crowley's personal perspective " Chasing Miracles" .
Sleepy, yet unable to surrender, I lay in bed last night, thankful for the comforting warmth of my husband beside me, thinking... " Am I fighting hard enough? "
I fought hard for the answers and the eventual diagnosis. I pushed and pushed-first fighting for Zoe and then for O. But with a metabolic disease, there is a certain amount you have to accept. With their illness, it is the mitochondria that is damaged all throughout their body. It is on a cellular level that cannot be re-engineered, at least.. not yet.
It is morning now, the next day- and still I am moved and distracted by the difficult answers to all of these questions. I know am trying my best to make the most of everyday with my daughters. I am their best advocate. I support the cause and believe in the future of medicine and scientific advancement- but what is most important to me now is living like a typical family, I know this is best for the health of my kids today - even though fighting the hardest fight might be best for their future of tomorrows.
I thought she was asleep, until her head peeks out from beneath her blanket and she stretches her arms out for me. "Mom, your home! " Zoe says this with such joy as if I have been away for days. Not so. Just an hour, her bedtime hour. She is smiling sleepily " Daddy took really good care of me." I close her bedroom door and move down the hall and find Olivia, in bed, fast asleep with her pile of library books around her. Turning off her light, I go to find my husband, thinking of how lucky my girls are- and of the many kids out there whose Daddy's just don't stay.
My husband and I talked about wanting kids before we were even married. We had lots of peace and quiet then, we sat sipping wine in sidewalk cafes, planning our future . We spent weekends experimenting with gourmet recipes, and relaxing by the pool. He had his own company, and I was a career girl- but still our family felt like the right future for me. We stood in the courtyard at Four Seasons in Santa Barbara and exchanged our vows.
We have been blessed, and lucky and in love. Our vows remain unbroken, and statistically, it is a rare thing. Divorce is at an all time high,, throw in decreased success rates for second marriage, chronic illness/special needs and yes- we have defied the odds. But my heart breaks for those who haven't, for those spouses who messed up, gave up, moved on and out- the ones that literally left- leaving their little ones behind.
Nobody ever sees it coming. The economy has pillaged many happy homes. So has adversity, tragedy and the plain old fact that life is tough right now. I believe in doing what's best for the kids, and I get that sometimes that needs to be divorce.
And when you get married it is hard to imagine you and your spouse experiencing that worst case scenario, that tragedy, loss or life changing event . I hear about it happening more and more now. The hard to manage kids, or the family living with chronic illness or special needs, where one night Daddy just doesn't come home because it is selfishly easier to stay away. Or the spouse, who is always putting their family first and one day discovers that their life was all a lie, unexpectedly untrue.
Sitting across from my husband, I talk about the hour I spent at Olivia's school that night. He tells me about the girls and bedtime. " I know what you mean about Zoe" he says, " she was way past tired tonight. I worry about her... " his sentence trails off and I see the deepened expression settling in his face, hear the pain in his softening voice. I can read the words lodged in his heart, the ones he doesn't let go. I know what he wants, what he wishes for and how much he loves. And I think of all the broken families out there and I wish this was the only kind of heartbreak they ever had. The kind where Daddy's heart is broken by love, by wishes, by a wanting pain.
Instead of all those little children left behind , whose hearts are just broken by Daddy.
When Zoe was little, each moment of truth was stunning. She will never walk by herself. She won't run in the grass, walk in the sand, or recklessly dance her way across the room. These moments have continued as she grows older. Drive a car. Have a child. Grow old.
I grieve these truths and then move on, trying to live so typically that sometimes I can forget for a long, long while. Until now, now that Zoe, and her big sister, are coming to know these truths- and understanding them enough to shed their own tears.
Zoe is 8 now, and loves to sing and dance- read about Ramona, and is smart, especially in that " when you least expect it" kind of way. Zoe's big sister is almost ten, and I have spent these years teaching them that they can do anything,that everyone is beautiful in their own way, that they are just like everyone else. For Zoe especially, she believes this to be true- and only recently has she started to see how truly different she really is.
During a recent bedroom dance session, I caught some of her awesome moves on video. She grabbed my iphone the other day and began playing the clip. She was stunned. " Mom, I looked horrible ( one of her favorite dramatic declarations.. horrrrrrrible!) I thought I danced better than that she said- and then she sat .. silent for a few minutes. And then just yesterday, we were talking about her book report presentation, nearly a month away.. and in the midst of all of her objections, was that truth that came before the tears... " I can't speak like the other kids."
And yes, I know how to fix these things. We will practice, and practice and adapt. The awesome team at school will help her practice too, and her confidence will grow. I know it will be another accomplishment for her.. until the next truth comes. And is that what comes along as your special needs child grows older- teaching them these truths?
I get emails sometimes from other moms in the special needs communities. Asking about what I deal with or how. Have I ever experienced this or that.?. and the answer is most always yes. I just can't share that. The grittiest ugliest stuff, the seizures, the stroke, the sicknesses- to me the details are private, and to my husband and others who love them - It is painful too. And sometimes, there are no words. I try to protect my daughters when they are at their worst, I want to care for them, heal them the best I can and we just hunker down until the storm has passed.
The start of this school year has brought many of these reminders, the adaptions, the schedules, the fear of the fast spreading school germs that can knock the girls down in a moments notice. I have been scheduling the MRI's, The EEG's, evaluations, updates and labs. Soon it will settle down, and I will slip into the school routine again. And I look forward to moving on , keeping the painful moments private and living so typically that I can forget for a while , until the tears come again.