Parenting is tough stuff. Really tough at times. And it doesn’t matter if you have one kid or seven of them. It doesn’t matter if your child is embracing his terrible twos or acting like a moody teenager (and she’s only seven).
But when you’re parenting a child with autism (or any special needs), the struggles go beyond the typical parenting difficulties. This form of parenting is what I like to call – extreme or ultimate parenting because the challenges are so unique and often intense, leaving us moms feeling perpetually isolated. Which is exactly why it’s so important to have a strong support system. And, in my experience, the best support -hands down- is from other moms of kids with special needs.
I’m not just talking joining an online discussion board or Facebook group. I’m talking about really getting to know other mothers who know what it’s like to parent kids who are different. These are people who hear the words “birthday party” and immediately understand the emotions that flood the brain of a mom like me.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t know what I’m talking about; I’ll explain. See, our kids don’t get invited to very many birthday parties and that can be hard. Or, if they do, oftentimes there is just too much going on and that makes it really challenging for them to be at a party. So we struggle with seeing our children left out completely or going and wondering if they will be ok.
The bond among us moms happens quickly and it runs deep, because we understand the unique joys and pains of parenting special kids. We grieve over much of the same things all moms do, but we also celebrate the things the rest of the parenting world considers completely mundane, like eye contact, learning to spit out toothpaste, or finally remembering to close the bathroom door.
We just “get it.” That’s a phrase that is thrown around a lot in the special needs parenting community because it’s the best way to describe a connection that can be hard to articulate.
The closest comparison I can think of is this: every time I travel, I end up talking to the person wearing a jersey with the logo from my hometown baseball team or hat from the college I attended. We are strangers, away from home, connecting over a common bond. If it weren’t for the jersey or hat, we probably would not be interacting.
It’s the same with parenting special kids. It’s easy to find and connect with other autism moms. Our kids are in class together, we sit in waiting rooms together and we can often spot each other a mile away. We’re the ones holding the hands of kids who should be embarrassed about handholding in public. We’re the ones praising our children for things that seem unpraiseworthy to those who don’t know our kids. We’re also the ones trying to manage a very public meltdown.
Almost two years ago I agreed to participate in a weekend retreat for mothers of kids with special needs. I only knew one person going, but I desperately wanted a weekend away.
I went with no idea of what to expect except a chance to spend two nights away from my family. I walked away with something I never expected to take home – meaningful connections with 20 other moms of special-needs children I barely knew before the weekend.
On Friday we were practically strangers. By Sunday we felt like long- lost sisters simply because we understand the unique joys and challenges of raising children with special needs. Regardless of our personalities or beliefs (autism is caused by vaccinations/autism is not caused by vaccinations) and regardless of the ages of our children or the severity of their disabilities, we could easily relate to each other.
I learned so much from this group of extraordinary women who are parenting extraordinary kids. At the top of that list: you will always have moments when you grieve over the challenges of raising a child with special needs.
I learned that although we are in a sisterhood we didn’t ask to join, being with women who understand the challenges of special-needs parenting makes the journey less lonely.
Spending time with these women reminded me that as mothers, we are truly strong women, even when we don’t feel strong. We love our children unconditionally, even on the hardest of days.
This weekend gave me something I didn’t know I needed – the chance to be with other women who “get it.” Which is why my first bit of advice to moms who are trying to wrap their brains around a new diagnosis is to find your sisterhood. It’s out there. It should be easy to find. Trust me when I tell you that you need it. You just don’t know how badly you need it.