A person’s upbringing can explain a lot about their views, values and perspectives regarding every situation or difficulty they encounter. We each gather various life lessons and personality traits along the way which impacts every decision we make and how we choose to parent our children. When I reflect back on my own childhood experiences, I now recognize that the dysfunctional home filled with constant chaos in which I was raised in many ways formed the resilient and strong autism warrior mom I am today.
How do you do it?
It still surprises me when I’m frequently asked by a friend or passerby how I remain so calm and seemingly unrattled while battling my 17-year-old, non-verbal, severely autistic son’s mood swings and aggression. Before I’m able to respond, likely with a hardy chuckle, that question is followed by the statement “You’re the strongest person I know. I could never do it.”
The answer is quite simple really. There have been many days where I didn’t think I was cut out for this job either. I’m often not calm, cool or collected dealing with the hard, gritty and raw side of autism, but honestly who is? Becoming a parent comes with great responsibility and requires copious amounts of unconditional love and understanding – regardless if your child has special needs.
None of us are adequately prepared for the change of plans that comes with an autism diagnosis, but I firmly believe parents of special needs children weren’t selected by accident.
Turning turmoil into strength
After many years of soul searching, and plentiful amounts of therapy, it finally became clear where my strength and resiliency stems from – growing up the child of an alcoholic.
I was belittled, criticized, screamed at and made to feel insignificant by my father. He wanted sons, not daughters and he spent his entire life reminding us that we were inferior in every way.
It didn’t matter whether I failed or excelled at something, he didn’t seem to notice.
I spent my entire life trying to impress him to earn his praise and approval or perhaps invoke some sort of emotional connection. No matter my age, each time I accomplished something and shared the news with him – a high GPA, dance competition victories, multiple college degrees, a successful career, two amazing kids and became a published author, the news fell flat.
Nothing. No congratulations, smiles, hugs or emotion that even minimally showed he cared.
Even now, his dismissive attitude sometimes invades my confidence and positivity, making me doubt myself that I’m “good enough” and making the best parenting decisions.
Breaking the cycle
I imagine at one time or another, whether joking or serious, we all say “when I’m a parent, I will never treat my kids like my mom/dad treated me!” In my case, I was dead serious. The cycle of mental abuse and dysfunction would end with me.
I made a promise to each of my children the day they were born that they would never need to question whether I’m proud of them. They both see it in my face and hear it from my lips on a daily basis.
Parenting a child like my son with profound special needs requires a mother who has patience, unwavering support and the resilience to fight through the tough days.
Because of my father…I am that mother.
The mother who holds back tears while telling her son it’s okay that he pulled a handful of hair from her head.
The mother who understands that his body fights against him and he can’t control the aggression that causes destruction toward anything in his path.
The mother who beams with pride and cheers loud enough for the neighbors to hear when he learns a new skill.
The mother who will never give up teaching him various means of communication until he connects with the method that suits him best.
The mother who will observe and learn from her son – not force him into cookie cutter mold that he’ll never fit into.
Encouraging my children to try their hardest when approaching every milestone in life, big and small – each in their own distinct way and timeline is my most important job.
My father passed away in late 2020 and before he died, I had the opportunity to visit him one last time. The little girl in me that feared him and so desperately wished for his love and approval was overcome with sadness for the frail man before me.
During our brief interaction, he was presented with one last opportunity to re-write the ending of our story and leave me with the words I had waited a lifetime to hear… “I’m proud of you, I’ve always been proud of you.” Nothing. Our eyes locked in silence.
As I drove away that day, it actually felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
I realized that I no longer needed validation from my father and actually whispered ‘thank you’ into the silence that surrounded me.
Those childhood experiences of feeling unworthy and invisible actually prepared me for the special needs parenting journey that laid ahead. Those challenges, although not pleasant to live through, provided me with the skills necessary to be a strong autism warrior mother for my son.
*As Featured on Filter Free Parents & Love What Matters 2/23/21