When I first became a mother, the age-old proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” was drilled into my head. But now that I’m nine years into this gig, I would argue that it actually takes an army.
You’ll need your village from the time you first step into motherhood until you’re an empty nester. The village offers the emotional and physical support that’s needed when you’re responsible for raising another human being. Villagers do things like babysit, bring casseroles, and carpool the kids. They’re the ones who pass rolls of toilet paper between the bathroom stalls in an emergency or offer up their baby wipes when you are trying (and failing) to clean your baby’s dirty bottom with paper towels.
However, mothers of particularly challenging children know that it takes much more than a team of villagers to keep us afloat. It takes a very strong, very determined, army.
One of my children — and I am still struggling to accept this — has special needs. I’m not talking about a dairy or gluten allergy here. The situation we’re facing involves major, serious issues. Sometimes I feel like, “I got this,” but most of the time I feel like I’ve just been strapped into a roller coaster that I’m totally unprepared to ride.
I have three children, and there is a very clear difference between raising a neurotypical child and a child with, as we call them, “super powers.” While typical children often act up, the events tend to be less intense and not as frequent. Parents of special needs children will often feel the sensation of their face burning with the heat of mortification after their child makes a scene in public. If I did not have a child with super powers, I would smugly look down on these mothers because I wouldn’t understand why it was so much harder for them. I would likely assume it was due to some kind of deficiency on their part.
I know how deep and dark my weaknesses go. I have been pushed well past what I thought was my breaking point, so I know my own strength and I know it well.
I also know with unequivocal certainty that the love of a mother can move mountains, and I would stop at nothing to help my child succeed. But all that pushing and overcoming is downright EXHAUSTING. So yeah, I need an army. We were never meant to do this job alone.
It’s incredibly lonely to face struggles with a special needs child, because there’s an empty abyss where advice and comfort would normally be. Nobody knows what to say except, “I can’t imagine, ” or “You’re such a good mom.”
Damn straight, I’m a good mom. NOW, TELL ME HOW TO MAKE MY KID BETTER.
This is when my army arrives. In my darkest hour. Just when I start to think I literally cannot do this anymore. I hide in my closet with my chocolate and make a phone call. I angrily whisper about what just happened in my house and how I’m not sure I have it in me to handle it this time.
“Yes, you do,” says the army. “You are going to do this and you are going to get through this because you are already strong enough to do this.”
My best friend has two boys who are both on the autism spectrum, so before we went to get a full psychological evaluation to determine what was going on with my son, she gave me the pep talk that no one else could. Other people with neurotypical kids don’t understand what it’s like to parent a child who is different. To get through a set of challenges, and to get through them in one piece, mothers need friends who can tell us the truth. We need someone to take us by the arm and demand that we continue walking. And, in some cases, we need tough love.
One of my friends sent me an email when I was having a really hard time, and I look back on it when I need a reminder. Here’s an excerpt from it:
“I want you to imagine [your child] as an adult with two different paths: One is where you don’t do what you need to do and don’t address your reaction. The other is that you recognize this will be hard, you know you can do it, and you make this situation your bitch. You’re going to choose the second option and make it your bitch. You are going to remember that you are a good mom. No matter what, you are a good mom.”
My challenging child is the light of my life and one of my greatest sources of joy. I’m proud of the person he is today and the person he will become. But mostly, I’m proud of us. Through the beautiful and the ugly, we’re both still standing. We’re learning from each other. I’m lucky to have him.
Behind every child that overcomes obstacles, there’s a persistent adult who was strong enough to pull them through. What you may not notice is the army standing behind her, glowing with pride.