As I scoured the preschool floor for my missing earring, I heard her voice…”You are so amazing. I don’t know how you do it every day. You’re so strong. Like a supermom.”
Preschool drop off has never really been easy and lately, we are truly struggling – in many areas and ways. This particular instance involved quite a bit of physical and mental struggle and it took a lot reassurance, use of our picture schedule and storytelling. It took me sitting on the floor, face to face and heart to heart as I squeezed him so tightly I could feel it beating, my lips touching his soft little ear as I whispered our mantra of sorts, “You’re safe. You will have the best day ever. Mommy will come back after nap and snack. I always come back. I love you.”
As I stood up, brushing from my sweaty face, pieces of hair that had been yanked from the messy bun I’d slept in the night before, our eyes met. She’d seen me drop him off countless times. She’s seen us on the verge of meltdowns, the panic in his eyes when he realized his coat hook and cubby had moved location.
We never really spoke before this day, other than the customary etiquette that often ensues as parents go about the weekday ritual of delivering their children to daycare and preschool before heading to work. And largely, that’s because I’m usually always on the verge of tears as I leave the building. I want to say more, but I can’t. I need to hold it together until the car…God just let me make it to the damn car in time.
So many times, mothers of children with special needs are praised for their strength, perseverance and determination in raising their children. While it’s great being reminded that you’re a good parent, there is something inherently uncomfortable when you are told you are strong for raising your child that has special needs. When people share these sentiments, I know they mean no harm. If anyone reading has said this to me – or a parent raising a child with special needs – I understand it all comes from a good place. However, deep within me there is such an unsettled feeling that while the world around me sees me as this fearless, caped supermom, I know that on the inside I am insecure, scared, and every day, so completely overwhelmed by the road I am on.
When someone tells me I’m strong, there is a part of me that wants to scream at the top of my lungs how utterly weak and defeated I feel. I often nod my head, take the compliment, and know most parents in my situation likely feel that their strength is NOT an option. When you have a child that is medically fragile, autistic, developmentally delayed, or intellectually disabled, the only person that can advocate and fight for that child is the parent. There are only two choices (1) you take on the fight (2) you abandon your child. Most parents could never conceive of leaving their child, and therefore the only choice they have is to put on their big kid pants and plough forward, full steam – just like Thomas the tank engine.
That particular morning at drop-off, and every time I hear it, the most difficult part of being told that I’m strong is that I feel like it means I’m not allowed to be weak or have moments where I don’t feel confident or happy. It feels like a lie. Most days it feels like I have to put on a brave face, but in reality, all I want to do is hide in my closet and cry on the floor – and I have. I never feel like I can be scared, frustrated, overwhelmed or sad because I have to be strong for my child. Over the past few months, I’ve come to the slow realization that I don’t have to be strong all the time. It’s getting too hard…
To all the moms in this special needs community, you certainly don’t need it, but you have permission to have a bad day…to cry…to scream…and to feel hopeless – and not feel guilty for any of it. We cannot always hold it all together. If we don’t stop to feel our emotions, we will only find ways to destroy ourselves.
The world sees us as superheroes for our children, and I imagine they believe we are cloaked in our vibrant capes as we dash to various appointments. But do you want to know the truth? The truth is that no single person is capable of being a superhero all the time. It’s natural to feel weak, to feel sad, and to grieve the life you thought you’d have…and the one you are now living. It doesn’t mean you are ungrateful or love your child any less.
The next time someone tells you how strong you are and how much they admire the color of your cape and your ability to be supermom, I challenge you to be vulnerable and messy with the people in your life. Tell them you don’t always feel strong. Tell them there are days you feel like it’s absolutely impossible to deal with any more stress…and that you just need someone to let you not be strong…for just a minute.
When I have forced myself to get honest with my friends and family, I have found that this is where I find my real strength. I feel their support as they listen to all my frustrations and sadness. We can’t keep it all in, all the time.
I encourage you to NOT be strong every single day. I’m working on it, and you should too. Your sanity depends on your ability to process all these feelings. Once you’ve had a chance to feel weak, it is only then, you will know the truth of how to be strong.