There are many, many times I feel I am a substandard mom, and I hold June Cleaver personally responsible. Well, her, Carol Brady, Marion Cunningham, Cliff & Clair Huxtable, Elyse and Steven Keaton and maybe even Marge Simpson.
After all, these are the people that promised me a happy marriage, and 2.5 “normal” children who will at times be faced with the challenges of the average childhood. In retrospect, even the show Roseanne, a comedic example of a “dysfunctional” family, was misleading in contrast to my current family life.
Throughout the 70’s and ‘80’s, people with differences were almost never portrayed in regular television programming. All the main characters were deliciously “average.” The most dramatic sit-com episodes dealt with a teenage boy getting a piercing or a cute kindergartener trying to overcome a lisp.
Those were the very shows that set my expectations for my own future as a parent.
Instead, my parenting experience has been more like some sort of anthropological documentary showing never-before seen footage of some illusive new species. Playing the role of “Mom” has meant leading my family of not-so-typical beasties through a wilderness of the unknown while at the same time trying to maintain the appearance of normalcy in an average suburban neighborhood. In effect, I sometimes feel like I’ve been on safari for the last 17 years.
When my oldest child was diagnosed with ADHD at the ripe old age of four, I was somewhat surprised, but quickly embraced the fact that lots of kids have ADHD. Of course most of them aren’t suspended from pre-school for being a distraction, but my son always was an over-achiever! I had always felt my son was very easy to parent and his diagnosis was barely a bump in the road.
When my son was eight-years-old, he became a big brother. Baby sister made parenting big brother look like a cake walk! From the time she was born, little sister screamed. A lot. In fact, for the first 6 months of her life, not a day went by without a minimum of 4-5 hours of screaming.
Over and over, our pediatrician said our little screamer simply had colic and was just a high-strung child. Because she said a few words at age 18 months, the pediatrician insisted she was “normal.” Because she cried, covered her ears and shook whenever she didn’t get what she wanted after apparently sending me messages by mental telepathy or was exposed to anything new or different, it must have been because I was spoiling her. Clearly I was a failure at this whole parenting thing.
When we finally got the diagnosis of “Asperger’s syndrome” (autism spectrum disorder), it came as a huge relief because it meant I wasn’t as inept as I had believed I was.
And then I had baby number three. Down syndrome? Are you kidding me?
Where was my Cosby Show parenting experience? How were there no less than six “normal” kids in the Brady Bunch and I didn’t even get one? Did I unknowingly grow up near a nuclear waste dumping site? Is it just ME?
No, it’s not just me. And if you’ve ever felt like an imperfect parent, it’s not just you. There are hundreds of thousands of us out here whose kids deviate from the examples of “normal” children we were all bombarded with by television sit-coms of the ‘70’s, ‘80’s and ‘90’s. The very shows most of us grew up with are the very portrayals of family life that may have left many of us feeling like “less-than” parents. It doesn’t help that some of our parent-peers have also apparently turned parenting into a competitive sport, either.
Do you dislike getting those family letter-updates in holiday cards from other parents? The holiday season often seems like some sort of brag-fest — a veritable competition of just how far beyond awesome everybody else’s typical children are. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for all my friends with “typically developing” children, but reading all these glowing reports does little for me on a personal level. It’s hard for me to relate to friend XYZ whose kid being invited to play in the All-State soccer team AND got straight A’s on his report card every year since pre-school. In our family, getting our 5-year-old potty-trained was the biggest news of the year (and yeah — we had a PARTY to celebrate it)!
But we are not “less than!” No — while other parents may strive to be the perfect soccer-mom, little-league dad or future “Proud Harvard Parents,” we are doing something far more exotic! WE are on safari! While the Cliff & Clair Huxtables of the world are worrying about taking the right exit to get to the ballet school or kid 1 dying his hair purple, you and I are paving the way through the less familiar. And while any of us can feel lost at times, it’s important to slow down in those moments and take in the unique beauty of these roads less traveled.
Once upon a time children with even the mildest of differences were hidden away in institutions, but now it is our time as special needs parents to tell a new story. With the number of autism diagnosis’ going up and more inclusive educational systems for children of all abilities, we as special needs parents can play an important role in helping our society define a “new normal.” We have stories that should be heard by anybody and everybody. This is our chance to pave the way toward acceptance and diversity to help ensure our children and the special needs children of future generations will have a smoother journey.
Photo by ParkerDigital