6 Things I’ve Learned From Having a Child with Special Needs
Let me start by telling you a bit about myself before I had my daughter. I was your classic, Type-A overachiever who desperately wanted everyone around her to be pleased with her at all times. (In fact, I’m pretty sure I went to law school to make other people happy. Not the brightest idea, to be sure.) My sense of self relied heavily on others’ opinions of me, and my expectations of myself required nothing short of perfection at all things. This made trying new things very difficult, because it’s shockingly difficult to be “perfect” at something you’ve never done before. That didn’t stop me from trying, however. (It also didn’t stop me from feeling totally dejected when, surprise, surprise, I didn’t live up to those daunting expectations.)
This perfectionistic, overachieving, people-pleaser set out to parent in much the same way I did everything else. While I was pregnant, I envisioned having a little doppelganger, whom I could teach big words, and dress in cute clothes, and, I suppose, in hindsight, teach to seek perfection in all things, just as I had.
But the Universe came up with a great way to rid me of all of this nonsense. The Universe gave me a bright, charming, beautiful daughter with special needs. When we first became aware of our daughter’s special needs, it was a huge shock to my system. My plans for my new daughter’s life had never factored in such a possibility. What followed was a tremendous growth period for me that gave me some startling lessons in what really matters in this life. These are lessons that have changed my life and made me a better parent. Though the process has, at times, been challenging, I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to learn them. And I’m still learning all the time.
- Perfection is not a worthy goal, for my child, or for myself (or, in my humble opinion, for anyone else, for that matter). Striving toward perfection is a sure way to make sure you’re disappointed in the end. It’s great to have goals, intentions, and aspirations; but demanding faultlessness of yourself or your children puts a lot of stress on both of you, and makes authentic, messy human reality into the enemy. How much better a role model can I be if I show my child what it looks like to make mistakes; to reach for a goal, but not always make it; to try valiantly at something, but be able to walk away with pride for the effort, rather than a blue ribbon for first place? If I want my child to accept herself for who she is, it’s a good idea to start by showing her that I accept myself for who I am, despite my faults and shortcomings.
- Accepting what is is a powerful way to meet any moment (or person). When we encounter the unexpected in life, it’s easy to react with resistance. “This isn’t what I planned or expected. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go,” you might think (or at least I did). But meeting life with this kind of resistance makes the journey much more difficult. Think about how it feels when someone or something resists you. It often causes you to unconsciously put your guard up in response. On the other hand, when you’re met with acceptance, you bring a different energy to the situation. Though it may take time to adjust when you’re met with the unexpected, when you can meet the moment with acceptance, rather than resistance, things flow much more easily.
- Our children are not here to fulfill our dreams or longings, to be extensions of us, or to otherwise make us whole or complete. Our children are whole beings in their own right from the moment they arrive here on earth (though they need our love, support, and guidance). The earlier you let go of your expectations for what your children are going to do, be, feel, want, etc., the earlier you can appreciate them for who they are and separate your dreams for your life from what you hope for your children. Children will have their own dreams, their own talents, their own path and lessons to learn. Though we are here to love and guide them through life, we cannot learn their lessons for them, and they can’t learn ours for us. As parents, we have our own paths, which we are responsible for.
- Love and acceptance are transformative. Children, like all people, can feel the energy we carry with us. If we are worried, stressed, or concerned, they know that. They also know when they are truly and deeply loved and accepted. It allows them to be who they are with abandon, to freely explore life, and feel confident in who they are. Love and acceptance allow us all to flourish into who we genuinely are.
- We all have “special needs.” Each one of us is an individual with strengths and weaknesses, as well as unique gifts we are here to share. We all need support in some areas; it’s part of the human condition. These areas are not ones we should be embarrassed of; they are what makes us human. If we can embrace our needs and those of others without fear, we can meet life in a more powerful way.
- Moments of presence are marks of “success” as a parent. We all know, deep down, that being a good parent has little to do with the material things we can give our children, or the things our children accomplish. Rather, our presence, our care, and our love are our real gifts to our children. Knowing that your parents are there for you in a genuine, connected way is a huge gift to a child, and it allows children to feel whole, accepted, and loved. That feeling brings children a great deal of security and joy. This is success as a parent, as far as I’m concerned. At the end of the day, we really want our children to be happy and know that they are loved. And it’s important to remember as a parent, that one of the essential ways to instill happiness in a child is to show them what it looks like by finding ways to be happy yourself. We can’t just teach with our words; we have to do it with our actions.
It is amazing what our children can teach us. I now see my daughter as one of the greatest teachers I have in my life. If you have children, what are some of the lessons they have taught you?