catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 6 :: 2014.03.21 — 2014.04.03


A different kind of mom

I had awkward years in my youth, like most anyone, I guess.  But I always felt good about who I was, and don’t remember longing to be a part of a group at any point during my growing up years.

When I got married and headed into motherhood, I started to realize I didn’t want to be a typical first-time mom.  I didn’t want to be too nervous, or anxious, or scheduled, or germ-freaked.  I worked hard to enjoy life as it came, and found an ease in the early part of my firstborn’s life.  He was a good baby, nursed easily and I settled in quite nicely to the new role of mother.   But as he approached toddlerhood, it was evident that he wasn’t like other children. He became increasingly difficult, barely slept and threw tantrums of epic proportions.  After a friend approached me to tell me she thought something was wrong, I began seeking help.  I went to dozens of doctor appointments over the following years only to be told that he was “just being a boy,” or that I needed to spank him more.  I began to slide in my identity in the “good mother” group, and began finding myself in the failure crowd.

I had another son, and my oldest was struggling more and more.  He began showing signs of sensory sensitivity and motor skill troubles, and continued the violent, epic tantrums.  The tantrums never ended.  Right before his fourth birthday, we finally started getting attention.  We had a nurse who came to the home as part of a military program to support mothers of infants.  She saw Samuel in all of his terrifying tantrum glory.  She affirmed what I had known at a soul level for more than two years: something was very wrong. She flew into action to get us professional help and became an advocate to bypass the doctors who had said he was just being strong-willed.  During the whirlwind process, we were baptized by fire into the world of pyschologists, hospitals, specialists and therapists.  The emotional low was when I had an in-law tell us that this was punishment directly from God.  While my spirit rebelled against the blatant, abusive deception, my heart allowed those words to sink in and begin to take root.  Surely his struggle was all my fault.

Unfortunately, because Samuel was not diagnosed with autism until the age of eight, I didn’t spend those hellacious years bolstered by an online community of mothers who would tell me that it wasn’t my fault, I was doing a good job, or even that I was a good mother.  Instead, I spent many years with doctors who didn’t know what was wrong, specialists who assumed since he was my first child I was exaggerating and family who didn’t see the behavior that tore my heart from my chest and made me long for rescue. 

I didn’t get out much.  I spent the years from his toddlerhood until the diagnosis barely hanging on and yet adding to my brood. By the time he was eight, I had two more sons and a daughter in the mix, and I was sufficiently on the outside of typical motherhood land.   Because Samuel was so unpredictable, and his behavior could be so intense, I didn’t engage with the outside world very much.  I’m an extrovert and those years felt isolated and dark.   I always felt that we were on the outside looking in.  It seemed our life was full of fire and thunder, but over the back fence seemed like a place of plush, green grass, giggling children and bubbling brooks.  I thought other mothers were gathering for easy coffee dates and peaceful play times.  I became more and more discouraged as I tried to manage his behavior and raise three other young children.

The story of his diagnosis is long, but it came after a violent outburst that ultimately ended in surgery for him.  During one of his many obsessive rages, he tore his foot apart by kicking a plate glass window.  We finally wound up in a doctor’s office where she tested him, listened to me and saw what had been there all along:  Samuel had autism.

While the diagnosis brought many emotions, which included relief, it also dropped me into another place where I didn’t feel that I belonged: being a mother of a child with autism.  The autism community has grown and changed over the last decade or more. But even just five years ago, when we were getting this diagnosis, most people equated autism with being non-verbal.  Samuel was very verbal and could even do well with eye contact when he felt comfortable enough.  While I thought many of the signs fit for him, it was difficult to stand up and claim that title as an autism mother because my son could speak while so many others could not.  I found myself once again at the edge of the fence peering over into what I perceived as acceptance and strong community.

I was now in a murky middle ground where I was parenting a child who wasn’t neuro-typical, and yet seemed “normal” to the outside world most of the time; and so much of my angst looked dramatic to those who didn’t know us well.  I wilted further into the identity of failure, as I couldn’t connect with the group to which we had been “assigned.” 

After his diagnosis, he started getting some of the help we had needed so desperately for so long.  He was put on medications that helped, and I started to believe that we might not drown in chaos, and I kept moving forward in life.  But almost two years ago, we were bowled over again.  My husband got caught in lies at work, and then confessed many things to me at home, and the life I knew, the one I had set my identity into, crumbled all around me.  The marriage wouldn’t survive.  In the year after he was gone, my two other sons were diagnosed with autism as well.  My middle son got a dual diagnosis of autism and a chromosomal defect, and my title as special needs mom was becoming a very evident reality. 

As I’ve moved through my grief these last couple of years, I’ve also begun to uncover a peace in who I am.  I no longer feel guilty claiming my sons as being autistic, even though all three of them are verbal.  It’s a part of us, and there is a huge tribe of others just like me: mothers who are in the battle of tantrums, sensory struggles and special education meetings, feeling like we’re on the outside of all of the groups looking in, with family and friends who will never truly understand. 

My story doesn’t end with being welcomed into a group I had been desperate to join.  Instead, my journey to belonging has been revealed to be all in my head.  I perceived myself as a failure in those early years, and so I operated as one.  I wasn’t able to be a part of normal play dates, but I did have a few friends who loved us fiercely.  In the last few years, I haven’t sought out the special needs community.  While my children’s needs are far and wide, I no longer have that longing to be part of the group, and instead have avoided it as I don’t need affirmation any more that things are “off.” Instead, I’ve made a life for myself with women in general.  I have several friends who aren’t mothers, several friends whose children have left the nest and others who are in the midst of the schooling years like me.   What I’ve found is that community was waiting for me all along, but until I had my feet on my own identity, I faltered because I didn’t know where I belonged.  Now that I feel a security in myself as a woman, single mother, mother with special needs children, mother of a large family, I am seeing all of the places where I fit so well, and am healing and growing as I find that my talents and gifts have a place and I am celebrated by other women.

I think for most of us the journey to belonging is much more clearly a quest to self-discovery and then the belonging in community follows. When you are comfortable with who you are, when you can see yourself as God sees you, you are free to engage with everyone and begin to weed out who works well with you and who is like sandpaper.  Not everyone will be a fast friend, but when you can stand on solid ground as yourself, you are free to love everyone and not feel threatened by the perceived identity of others.   My belonging came when I could look in the mirror and see what God sees: a woman created to love, mother, give and create; a woman He loves and a woman who has much to give.  Now that I know He adores me, I see just how much others do, too, and that longing for belonging has been sated.

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