By Guest Blogger Jessie Tucker Mitchell
A couple of weeks ago, on one of those record-breaking warm March afternoons, I decided to take my baby for a run. (Okay: I ran downhill and walked uphill, but that’s beside the point.) While pausing at a redbud to let my nature-loving son touch the pink blooms, two ladies around my age, maybe a few years older, jogged past. They smiled at Archer and me while continuing their conversation, and the brief excerpt I heard has stayed with me ever since.
Apparently, one of the ladies has a child in the Highly Academically Gifted Program. For those of you unfamiliar with Winston-Salem / Forsyth County Schools, HAG kids do not attend their home school, but rather they join together in an all-day, self-contained classroom and work at a rapidly accelerated pace as a group. Since many of these kids live far from the HAG school, their parents drop them off at designated locations to catch a bus. One such drop-off location happens to be my autistic son’s elementary school, which serves mostly neurotypical students but also a large number of the area’s exceptional children.
I overheard several lines of the ladies’ conversation, but the following is the part that I can’t seem to shake from my memory:
Jogger #1: Do you still take your son to catch the bus every morning?
Jogger #2: Yes, but you know, it really bothers me. Every time I drop him off, I see those little special needs kids and I feel so sorry for their parents. All I can think is: Wouldn’t it be awful if my son was one of them?
They disappeared around the bend, but I stayed rooted to my spot for several minutes, long after Archer had lost interest in the redbud tree. The sun shone warm on my face, the breeze brought the scent of freshly-mown grass, my baby was smiling and kicking his feet; the moment should have been perfect. But it wasn’t, because I suddenly had seen my life through the eyes of someone else – someone who was overwhelmingly grateful not to be me.
My son Fletcher is in a special needs first grade class because he has autism, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and various developmental delays. He has a phenomenal team of teachers and therapists who care about his success, not because they want to impress their bosses or win awards, but because they genuinely love my child and are emotionally invested in his progress. I have gotten to know some of Fletcher’s schoolmates and their families. I have witnessed the struggles these kids face: the language delays, the communication barriers, the physical limitations, the mental anguish. I have seen their parents comfort and discipline effectively, and I have seen them break down in tears right beside their child because they simply do not know what to do. I probably have shed more tears than any other parent there, most of them at night when I lie in bed thinking about the many mistakes I have made. We “special needs moms and dads” probably are harder on ourselves than the typical parent, because with so many outside forces working against our children, we have a more challenging and isolating battle to fight. Our support network is much smaller, and the judgment coming from outsiders makes us feel even more vulnerable and alone.
I am here to tell you: Please do not feel sorry for me.
You see, everything I have experienced – the meltdowns I witnessed, the stares from strangers that I pretended to ignore, the hours I spent teaching my son to speak just one word, the times I held him close to me when we both were falling apart – every moment I have spent since Fletcher’s diagnosis has made me better, not just as a parent, but as a human being struggling to find her way. When you have a special needs child, this child often has a careful demeanor, a tender heart, and a very old soul, and he or she will bring incredible insights that otherwise might have escaped you.
People say having a son or daughter changes you: It makes you more patient, more responsible, and less selfish. I don’t think this is necessarily true. I became a parent almost twelve years ago with the birth of my daughter, but I am embarrassed to say that I did not completely lose my self-centeredness. I still focused largely on my own happiness; I just wanted her to tag along and be part of it. I thought having a little sidekick was what motherhood was all about. But it took Fletcher’s autism, almost seven years later, to teach me that I was wrong. Only when I had a child who could not speak, who did not ask for me by name, who sat and played with trains for hours on end; only when I realized his two true advocates were his father and me, did my selfishness slip away and be replaced by a virtue I never had felt before: A fierce, selfless determination to create for my son a place in this world, a place equal to that of any other child. Sometimes this means standing up to the most powerful and well-respected doctors; sometimes it means questioning expert advice, but the battle has grown easier with time, as I developed confidence as Fletcher’s mother. And though I am far from saying I have made all the right choices, I can say I have done enough to earn the purest, most uncomplicated love from my son.
The other day, Fletcher was in the living room reading a Sesame Street book about Grover and his mom, while I cleaned the kitchen. I had just wiped off the counters when I felt small fingers wrap around mine, and I looked down in surprise. Fletcher smiled up at me, tightened his hold on my hand, and said, “You are my mother, and you love me.”
Somehow this statement seemed even more special than if he had said, “I love you.” It showed that he might have caught at least a glimpse of what I feel for him – and isn’t that, after all, a parent’s number one goal?
I pulled my son close, wrapped my arms around him, and said, “You’re right, Fletcher. I am your mother, and I love you more than anyone else in the world ever could.”
He was smiling big when he pulled away and went back to reading his book, and it seemed I could still feel his hand pressing into mine.
Now really, how could anyone in this world ever feel sorry for me? Rather, if you never have known this feeling, then you should envy what I have, and how full my heart always feels.
Jessie Tucker Mitchell lives in Winston-Salem with her husband and four children. She is the Event Coordinator for Bring It Blue: Zumbathon for Autism Speaks, which will be held on Sunday, April 24 at the Village Inn in Clemmons. More details can be found at https://jessietmitch.wix.com/