I come across all sorts of articles on a daily basis expressing worldviews on what it’s like to be _________. Fill in the blank. It’s the Op-Ed on My Life article. These articles aren’t meant to enlighten and bring others into the fold. They seem to be meant to further alienate and silo the human experience. Someone feels offended by someone else’s research or point-of-view and has to declare that they won’t stand for it. One group of people dislikes Simon Baron-Cohen’s research on Theory of Mind (ToM) as a marker of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), for example, because it somehow implies a deficiency in cognitive empathy. Not my child, they shout! And a new Weltanschauung is spewed forth. Another clique in the world at large is formed. We must define ourselves by yet another check box. Do you believe in Theory of Mind? What’s your stance? Violence in schools runs rampant. More questions. What’s your stance on gun control? The ObamaCare website turns out to be one giant Charlie Foxtrot. What do you think of universal healthcare? What’s your stance on peanuts in schools? Do you really let your child eat GMO corn? Don’t you know that sugar is a toxin? Gluten will kill you! And...and…and…
These questions, accusations, and constant assessments don’t create unity. These articles don’t help us understand each other. They polarize us. If it’s not working mothers vs. stay-at-home moms, then it’s the special needs parents vs. the parents of “normies”. One parent shouts out, “You couldn’t possibly understand my life! You leave your children with a nanny all day and trot off to work with the insouciance of some libertine! I actually care about my children!” Then another parent shouts back, “I like working! Besides I have to work. At least I’m not letting myself go! I’m a good example to my children of what a woman can be.” Then comes the coup de grâce: “Right. When you see them!” Between the guilt-tripping, moralizing, and one-upmanship that I hear and read, it’s no wonder that alienation and loneliness are on the rise. Parents of special needs children are putting out books entitled Shut Up About Your Perfect Kid!, and successful career women are putting out books like Lean In suggesting that we could break the glass ceiling if we just do more. Commit! Really just try harder.
Isn’t that what we are all doing already? It seems to me that no matter who you are, where you live, your tax bracket, or your genetic profile, you are not going to get out of this life without hitting rock bottom a time or two. Or three. Or more. No matter how hard you try. This is the nature of the human condition. Suffering is a certainty. Not a suggestion. Why are we pairing off, labeling ourselves and our children, and pointing fingers at each other when what we really need to do is put some of our differences aside and share a meal?
Peel away the political posturing, cynicism, resentment, judgmentalism, and NIMBY (Not In MY Backyard!), and who are we? We’re people. Plain and simple. We’re human beings with hopes and dreams for ourselves and for the next generation. Yes, I have a child with an ASD. She was born screaming, and she didn’t stop for two years. My third daughter was born with all her fingers and toes intact. She was healthy. She met her milestones. My husband and I dreamed dreams on her behalf. When she was 10 years-old she entered into the prodromal phase of childhood-onset schizophrenia. There went that guarantee. There went those dreams. What’s going to happen to her now? Will she ever move away from home? Will she ever be able to hold down a job? Our ASD girl is more likely to go to college and marry than my daughter with the schizophrenia spectrum disorder, but this is life, isn’t it? I could get cancer. My husband could die in a car accident. How do you suppose the relatives and friends who lost children and family at Sandy Hook Elementary School feel about the bigger ontological questions of life or the families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan? I’m not being flippant. Far from it. One day your life is normal and good. The next moment, it’s a nightmare. This is reality, and there is no getting away from it. Whenever we get pregnant, there is no guarantee that our babies will be healthy even if they are born healthy. They might not stay healthy. We are not privy to future events. We only have today. This moment.
If loneliness, suffering, and alienation are par for the course in our life experiences, then why can’t something better also be part of our lives? What might we do with the present moment that might affect the future for the better? At the end of the day, stay-at-home and working mothers alike love their children. We both have that in common. You know what else we have in common? We’re women! Why choose relational aggression, competition, and jealousy when we could choose support, kindness, and acceptance? What does that cost? Nothing. Furthermore, why do special needs parents and parents of neurotypical children walk a divided line? Yes, I know quite well what life is like inside the pressure cooker of raising special needs children, but I also have a neurotypical daughter free of any DSM-IV diagnoses and another daughter with bipolar tendencies. Raising children is hard! All parents have certain things in common. We all lie awake at night wondering if we said anything that day that broke our children for good. We wonder if we’re becoming our mothers (or fathers). We wonder what kind of friends our kids have and if they’re good enough. We wonder if we’ve talked about sex enough. Do they really know how powerful it is? Do they understand the longterm consequences of becoming sexually active? Do they understand birth control? We wonder if we’ve instilled enough self-esteem into our kids so that they’ll make good choices in future relationships. If we have girls we wonder how they feel about their bodies. If I had boys, I would probably wonder the same thing. Then, I would wonder how they felt about girls’ bodies and if they sincerely respected them. We wonder about a lot of things as parents, and it doesn’t matter a bit if your child has special needs or not. Your worries might be different, but we all worry. In this, all parents can give a sincere, warm hug to any other parent out there and say, “I’ve got your back. You would give anything to take away the suffering of your child. I would do the same.”
Yes, there are certain things that some parents will never have to endure simply because they have healthy children, but to judge another parent because they don’t have a special needs child is wrong. To assume that another person can’t or won’t empathize with you simply because they haven’t been a part of the shared experience is inappropriate and narrow. I’ve never had to watch my child undergo chemotherapy, but I’ve had to leave my 11 year-old daughter at the psych ward of a hospital a few times. I had to listen to her call for me while she choked on her tears as a nurse dragged her away. Pain is pain. Disappointment is disappointment. Suffering is suffering. Every human being on the planet has shared in the common experience of suffering. We are all linked in that way. We are all bonded.
I think it’s time that we lay aside some of our grief, anger, and disappointment and look at the people around us. I don’t care if they are conservative or liberal, gay or straight, homeschooling or sending their kids away on the bus every morning, or talking about how awesome their Mandarin-speaking, ballet dancing toddler is. We are living in a world that is far more interested in creating division than unity, and it’s up to us to look beyond superficial presentations and sensationalized media reporting in order to see what’s underneath. It’s no easy task to build meaningful relationships or even reach out and make new connections, but what are our options? Do we want to be a part of building supportive communities where everyone is welcome, or do we want to perpetuate relational isolationism and insular thinking with phrases like, “You couldn’t possibly know how I feel,” and “Your life is easier because of ______.” It’s just as easy to say, “Do you need help?” or “Would you like to have a cup of tea with me?” or “You look awesome today!” or “I see that you’ve got your hands full. I’m running to the grocery store. Can I pick up some essentials for you while I’m there?”
Do you know what the hard part is? Accepting the help. Accepting the compliment. Admitting weakness. Being vulnerable.
All it takes is one person reaching out and another person accepting the invitation. That’s all. Authentic community always grows. So, I challenge myself and in so doing I challenge you to lay down any preconceived notions that you have about others in your sphere of influence and make a new connection with someone. Practice being the kind of person in your community that you dream your community could be for you and your children. If we all practiced this, think about what our little patch of influence might look like in 2015.
“Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth. To be consciously aware of it, to experience love in ourselves and others, is the meaning of life. Meaning does not lie in things. Meaning lies in us.” Marianne Williamson