A friend visited me this weekend and reminded me of a post I’ve been wanting to write for years that keeps getting pushed to the back burner. This friend teaches in an elementary school, and we talked about several students she has had over the years who have had some form of learning disability or special need. Every time we talk about this, I am reminded of my own son’s early issues, and my own inner turmoil that went along with it.
I had my eldest when I was 34. At the time, I felt accomplished in a lot of ways. I had a masters degree in math education and taught at the local community college. I was deacon of women’s theology and teaching at a megachurch in Seattle. But parenting my little guy challenged my view of myself in profound ways.
We brought our tiny little guy home from the hospital (5 lbs 10 oz), did our best to gently get him into a routine, and began the long marathon of parenting. He reached all of his early milestones slowly. He didn’t walk until he was nearly two, utter discernible words until well after two, or potty train until nearly 4. Though those things do not bother me AT ALL now, they bothered me greatly early on as a young, inexperienced mother. Consistently, when with peers his age, my son was behind them in development. He cried and threw things. And if we were ever in a group setting with other parents and kids his age, he consistently disrupted the group or entertained himself away from the group.
At age 2 ½, we started a hippie neighborhood preschool. At the time, I was hoping to build relationships to minister in my community. But the Lord instead used the preschool to minister to me as I struggled to understand and parent my son. One thing was clear from the first weeks of preschool – my son was not like other kids in his class. But his teachers were kind and compassionate. They talked with me about having him tested for learning disabilities, something that at first seemed terrifying. They knew this would initially feel threatening to me and worked to show me the value of early intervention in children with learning disabilities. I got him tested, and we began speech and occupational therapy. And, sure enough, a decade later, I can clearly see how this intervention helped him. He is delightfully quirky, but he is also loving and lovable. His developmental issues no longer hold him back or disrupt our family.
If this story sounds familiar to you and your family is still in the early stages of struggle, here are some things I learned the hard way.
1. It is not your fault that your child has some kind of disability or learning issue.
During my early years of parenting, I lived in Seattle, home base of the granola mom. Though I did more natural, healthy things than some moms, I did a great deal fewer than the best natural moms in my area. I felt a lot of guilt over this, concerned by the constant influx of information on types of diets and baby foods. But more than the food my son ate, I felt great guilt in particular for not teaching him baby sign language. For some reason, I became convinced that was the source of his language struggles. At least, it was something I could latch onto that I could have done that I didn’t. He did eventually learn to talk and is quite the conversationalist now. He also reads and writes well. But even if he didn’t, I no longer believe things like baby sign language make or break verbal development. In general, the amount of moralistic information pushed on moms of young kids is overwhelming. Lots of things are moderately helpful, but that does not make them absolutely necessary.
In both secular and religious mommy circles, there is always some way we can drop the ball, starting with the first feedings after birth. From the first moments my two were born, I started down the path of mommy guilt. I am a type 1 diabetic, and I could not get my newborns started on my breast right after birth because of their dropping blood sugar (which according to some was key to starting my newborns off right). Which led to guilt that I didn’t better control my blood sugars during my pregnancy. Which led to guilt that I developed type 1 diabetes in the first place. Which is IRRATIONAL. From the first moments my boys were born, I was on the irrational spinning wheel of guilt in which many, many moms like myself have existed. Praise God that the good news of Jesus gives us another way of thinking about such information, which leads to number 2.
2. Come what may, your identity is secure in Christ. And so is your child’s.
When I say your identity, I’m talking about the qualities that distinguish your value as a person. What makes you valuable? What makes your child valuable? How do you define your own worth to humanity? How do you define your child’s? The world projects onto us the need as parents to give our children every opportunity to be great in all of the things. But when we take that responsibility on ourselves, we project it onto our children as well. In that paradigm, their self-worth and self-identity will come from how well they measure up and move past classmates and peers. Trained by the pressures from their parents, they find their identity by how they COMPARE to others. But the Bible gives a sobering assessment of that mentality – “they that compare themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Cor. 10:12).
Self-worth by peer comparison IS NOT WISE. It’s not wise for parents, and it’s not wise for kids. This isn’t the hope Christ offers or the peace in which He equips us to live. Just as we are saved from condemnation for our failures by grace through faith in Christ (Romans 8:1), we are equipped for the good works God has prepared in advance for us the same way – by grace through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-10). Your identity—your value—rests in Christ in you. And your good works (or your kids’) will only be good when they are the ones God prepared in advance for you that you accomplish by His grace at work in you.
Be at peace, stressed mother of an out-of-sync child. In Christ, you can rest from your attempts at good works, including trying to be the best mom of well rounded kids in your neighborhood, church, or school (Hebrews 4:10). Such peace through Christ enables us for point 3.
3. Do not feel threatened by a friend, family member, or educator suggesting intervention for your child.
I did feel threatened when the preschool teachers first mentioned testing to me. I wanted them to make me feel better by saying something like, “Oh, he will catch up quickly on his own. Just you wait.” Or, “Don’t worry about what you are seeing. You don’t need to do anything extra.” But instead, they told me about studies on early intervention, particularly around ages 0 to 5. They told me of the value of facing the developmental issues head on and doing what I could to support my son in these early years so he would be better adjusted for elementary school. It meant going in for a barrage of testing and then sifting through what I could and could not do in terms of recommended interventions. I opted for speech therapy and some occupational therapy. Then we got an IEP (individualized education plan) once my son hit elementary school. God was gracious to give us an elementary school with an awesome special education teacher. And after a few years, his teachers and I decided he no longer needed the IEP. In many ways, he remains out-of-sync with other kids, but it is no longer debilitating. His weaknesses are also his strengths, and I am learning to redirect them with an eye on how these quirks are part of his giftedness for the good works God has prepared for him.
The gospel equipped me to face my son’s difficulties head on without either he or I being defined by them. If I did drop the ball in his early years, there was no condemnation in Christ. And that freed me to help him in the ways that worked for our family and his teachers. I was not earning my righteousness by producing the ultimate well-adjusted child. I was freed from the mentality of having to try all the good things. Instead, I could prayerfully take the opportunities given to me that I could do and let go of the ones I couldn’t do.
Jesus says over the woman anointing his feet with oil in Mark 14, “She has done what she could.” At multiple points in my life, Jesus’ affirmation in those words has been a lighthouse beacon for me. I don’t have to do all the things. But prayerfully, in His name, I will do what I can according to how He leads me. The good news of Jesus changes everything, including our responses when our kids need help.