On Your Sixth Birthday

On Your Sixth Birthday

Dear Joshua:

Happy birthday! You are SIX years old, which you have been waiting for since the day after you turned five, just about a year ago. Congrats, dude; you made it.

This year has been crazy. So good, and so challenging, and everything in between. You finished preschool! You were named the Class Investigator, because of your never-ending need to ask what that is, who that is, why that looks that way, what that person said, what that person really meant, where you’re going next, and so on for about 80 more questions. It’s funny to see some of the same qualities you had as a baby still come out in you now. When you were about two or so, nearly every picture I took of you was you pointing and saying, “What’s that?”

At the beginning of summer, you participated in your first Try-athlon!! You swam, ran, and biked through a course while we all cheered you on from the sidelines. Your giant Batman bike helmet made it easy to spot you as you biked with your buddy, Ms. Julie, and your gigantic smile helped, too.

Over the summer, you began to learn to swim! Your hard work earned you some goggles – blue, of course; it was that day’s favorite color :) You got to go to Disney World and spend time with Nana and Papa and your aunts and uncles and cousins, and you got super tan. I was a little jealous.

The end of the summer brought the beginning of KINDERGARTEN! Man, that was weird. Kindergarten. My little mini-baby off to kindergarten. I was nervous for you, even though I had met your teacher and knew she was great. I just wanted you to love it, and to make friends, and learn a lot. And you did. You have learned a ton so far this year.

First and foremost – you learned to use the POTTY! YAY. That was a tough skill to learn, because muscle control can be so hard! But you persevered, and you did it, and all the grandparents in the world sent you underwear, and you rocked it. Plus, you look super adorable in Paw Patrol undies with your skinny little legs.

You learned to read! You are chugging right along through new books and words every day. As I sit and write this, we are fresh off a parent-teacher conference where one of your teachers described how quickly you have learned new letter sounds and words. You love to read anything and everything, including stop signs, which is super fun when I am driving. It’s also been fun to watch you sound out words from the closed-captioning on the television – talk about a win-win, am I right? And since you can say your L sounds now, it’s been even more awesome to hear you speak so clearly!

Among one of my personal favorites of the skills you acquired is the ability to dress yourself from head to toe! This one brought us tears and grumpy mornings and days where I decided you would just be naked forever and we could forget the whole thing. But, in the end, you did it. You did it – not me, or Daddy, or the OT. You did it, and you do a great job every morning. You’ve even started to pick out your own clothes – I like the combo shorts/sequin vest from dance class/mismatched socks combo the best, personally.

When I asked you and Jenna what you both wanted to do in the fall for an activity, you were adamant that you needed to play soccer. Not that you wanted to – you needed to. So we signed you up, and watched as you played your heart out every Sunday afternoon in the fall. What I loved about watching you play was that you weren’t always the fastest, or the highest scorer, but you always had the biggest smile. You loved it, and your coach worked to help you be the very best soccer player you could be for every game.

My favorite moment was during the last game, when you were practicing kicking the ball into the net. You were giving it your all, but it was taking you more timed than you wanted. You weren’t giving up, but I could tell you were frustrated. And then your team started to chant your name: Joshua! Joshua! Joshua! over and over again, and you kicked the ball into the net and they celebrated like you’d won the Super Bowl. Their joy and your joy were contagious, and everyone on the sidelines was part of the excitement in that moment. I had worried those other kids would say something mean, even by accident, about the way you moved. Instead, they showed some of the greatest kindness and compassion I’ve ever seen.

You bring that out in people.

More than anything, that’s what has stood out to me this year. Everywhere you go, people genuinely care for you. They celebrate with you, and cry with you, and cheer you on, and pray for you. That’s not because of me, or anything Daddy has done, or because of the way we raised you. It’s just you. You, and your inability to meet a stranger. You, and the smile that I can’t help but recriprocate, even if you are explaing to me why all of your dinosaurs are jammed into the vents. You have a way of making friends everywhere you go, and inspiring people to feel joyful.

It’s been cool to see you develop your relationship with Jesus. You can’t get enough of the Bible stories we read at night, and (surprise), you are full of questions about what you learned in church. It’s so crazy and amazing to watch you grow in this all on your own, eager to learn more and share it with us.

I don’t know what the next year will bring. The end of kindergarten; maybe the end of Special Education classes? Maybe you’ll learn new ways to ask questions, or maybe you’ll finally find all the answers. You’ll grow some more, just like you did this year (34.6 pounds and 3.5 feet tall as of right now!), and you’ll learn so much more, and you’ll keep turning into this big, magnificent kid who loves science and volcanoes and airplanes and fire trucks. Will you still want to be a police officer when you grow up? Will you still pronounce the word “vacation” as “bah-cation,” and still think that’s where Grammy is every time you don’t see her for more than a day? Will you still look forward to Christmas the moment the school year begins? Will you still crawl into my bed at 5:00 in the morning, whispering that you just need a snuggle before you start the day?

Only time will give us the answers to all those questions and so many more. But I do know you’ll keep growing, and learning, and asking, and loving, and smiling, and trying. You will keep reaching people in the special, inimitable way that God created you to do, and still remind me that if I expect you to try, I need to try, too. That we should all strive to be the best versions of ourselves, whatever that looks like.

Happiest of birthdays to you, Joshua, who made me a mom, who gave me my own personal miracle, who tells silly jokes and loves to rake leaves and always want to bake brownies. I love you so much. Here’s to six years of you <3

Love you now and forever,

Mom (you started calling me “Mom” instead of “Mommy” a few weeks ago – why must six be so cruel??)

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An Open Letter to My Children

An Open Letter to My Children

Kids…I love you. I think you know that. And I think you also know that I often seem to express my love in odd ways – like fussing at you for moving too slowly in the mornings or getting on to you for spilling your juice. I want to do better. I want to show my love in better ways. I always start out with the best intentions.

Every morning, I pray for you. I pray for your safety, for the little things I know you struggle with, for you to have a great day. I pray to have patience and to let the little things go. I pray for reminders that you are only this little for a short while, and that I should cherish these moments. I pray that today is the day I manage my frustration with no – okay, maybe just a few – mistakes.

And every night, I pray for forgiveness of my failure to achieve all of these things. Or, just as often, my failure to achieve any of these things.

If you want the truth, I’ll go ahead and give it to you: Parenting you is hard. Not because you’re bad kids and not because I don’t love you.

If I could let you take a brief tour of my mind, you might understand. It’s like a bag of cats in there – neglected household chores competing for attention with overdue bills are swirling around, usually surrounded by a revolving schedule of school activities, work commitments, therapy goals, and doctor’s appointments. Sprinkled around you’ll find anxiety over my own stuff – money and work and marriage; worry that I am forgetting something important; fear that today is the day I say something to you that ruins your life forever. Look left and right while you’re in there and you’ll see two of me arguing with each other – one convinced that tough love was the right call; the other certain that a gentler approach would have yielded more understanding.

And that’s just the first layer.

Keep digging, and you’ll see doubt. So much doubt. It claims its own special section of my mind, plaguing me with the fear that I have messed up one too many times. I yelled too much, I didn’t forgive quickly enough, I didn’t give you the attention you so desperately needed. And then, of course, there’s the doubt that I was too soft and now you won’t understand consequences, that I forgave you instantly and you didn’t learn from it, and that so much attention has caused you to totally rely on me for validation.

There are about 12 more layers to go after that.

I don’t present this to you as an excuse, as the saying goes, but an explanation. An explanation of why you throwing one more ball at me when I am already juggling 17 is just enough to send me over the edge. An explanation of why I love to hear you sing, but at this moment, hearing one more sound is the absolute last thing I need. An explanation of how I can love you so much and want to be alone for just a few minutes.

But if I am asking you to understand my mind, then it’s only fair that I work to understand yours. Your anxieties and fears and joys and excitement might be a little less defined, but are no less valid. I know that your need to sit right next to me, thigh to thigh, at all times is not borne from a desire to annoy, but a desire for closeness. Your continued requests for another snack are likely not a cleverly designed plot to keep me from working, but a need that you cannot meet for yourself and therefore have found the one person who can help you in that moment. And when I do not respond, you can only assume I am not paying attention, or can’t hear you. And so you ask again. And again. You know I will get frustrated, but you can’t help yourself.

Should you learn to be patient? Yes. Should I learn to be patient? Yes.

So, kids, we have to decide – whose needs are greater? Who wins?

The answer is neither of us. Neither of us wins, because neither of us is perfect. You know better than to push your sibling. I know better than to expect two preschool-aged children to get along like adults. We both know better, but we don’t do better.

And, so, today, like many other days, I have prayed for patience. And, today, like many other days, God has given me multiple opportunities to practice. But I think tomorrow I will pray for something else. I will pray for the ability to get out of the way and let God work through me, to erase my imperfections and give you the mom you need. I will pray for each of you to practice the kindness and love that we have so often talked about – and I will pray you find an example of those things through me.

In short, dear kiddos, I will try my hardest. I am a fallen person in a fallen world, and my best will be full of mistakes. I will ask you to try your hardest, which will also be full of mistakes. I will yell at you again. You will make eye contact with me as you deliberately crumble a fistful of Goldfish crackers into the couch. We are human, you and I, and that means perfection is not in our future.

No, not perfection. But if we both agree to focus less on ourselves and more on what God has called each of us to do, I think we can achieve grace for each other’s flaws, forgiveness of each other’s wrongs, and enough love to cover every inevitable mistake.

I will offer to read this to you, and you will say okay. I will get frustrated at your inability to sit still. You will get bored of listening to your mother read her own blog to you. We will argue.

And then we will make up.

Love you always,

Mommy

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The Curious Case of the Invisible Need

The Curious Case of the Invisible Need

“But he doesn’t look special needs!”

“Well, my son does that, too.”

“Everyone has trouble with something, you know?”

Like sands through the hourglass, these are the words of our lives.

If you have a child with a special need, you probably know those words, too. You probably hear them every time you explain why little Johnny won’t go in the sandbox. Well-meaning friends, family members, even doctors say these words to you, not out of malice, but usually in an attempt to help.

You hear them because your child’s disability is invisible. Maybe not all of it – maybe only sometimes – but it’s there, invisible to the naked eye.

When I tell people my son has special needs, they look surprised. I think they must be looking for a tell-tale sign, though I don’t know what that would be. Maybe if he had tentacles? That would actually be pretty cool. But I digress.

The thing about a disability that isn’t super obvious is that parents often find themselves having to defend the reality of their situation. You don’t want to overstate things and make your situation sound dire, but you also don’t want to pretend the need doesn’t exist. You feel guilty for using phrases like “special needs” or “disability” when your child is thriving and running around at school. You feel guilty for not using those phrases when you see your child struggling and hiding at school. It’s a lot of tricky waters to navigate.

A common response, at least in my circles, is for people to sort of write off the special need. My son has trouble with noises, but “Aren’t all kids sensitive to loud noises?” My son struggles with balance and strength, but then someone reminds me that “no one ever goes to college without learning [insert skill].” My son gets overstimulated quickly and easily, and misbehaves as a result. But “All three-year-olds misbehave – it’s just a phase,” I hear.

The impression I get is that this kind of response comes from one of two places: 1) The person feels the need to reassure me; they want me to know that my kid will be okay and his needs are just as typical as the average child’s. 2) The person feels the need to make it into a competition – a Pain Olympics, if you will, that consists of comparing children to determine who has it worse. (That type of response baffles me more than the first one, but I’ll add it to the list of things I’ll never understand, like calculus and people who exercise first thing in the morning.) The over-arching theme seems to be that Joshua’s special needs are actually manifestations of the needs of every typical child, using the evidence that he looks, speaks, and acts like a typical child.

But I have a secret for you that will blow your mind. Are you ready? Take a swig of your Coke, splash some cold water on your face, and really prepare yourself.

You can have a special need and also have a lot of typical traits.

That’s right. It’s true. Having special needs doesn’t define your entire personality, anymore than being short has defined my personality (but the struggle is real). You can struggle with loud noises and still enjoy a movie. You can despise the feeling of sand on your fingertips and still brave a beach trip. You can throw a tantrum like every other toddler and still need extra help to calm down. Special needs, like all needs, are fluid. They change. You might even say they don’t make sense, because they are unique…special.

A special need is exactly what it sounds like: A unique trait that needs extra care. It might not look the same every day. It might not even be the same every day. It might come in a limp, or a sensory disorder; a feeding tube, or a special vest; a hearing impairment, or a compulsion to count trains. You might recognize it; you might not. That’s what makes it so special.

Please know that I don’t harbor any ill will towards anyone over their response to Josh’s needs. I really do understand that you don’t understand. And I don’t expect you to. I have zero clue on what it’s like to struggle with many issues that others deal with. And I can’t always relate when you tell me what you’re struggling with.

The good news is that you don’t have to relate. You don’t have to get it. You don’t have to experience it. You don’t have to give me advice. You don’t have to compare our children. You just have to trust me.

Trust me when I tell you that my son is not just being a grumpy toddler; that he is actually struggling with sensory overload and needs some time alone before he melts down. Trust me when I tell you that even though he put that bite in his mouth, his eating issues are far from over. Trust me when I tell you that I am exhausted from having to help him with every little thing that is often taken for granted. Trust me when I tell you that my son really does need help with these steps, and no amount of “tough love” will cure his low tone. Trust me when I tell you that while yesterday he was fine, today he cannot stand the slightest touch on his skin. Trust me when I say that I am not trying to compete with you or your child’s needs, or pretend like things are worse than they are. Trust me when I tell you that my son is like your son in so many wonderful ways, and different in so many others. Trust me when I tell you that while I am far from a perfect parent, I know my child and I know his needs. Trust me when I tell you that the skill he just accomplished really is that big of a deal, worthy of cake and ice cream and a thousand parties in celebration. Trust me, and smile at me when I drag my screaming child from the store, and forgive me when I decline playdates because we’re having a bad day, and pray for me when I tell you I need it, and then let it go.

You don’t have to understand. You don’t have to relate. You just have to believe me. That’s how you see an invisible need. 

It’s Okay – No, Really, It Is.

It’s Okay – No, Really, It Is.

Joshua “Are You Sure You’re Doing That Right?” Eleveld started school this week! He loves it, just like last year. And I love hearing him tell me the highlights of his day (spoiler: it’s usually the playground).

For those of you not in The Know, Josh is part of the Gwinnett County Special Education Pre-K program. The goal is to prepare him for big boy school (even though I’m pretty sure he’s already in his forties, mentally speaking) and make sure that he has the tools to succeed in a typical classroom down the line.

Which leads me to yesterday. 2:00, elementary school lobby, sitting awkwardly because I am not sure if I am supposed to be sitting, but there is a chair here, so why not?  Another woman sits next to me and tells me she’s waiting for her son. I say I’m doing the same, and after we chat for a minute, she asks why I’m not in the car rider lane like most of the parents picking up their kids. I tell her my son is in the Pre-K class, and I come in to get him, like most of the rest of the parents in his class.

She makes a face. Not a disgusted or angry face. It was a face I have internally termed the “Poor Little Buddy” face. It’s the face people make when they want to convey that they are sorry for you and your situation.

“Oh,” she says, the Poor Little Buddy Face alive and well, “he’s special needs, huh?”

I smile and affirm her suspicions. Sometimes I take the time to explain more about Joshua, but as I had just met this woman moments before and as I was positive Josh would be in the lobby any second, I just say yes.

She continues speaking.

“Oh, well, that’s okay! We need those special needs guys, you know?”

I do know, actually.

I think my response was to smile again and agree. I don’t totally remember because, to be honest, she caught me by surprise. It’s okay that some kids have special needs? Does that really need to be spoken?

Apparently, it does. Not because it’s a lovely thing to hear – it’s not – but because it is indicative of a much larger problem: The idea that having special needs is actually not okay.

Look, the unknown is scary. I get that. Kids or adults with special needs can be an unknown quantity if you’re not part of that world (and sometimes if you are), and I respect that. But if there is one thing I have learned about all types of children, it’s this:

Children are listening.

They can hear you. They can read your body language. They understand a smile. And they know when you’re afraid. They see your Poor Little Buddy face and they make the connection that their special need or the special need of their sibling requires pity. But pity is the last thing my son needs.

Read these next words carefully: I am not angry at this woman in the school lobby. I am not offended or upset with her. She seemed like a lovely mom who loved her kids. When Josh did arrive in the lobby, she greeted him and spoke with him. He liked her. She liked him. I am not out to demonize anyone.

I am out to educate everyone. My goal here is to bring an awareness to the fact that we are afraid of special needs. You can pretend that isn’t true, but, frankly, you would be wrong. And we need to change the conversation around it, and the way we teach our children to react to it.

Special needs are okay. Just like brown hair is okay, and being tall is okay, and being afraid of spiders is okay (that one is REALLY okay). There is a special need in all of us, and we all want to be accepted. Not pitied. Not told that we’re accepted in spite of our shortcomings, or in spite of our need. Accepted for the way we are.

Do you want to know the secret to special needs kids? Treat them like every other kid. Recognize a need is there, find out how you can fill it, and encourage them and educate them and smile at them. My daughter has no “official” special needs, but I spend part of every single day pretending to be a puppy with her, because that’s what she’s into. That is her special need. So I try to meet it.

These kids (and adults) need you. They need you to be their advocate, to be a positive influence on them, to reassure them that everything will be okay. Find the balance between “special” and “typical” – and leave your pity out of it, pretty please.

So it is okay that my son has some extra special needs. It is okay, and I know that. I’ve always known it, because it’s an essential part of who he is. And I know you don’t always know what to say. That’s okay, too. I’m not perfect, either. None of us is – and that’s kind of the point.

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A Mother’s Prayer

A Mother’s Prayer

Lord, I ask for you now for strength

To be the mom they really need

I ask you to guide and light my way

And for courage to go through the day

 

Please help me, Lord, to raise my kids

KIDS, TELL ME WHO JUST DID THIS!!

Sorry, Lord, now I’m back

The children started an attack

 

Give me patience, make me kind

Remember to give extra smiles

DON’T POKE YOUR SISTER, WHAT DID I JUST SAY?

Lord, I need more strength today

 

NOT THE KITCHEN; COME BACK IN HERE

Lord, I need to feel you near. 

I want to be filled with grace

DON’T THROW FLIP FLOPS AT HIS FACE

 

Lord, you know just what I need

to become the mom I need to be

Direct me according to your will

WHAT IN THE WORLD DID YOU JUST SPILL?

 

I’m not perfect, but I try

To be the mom they need to thrive

I want to be a godly mother

But she won’t stop smacking her brother

 

So excuse me, God, for just one sec

To separate these adorable wrecks

I’ll catch up with you tonight

Maybe they’ll be too tired to fight

 

Amen.