Hey there, Mama. I see you.
I see you trying to put that jacket on wiggling spaghetti arms.
I see you holding a flush-faced toddler in your lap at the doctor’s office.
I watch you load your card with groceries while a little person trails behind you, begging for a balloon.
I see you.
I salute you.
At one time, I was you.
My name is Carrie. I have five kids, and I have been a mother for fifteen years.
For fourteen of those years, I have attempted to raise a complicated, mysterious, special boy. His name is Jack. He has autism.
I’m kind of an old mom at this point. I haven’t changed a diaper since 2012. My kids are all in school. I have a teenager who shaves in the bathroom, and a daughter who can borrow my shoes.
I like being an old mom. I know stuff now. I feel comfortable with who I am and how I parent. I am calmer.
So, in the spirit of my old-ness, I thought I’d share with you a few things I’ve learned along the way. See, I know you are in the trenches right now. I know these are the hardest days of your life.
Let’s start with a few basics, shall we?
Never, ever let your kids play with Moon Sand. For those of you who don’t know, Moon Sand is Play-Dough’s evil cousin. It’s like, well, sand, that is supposed to mold together to make shapes. If I remember right, it has sparkles in it.
One time, when my kids were pretty little, I opened up a package of this stuff, and handed it over to them. Then I left the room for one single solitary second to answer the phone, and when I walked back in, that sparkly, clumpy sand was everywhere. It looked like a unicorn threw up in my house.
So, no to the Moon Sand.
Speaking of no, did you realize that you don’t have to explain yourself when you say no to something? This is a lesson I learned, oh, maybe five years ago. At that time, it felt like everyone wanted a piece of me, whether it was to volunteer for the school, or go to a cocktail party, or give money to a fundraiser.
I would say no, and then I would come up with all these weird excuses and feel bad and even more weird and awkward and guilty. Now, I simply say one thing.
“That doesn’t work for me right now.”
That’s it! That’s all I say! And I still have friends. I’m still allowed to darken the school’s doorstep, and every once in a while, I even get invited to parties. Don’t ask me why, because I’m pretty boring at parties. I only go for the food.
If you send holiday cards, write them out in October. This means you have to arrange for a photo by September at the latest, and order them before you buy pumpkins for Halloween.
I know, I know, it seems crazy. But please, trust me when I tell you that looking at the stack of envelopes over Thanksgiving will fill you with joy. And your holiday season will be so jolly, knowing you got those stinking cards out of the way. You will practically skip to the mailbox in early December.
Replace the phrase I should with I will.
So, instead of saying, “I should start running again,” say, “I will start running again.”
Or, “I should clean out the linen closet,” say “I will clean out the linen closet.”
See, the words I will require action. They demand a plan—a timetable.
For me, the words I should beg for the word but after them.
“I should start running, but I don’t have the right sneakers.”
“I should clean out the linen closet, but we have so many towels and I don’t know what to do with them.”
Listen to me, mama, and listen carefully. There are going to be days when you hate your husband. I mean, not hate-hate, but sort of hate. This is normal. It’s natural. It’s part of every marriage. Just take a moment when you can, and listen to the way he sings softly while he rinses the shampoo from your daughter’s hair.
These little tiny things—these moments of song and instances of kindness, well, they are the glue that binds. Before long, you’ll return to one another. I promise.
Okay now for some big stuff.
Come a little closer, I want to tell you something hugely important. It’s a part of child rearing few people believe, but I want you to hear it straight from me.
There is no law that states your kid has to join every club, play every sport, or participate in every activity.
Oh, sure! People will try to make you think there is a law about this, but trust me, there isn’t. Look it up if you don’t believe me.
See, when Jack was first diagnosed with autism, my husband Joe and I were forced to re-evaluate things a little. We were forced to consider if our kids were better off at a ball field, or playing tag in the yard. Basically, we decided to design our own family in a way that works for us.
You, too, can design your own family, that’s what I am trying to tell you. You don’t need to keep up with all the people around you who scurry from field to rehearsal to karate to tutoring like hamsters on a wheel. Childhood is too short for all that crap anyway.
Try to have dinner together. Dinner is wonderful. It’s warm. It’s yummy. It’s a beloved ending to a long day—like a sun setting in the open sky.
And If your kids sit well in their seats and no one is going to light their own eyelashes on fire, eat by candlelight. See, candlelight can turn a boring old dinner like pork chops into an adventure.
The funniest thing happens at the table when a flame glows in the center. Kids talk. They will ask you about God. They will admit they are scared of the dark and that’s why they leave the lights on all over the house.
As a mother, you’ll have good days, and bad days.
A little bad.
And if you are like me, and you are trying to raise an unusual child, all of the goodness and the badness is magnified. It’s like someone turned the volume way up high, but all you hear sometimes is white noise.
I know you can do this.
Be disruptive when you need to, and vulnerable when you can.
Live your story.
Speak your truth.
Life is so much when we like ourselves, isn’t it?
And every time we don’t speak our truth, a small, lovely, tender, precious part of us begins to wither away, like a flower without enough sun. When we notice the silky petals dropping like the lies we tell, and we hate ourselves for it.
You know, back when Jack was about two, I didn’t tell anyone he had autism. I didn’t want people to judge him. I didn’t want him earmarked.
I hated myself because I was denying everything in my world that was true. I was exhausted, I was overwhelmed, I was angry I had a boy with a diagnosis and I was forever changed. At the same time, I loved him with every cell of my being.
On the baddest of days, remember. All you have to do is show up, and love this child with your whole entire self.
To the mom chasing toddlers across a wet field while her 5-year old kiddo kicks at a soccer ball, I salute you.
To the all mothers facing a new season of hair in the sink, and SAT scores, and college applications, I salute you.
And for every Mama who has cleaned Moon Sand out of her hair, and cried in her pillow at night, and considered divorce when her husband was late from work, I salute you.
All we have is each other.
Happiest of mothering days to each and every one of you.