“Your job is to be her mother. You are the only one she has.”
I received this important piece of advice nine years ago when I learned I was raising a child with a rare chromosome syndrome. By the time she was ten months old, there were over seven therapists in our house administering 24 hours of services a week. It was only natural that I wanted to use the time I had with my daughter to continue working on the same skills. So, instead of just reading her a book, I would apply what I learned from speech therapy to initiate vocal sounds. Instead of tummy time, I would work on the skills the occupational therapist was using to build her muscle control. I pulled from my own training as a teacher, and turned my house into baby boot camp — rather than the cultivating environment I had planned on. However, it was very clear that other people were more successful in helping her to meet her goals. They were trained to know what to do — I was going off of instincts.
Every interaction I had to promote her therapies replaced anything a mother would typically do with their baby. I spent more time nervous about what she was learning or not learning, that I forgot to enjoy her company. There was a constant underlying fear that I wasn’t enough and couldn’t meet her needs. I downgraded my role as mother to become an expert: OT, PT, speech, feeding, ABA, whatever she would need.
When our family trainer came for a visit, she noticed the pressure this was putting on me. She redirected my thinking: “You are her only mother. She has countless therapists, and will have many more, but it can only be your job to be her mother.”
It was such a simple concept, but allowed me to give myself permission to not be great at all the other aspects of parenthood I was not supposed to be great at. Of course, it was not my job to be her teacher. There were other trained experts for that.
I could now just relish in the quiet of motherhood. I could gaze longingly at her little ears or figure out whose eyebrows she had inherited, without feeling guilty. I would see which lullabies she had the strongest reaction to. It was in these moments, I would really meet my daughter. This was a gift.
The pandemic changed all of that.
Nine years later, this conversation is occurring in every home. I hear the underlying stress and guilt in the voices of my friends, coworkers, and neighbors. Parents are no longer parents. They have become reading specialists, math support, school counselors, librarians and principals. They are being asked to extend themselves into new roles, and the pressure is building for everyone. We trade hilarious memes, viral videos, and our parenting fails of the day (my daughter came onto her Zoom meeting today without any clothes. My son cut his own hair instead of the construction paper). We use humor to hide our vulnerability, because it is too difficult to admit we are overwhelmed with a job we were not trained to do.
In theory, my husband and I should be able to navigate our three children through their day’s learning. We are teachers. We have masters’ degrees in education. We have spent the last fifteen years meeting the educational needs of hundreds of children, yet — at home, we are pretty useless. We are coaxing our daughter out from behind a chair while her patient physical therapist waits on the other side of the computer. We resort to pure bribery to get her to sit for ten minutes in front of her class Zoom. (If you tell me the color of the bear, I will get you an Oreo). We try to reconcile the children are safe and happy, and learning will come. We are just doing the best we can.
Then, we find out we are returning to the classroom. My husband and I will be in front of children five days a week, while our own children follow a hybrid schedule. A makeshift kindergarten classroom is set up. Our daughter’s special desk is moved to counteract her dysregulation. We make a color coded calendar to help the babysitter navigate online learning. We try to create consistency where there is none. All the while, I am lost in my own circular thoughts: I want to be home with my children. I want to go back to my classroom. I want my children to be in school. I want them to be home and safe. We are forced to continually reconcile what we want and what we need. It is an exhausting cycle and not very sustainable.
So, here’s my perspective, as a mother on both sides. As a woman who has been trained to be an effective educator and an effective parent to a special needs child. The foundations are the same:
Maslow Before Bloom: Before a child can develop their thinking skills and engage in “higher order thinking,” their basic needs must be met. They must know they are physically and emotionally safe before they can demonstrate what they have learned. When we extend that sense of belonging to a child, we will not only realize how resilient they are, but also they will take greater risks in the classroom, even if it is at the kitchen table.
Lead with kindness: Google classroom assignments will be missed, Zoom links will fail, and miscommunication will happen. We are educating our children during a pandemic. Remembering to spread a little kindness to the teachers, parents, neighbors, coaches, and—most importantly—yourself, will help.
So, to all of you educating without a break, we know you are doing the best you can. Put your mask on, and give each other a socially distanced high five. We will get through this together.