About two years ago, I brought my then 18-month-old son to the Children’s Museum to spend the day with some friends and their children. This day at the museum, like many others, my son was not wearing shoes, which I promise is an important detail in this story. We had a normal day at the museum filled with fun, laughter, and a couple of meltdowns.
The friends we had gone with were my closest, and really only, mom friends. I loved that we had a little squad because motherhood is lonely. That is one of the things that no one told me before children. Which made it even more upsetting when I heard about the ways these moms judged me and gossiped about my “shoeless child” behind my back for months.
“How hard would it be to just tell him to wear shoes? Does he not own shoes? She needs to hire extra help. She needs to implement a stricter schedule, give time-outs, blah, blah, blah.”
Here is the backstory: my son is autistic. He has major sensory sensitivities. On the day we went to the museum without shoes, he had a cut on his foot that was bothering him whenever he had shoes on. I put him in his umbrella stroller and instructed him that if we went to the museum, he would have to stay in the stroller, except in the areas where he was allowed without shoes. Did he stay in his stroller the entire time without problems? Of course not. Would I ever apologize for including my differently-abled child on a trip to the museum, even if it did not go perfectly? Also no.
My son sometimes yells too loudly. Gets too dirty when he eats. Trips more easily. Hits when he does not have words. I love those characteristics that make him the perfect little person that he is. I do not try to force him to talk quietly, stay clean, or walk in a straight line. I try to understand what he needs when he hits. I give him the limits he needs to stay safe and then I let him be himself.
We get complimented frequently by the professionals we work with for how well we do with our son, which is good because we need the validation. As a special needs mom, our children do not get to the “normal” milestones in the “normal” time-frame, so the validation that we are not royally screwing up means a lot to us. And while it is flattering coming from the professionals that work with our son, it means just as much coming from other moms.
If you are considering what your special-needs-mom-friend needs from you (and thank you for thinking of her!) repeat after me: Listen without judgment. Compliment without condensing. DO NOT GIVE ADVICE.
Which brings me to the most important point of this story. Of all the moms who do not appreciate unsolicited advice, even well-meaning advice from friends, I think special needs moms stand alone. We work countless hours finding ways to help our children thrive. To even get them into the correct programs to fit their needs is like swimming through a bowl of alphabet soup collecting acronyms, hardly knowing what any of them mean. My son’s current program? Twice daily ABA sessions rotating between two RBTs and one BCBA plus a weekly session with his SLP (autism moms know exactly what I am talking about!)
The advice you read in your favorite parenting magazine, while helpful to you and probably most families, is isolating to the special needs mom. My son does weekly feeding therapy — if I could just hide his vegetables in a delicious Pinterest-worthy dish, I would have already done that instead. And I am so glad your potty chart worked for you, but for us, we do toilet training with a specialist every week because my son has major difficulty using the bathroom. Special needs moms have unique challenges and unique triumphs (raise your hand if you have cried when your child followed a two-step direction!). Whenever you think about giving us advice, I can almost guarantee we have already tried it, and if we have not, there is a reason for that.
The way you parent probably does not apply to a special needs mom. Even special needs moms parent our children in completely unique ways. When you feel yourself wanting to judge, try asking us how we are doing instead. Most of my conversations with adults are with my son’s therapists; most of us special needs moms could really use an adult conversation a few times a week. We just want normal friendships, even though it might seem like our life is a little (or a lot) different than yours.
To all moms, special needs moms and otherwise, let’s stop focusing on what other moms are doing “right” or “wrong” and focus on encouraging and connecting with one another, because being a mom is hard enough as it is, and we could all use a good squad.