For Parents Of Kids With Special Needs, Comparison Truly Is The Thief Of Joy

by Cristin Riebel
Mother smiling at her kid with special needs
Cristin Riebel

Next to the actual diagnosis of my daughter’s chromosome deletion, comparing her to other children is perhaps my biggest struggle. And I know this struggle is not isolated to parents of children with special needs.

Many a mom friend has mentioned to me that they’re constantly comparing their children to others their age. Are they achieving at the same level? Are they growing, walking, talking, eating as much as the child next door? In fact, years before I became pregnant, one of my best friends described to me how, as a parent, you always want your kids to be the best: best-dressed, best-looking, best in the class.

Having a child with special needs takes it to another level. The differences are more significant, and the delays in development are painfully clear — even to strangers. Often when we’re out in public with my daughter, someone will approach us to admire her and ask how old she is.

“17 months,” I reply.

And the next question is always, “Is she walking yet?”

“Not quite yet” is my standard response. The truth is, she’s not even crawling yet.

And then comes the questioning look, and sometimes the judgment. They seem to be calculating against other babies of a similar age (i.e., my cousin’s child is only 12 months, and he’s already walking). This is especially evident when the question comes from a parent of young children. Usually, I don’t offer an explanation (it’s none of their business), but there’s always a small part of me that wants to defend her — and myself, as I’m terrified of not working hard enough as a parent.

Day care is another place the comparison bug hits me. Not only do I see kids her age surpassing her on major milestones, but now we’re also at a point that kids several months younger than her are developing skills she does not yet have. And we are fast approaching the 18-month mark when kids at her school typically transition up to the next class. The problem is that in the toddlers’ classroom the children need to be strong walkers so they don’t get trampled by the other children. The game plan is for her to stay in the baby classroom a little longer. And then the gap between her and other children will widen.

The thing that scares me the most is not the difference between my daughter and other children, but the question as to whether she will ever master these skills. I can let go of my competition gene, but the unknown here really frightens me.

Before you start to wonder if you should hide me on Facebook or avoid me at the next party, please know that this does not mean that I don’t love to see your children and celebrate their accomplishments. Please keep sharing!

Plus, I’m learning to curb my comparing ways. As they say, “If the grass is greener on the other side, water your own lawn.” My new goal is to start celebrating our own mini-milestones. These are the things that may otherwise be taken for granted, but are exciting developments in our day-to-day. For instance:

– Although my daughter is not crawling, she’s balancing herself so well in my lap!

– Although she is not walking alongside me at the store, now she can sit by herself in the shopping cart!

– Although she’s not feeding herself, she’s starting to experiment with flavors and has found a love for clementines!

You get the picture: Any first is worth celebrating.

And it doesn’t stop with celebrating “firsts.” I am celebrating who my daughter is. Period. She is pure joy — her laugh is a showstopper, and her smile can brighten the whole room. She loves her family and her friends at school. Her focus and dedication to learning a new toy rivals the focus of this project-managing mama. Her love of car rides and music make me know she will always love hanging out with her daddy.

My daughter is absolutely her own person, and she stands alone without comparison. And the more time we spend celebrating and rejoicing in who she is versus what she can do, the more joy there is to be had.