I’m going to ask the question in the title of this post again at the end, but I want to first bring up a few things I’ve thought about concerning what ‘strong’ means in our lives as parents of autistic and special needs children.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about how difficult some episode or part of parenting has been on them physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, or typically some combination of these. Let’s not sugarcoat things. We face a lot of challenges. Some of them wear us down. Some days all we can do is hold our heads in our hands. We are determined to overcome these challenges, but it sure would help if we had greater reservoirs of strength to draw from.
I realized that being ‘strong’ means different things to different people. In our patriarchal culture, it’s often equated with physical strength or political or economic power. Many movies and televised sports only add to the glorification of this. I think if you ask a dozen random people in public, most, or maybe all, of their responses would fall within this definition of ‘strong’.
What’s intriguing to me is that if you ask a collection of parents of special needs children, my experience has been that you’ll get a much broader array of answers. We are very aware of our limitations in areas essential to our families’ needs and at some level our own survival. Our role models are often other parents who we think are living in ways we want to ourselves, leaders in the autism and special needs community, and people who have overcome great obstacles and challenges to succeed and thrive. I’m not saying that others don’t hold people like this in esteem, but we may be a lot more likely to have heroes like Temple Grandin than we would, for example, Peyton Manning.
We do need a certain physical strength to get us through the day particularly when it comes to managing a panicked, growing, amazingly strong child in public, chasing after one running from us in a crowded parking lot, or simply having the physical endurance for everything required of us during the day. At least these are some of the reasons why I’ve been running and working out for over a year now. It gets to the point quickly where this becomes an essential part of our job description.
But we are very aware of the fact that we need a variety of emotional and related community supports from people who know what we’re going through. Those are areas in which we’d certainly like to be stronger. Fear, anxiety, anger, and despair are but a few of all the difficult emotions we wrestle with. They are understandable and natural. But I know we’d all like to manage them better. Having these emotions isn’t the issue; being ruled and even incapacitated by them is where many of us struggle the most. When we lose our grip on this, which is often, we feel weak and undone.
We feel alone in this struggle, though in reality we’re not. In fact, it’s one trait almost all of us share. We can draw strength from knowing we’re not alone. We can draw strength from knowing others understand us. We can draw strength from each other’s wisdom. And we are strong when we band together in the face of injustices that harm our children and say, “Enough!”
Whether it’s another’s insight, empathy, or just their quiet, understanding presence, these gifts make us stronger. And largely these are quiet, unheralded acts of strength. So much of this never happens in public view, but it forms the foundation of so much of our building strength.
In addition, we appreciate the strengths of those professionals who support us. Our teachers, therapists, local and state service supports, advocates, and so many others possess amazing gifts and talents and a willingness to share those with our children. No one is making them do this. They chose their vocations because this is what they love. They use their abilities and wisdom to help our children, and if this isn’t an example of strong, I don’t know what is.
We also have an added perspective of ‘strong’ from our own kids. They have many strengths, whether it be prodigious talents in certain areas or their ability and determination to progress bit by bit and enjoy success despite all the challenges they face. They teach us that strength doesn’t magically appear out of nowhere or come after a few minutes of bombastic music a la Rocky Balboa. It comes instead from piecing together small, daily acts of practice. Over time, amazing things arise from these seemingly small things. Like grains of sand, they build up and can stand against a great ocean.
Perhaps our vision of ‘strong’ is simply having whatever it is we need in order to be the kind of parent and person we want to be, or otherwise having the means to get it. We might not know what this specifically means for us right now, but we know we need something. In that case, our best bet is to begin identifying where we are struggling most and looking for ways to address that. This could be anything from developing skills and strengths within ourselves to seeking out community resources to help us. We don’t have to know exactly everything we need right now. ‘Strong’ sometimes is just knowing we need help then seeking it out and taking some control of the situation step by step.
Why did this pop into my head? I put on the last line of my Road ID bracelet I wear while running the words “You are strong enough!” I was out running yesterday and thought about them. These were the words I swear I heard in my grandmother’s voice while I was out jogging last year and felt like quitting, giving up on running and a lot of other things, because everything felt too hard for me. I was overwhelmed by everything, and I didn’t feel up to trying anymore. When I was out on the road that night, knees throbbing with every step, wanting to stop, I heard those words. They’ve stuck with me ever since as one of my most important mantras.
They are an affirmation that I can face whatever doubts I have now and whatever challenges will come next. I don’t have to be the strongest person in the world. I don’t have to be superhuman. I just have to be me, and that is and will be enough.
I know she wanted me to believe in myself and not quit because that’s what she always tried to teach me. She overcame all manner of incredible adversity. She refused to let obstacles determine the course of her life. I’ve often felt adrift without her these last two years.
In his eulogy to Steve Jobs, Seth Godin said, “It’s one thing to miss someone, to feel a void when they’re gone. It’s another to do something with their legacy, to honor them through your actions.” This is what I’ve been striving to do. I think of her brand of strong as ‘Mamaw strong’. This for me means strength of character, conviction, faithfulness to family, relentless determination, and sometimes just plain old stubbornness.
What am I getting at with all this? Here’s where we come back to the title of this post. What does ‘strong’ mean to you? When you look at your life, challenges, children, families, shortcomings, hopes, and dreams, where do you need to grow and become stronger in order to realize your vision for your family and your life? Be as specific as you can. The more specific you can be, the better you can act on this.
If you want to post your thoughts here in the comments, I know I and others would love to hear your perspective. If you don’t, I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on this. It’s helped me, and I hope it does the same for you.
And always remember what my ever-wise grandmother said, “You are strong enough!”