Forgiveness. From the time we are very young, the concept typically circles around challenging conversations with peers. One child says something mean to another child on the playground, and the teacher tells the victim to “just forgive.”
Time moves forward; raging hormones and the adolescent quest for independence make forgiveness a centerpiece of the parent-teenager relationship. The rebellious teen is caught sneaking out of the house to a party or skipping school. Parents take disciplinary action. Conversation erupts into an epic argument. And, eventually, the teen forgives his or her parent for “ruining my weekend,” and the parent forgives his or her teen for “completely ignoring household rules,” adding, “Until you pay the mortgage, it’s our way or the highway!”
We get through it all and one day become adults, at which point it all becomes the stuff of comical conversations with friends. And of course, with our newfound adult responsibilities, our ability to practice forgiveness begins to expand in all sorts of ways. We have opportunities almost daily to forgive someone: in the workplace, our community, our romantic relationships, and our friendships.
So, by early adulthood, with a few situations under our belts, we begin to think we’ve mastered the art of forgiveness. That is, until we become parents ourselves. We’ve learned how to forgive others by now… but it is not until we are parents that we really have to learn how to forgive ourselves – and this is especially true for parents of special needs children.
When my son Joey was first diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, it was completely overwhelming. Like any mom in my shoes, I immediately began researching every possible avenue – but sadly, there was no roadmap. It was all on my husband and I to navigate through the endless possibilities of available, time-consuming, and often costly therapies, programs, and treatments. It was up to us to identify what might work well for our sweet boy.
And, as is the case with every parent, we got unsolicited advice left and right. People came out of the woodwork when they heard the news. Some sent us to websites, some shared phone numbers, some lectured us on the latest-and-greatest treatment protocol. We absorbed some of the information and made the best decisions we could with the resources we had at the time.
Joey began all kinds of therapies aimed at diminishing behaviors and increasing communication skills. But unfortunately, despite the hours of patience and persistence, he continued to regress. I was crushed.
So here’s what happened next:
I spent my days second-guessing every choice we had made. I walked around with the heavy weights of guilt and anxiety sitting on my chest. Hundreds of times each day and sometimes through sleepless nights, I asked myself: “What if we had tried that miracle diet?”, “What if we had applied for that school?”, or “What did I do to make matters worse for him?”
These unresolved questions were typically followed by a list of of “should’ve” statements which circled in my head like a doom loop. “Should’ve called a different expert.” “Should’ve gone with a different treatment protocol.” “Should’ve tried harder.”
As you can imagine, this cycle in my mind was completely counterproductive. Self-doubt is more debilitating than I ever imagined. And the truth is, I needed to continue to be on my A-game for Joey and my other children – and it had become impossible to do so because I was so stuck on that doom loop.
But something deep down inside me knew that until I was more gentle with myself, I was never going to have the confidence a mom of a special needs child must have to continue to advocate, to continue to explore possibilities, and to continue to exude the joy that made myself and my family feel as healthy as possible in spite of our hardships.
One day, my mind and my heart opened up as we turned a corner in our path. We discovered Anderson Center for Autism, and although the prospect of full-time residential treatment for our son was a devastating choice to have to make, we knew that enrolling Joey was the right thing to do. The team was remarkably compassionate and knowledgeable, and not only were they prepared to meet Joey’s needs, but they could help him make real progress. All of the sudden, the path that had led us to Anderson Center for Autism made sense. And while dropping him off to live there was one of the most painful experiences of my life, I knew that he was home. All of the decisions along the way that left me confused and questioning my ability to parent brought us right to that doorstep.
When I visited him for the first time after he moved in, it was clear in his eyes and his whole presence that he was content, healthy, happy. And in his eyes I found the ability to forgive myself. No more “should’ve, would’ve, could’ve.” Just a feeling of being present right in a new moment in time, a moment which marked the beginning of a whole new chapter for my wonderful son.
Although we felt we were lost along the way during those earlier years with absolutely no navigation, there had actually been a roadmap after all – it had been in my heart. It was in my love for Joey. It was in my tireless quest to keep making modifications to programs, treatments, and everything in our home until we found the right combination. I ended up following my instincts right to Anderson Center for Autism, making the best decision we possibly could have made for him (even though it was terribly painful for us).
So moms and dads everywhere, whether you have a child with special needs or not: go easy on yourself. Parenting is one big exercise in forgiveness – but the most important person to forgive is you. Whatever mistakes you think you are making, and whatever mistakes you’ve actually made – take it from me, they may one day all make sense when you make the turn in your own path.
Just be as forgiving with yourself as your teachers asked you to be with those kids on the playground at school. Be as forgiving with yourself as you wanted your parents to be when you made mistakes as a teenager. Be as forgiving with yourself as you want your friends to be with you when you miss their birthdays.
I have to say: by being forgiving with myself, my heart feels lighter, my mind is sharper, and my days are brighter. What could be better than that for Joey and my family?