It’s not easy raising that kid, the child who is your greatest joy and your greatest challenge. If you’re a Catholic mom raising exceptional, differently-wired children, here are seven reasons to rejoice.
I first faced the possibility I might be mom to “that kid” in an Asheville, North Carolina diner one afternoon in early August. The child in question was three years old, overwhelmingly tired, and, looking back in the rearview over a decade later, trying very hard to make sense of a confusing, contradictory world.
We had promised her a brownie after she ate her dinner. She poked at her grilled cheese; the diner had no brownies on the menu for dessert. She screamed, she kicked, she banged her tiny fists on the table.
My husband threw three twenties among the remainders of our dinner, I grabbed the kiddo, and then we got the heck out.
To our fellow restaurant patrons and the people in that strip mall parking lot, our daughter’s meltdown probably looked like a spoiled brat’s tantrum: a violent reaction to not getting the thing she wanted. In truth, she had undiagnosed level one Autism (formerly known as Asperger’s). The change in expectations plus the sensory overload from traveling kicked off her 90-minute meltdown.
We got caught in traffic, checked into our hotel, and rocked her back and forth, hearts breaking, until finally – finally – she fell asleep.
It killed me.
I questioned everything I knew. Because the other Catholic families in our parish, the parochial school we’d eventually choose, and then when we decided to homeschool for a while, our homeschool group and co-ops, had well-behaved kids who sat through Mass, followed directions, and were appropriately social and attentive. I compared my surface-layer view of their family experiences to our classroom meltdowns, church function wackiness, birthday party guest struggles, and outbursts in the middle of the Mass and came to the only possible conclusion:
I was doing something very wrong.
It was a lonely time for me as a mother. I berated myself nonstop. I worried about what other people would think of me; I worried about what I thought of me. I lay awake at night wondering if my children would ever reach the point where they could function in society and refused to bring my concerns to anyone:
What if they judged me or my children for what was going on?
But they didn’t. And my three brave, beautiful, intelligent differently-wired children are coming along just fine. I’ve been where you are, my friend, and I want to reassure you.
This is what I want you to know as a Catholic mom of that kid.
You and Your Children are Living Witnesses
You are proof of God’s infinitely beautiful design. You are an example of the way in which He has crafted every human heart with uniqueness and unrepeatability. Those fears and worries you have are valid based on your circumstances but not to the extent you are experiencing them.
Judging yourself–and, by extension, worrying that others are judging you–excludes you and those around you from God’s opportunities for grace.
Regardless of what the ill-advised may have told you; regardless of the stony hearts who’ve said “If your son could just stop [insert quirky kid behavior], we’d be more than happy to let him join,” you belong in your parish, your church, your faith community.
There is no such thing as the perfect Catholic family, only God’s perfect family graces. God has created your family to be unique and unrepeatable. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
Invisible Disabilities are a Thing
Just because your child has no outwardly discernible disabilities doesn’t mean those disabilities don’t exist. While the recognition of differently-wired individuals has gained traction in recent years, there are still a lot of people who haven’t got a clue. It’s not unusual to fear judgment over meltdowns or impulsive behaviors. After all, what sort of parent indulges very loud, very public tantrums or literal wall climbing?
Lady, it’s definitely not you.
Your child’s struggles are not a result of poor parenting. You are not overly permissive, nor are you setting your standards too low. You are parenting a child with an invisible disability: a condition that generally cannot be observed from the outside unless you know the signs and symptoms. It is okay to educate with charity if you feel it necessary.
It’s also more than okay to set boundaries, offer a smile, and move on.
(And, oh yeah – one more thing: Those people you think are judging you? Unless they say something, they probably haven’t given your situation a second thought. By nature, human beings are self-absorbed and wrapped up in their own struggles. Most people aren’t paying attention because they’re focused on their own thing. The ones who make it clear they’re watching via comments or directed body language? I know it’s hard to walk away, but believe me when I say you’ll feel better if you offer a prayer for them and let it go.)
You Are Enough
Right now, you probably feel like you’re up the proverbial creek without a paddle. It might feel nearly impossible to determine God’s will.
You doubt your gut.
You feel like you aren’t able to establish effective limits and keep to them
There’s a heavy cloud of inadequacy and imposter syndrome hovering above you and you’d give anything to see the sun.
But here’s the thing: God gave you these children. He didn’t give them to anyone else. Out of all the mothers on earth who could have raised and loved these little people, He chose you above every single one of them. God does not make mistakes.
You are Walking the Fine Line Just Fine
When it comes to your kids, you worry about a lot of different things:
Am I holding them back?
What if I’m coddling?
Should I offer more challenging subjects?
Should I encourage them to fit in and be “normal” (whatever that means)?
In a nutshell, you worry you won’t find the right balance between allowing your children to become the exceptional people God made them while challenging their areas for growth.
I get it. I used to worry about that, too.
I’m not going to lie and say you will stop worrying altogether, but I will say the day will come when you stop doubting yourself. You will note their successes, see the growth in the areas with weaknesses, and feel confident in your ability to adjust. And if you’re concerned you have a habit of settings limits and not sticking to them, take a look at why you’re setting them in the first place. Are they reasonable? Rational? Doable? Would the limits be more attainable if you replaced them with something else?
Your Children Will Find Their People, and They Will Thrive in the Real World.
The pain of watching your children struggle socially is an acute sensation. Because there they are, a manifestation of your heart wandering around outside your body, and every instance of poor treatment shoots from the top of your head to your toes. You worry they won’t ever find friends, find a job, find a spouse, raise their own children.
I promise the reality’s not so bleak.
You can read my tips for helping your kids find their posse in this post so I won’t rehash them here. But I will say that for me, part of coming to terms with my children’s social experiences and futures has been letting go of my expectations for what that will look like. They don’t have to become teachers or writers or pursue a career in which they are required to be around lots of people. Helping them to discern God’s will for their future and follow it will be exponentially more helpful than encouraging them to be what I wanted them to be.
(And also, on a practical note: try to remember they will most likely gravitate toward those of similar interests and talents in college and beyond. The love you offer and the interests you foster will give them a secure, self-confident grounding.)
God Gave Them to You, but They Still Belong to God.
Yes, you worry that your children will walk away from what you’ve taught them. The statistics look grim, the social pressures seem unrelenting. There is a chance they will walk away from God.
But there are two things I think we need to consider. Firstly, you are only partially responsible for your children’s souls. They have free will; God loved them before they were born and then breathed them into existence. While your children may stray from the path to which God has called them, He’s always waiting and working to bring them home.
As for the second item, statistics are only part of the picture. Many gifted, exceptional brains crave logic and concrete explanations. Fortunately, Catholicism offers a healthy dose of faith and reason. Eucharistic miracles, the Catechism, and the writings of the saints and Church Doctors offer openings for discussion and irrefutable proof.
There are Other Families out There Like Yours
They may not be in your immediate physical area, but I promise they exist. You can find a beautiful, supportive community online in The Zelie Society and my email newsletter. There’s a lot of us and we like making friends.
Maybe you are the mom of that kid, the one who is your greatest joy and your greatest challenge.
But being that child’s mother isn’t a matter of shame. It’s a matter of grace, grit, and beautiful potential.
God created that kid to change this pagan world.
You get a front-row seat.
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