¾ of the way through Day 3 of iCanBike camp, the gym at the YMCA was starting to get less crowded as the more successful campers started heading outside with their volunteers to transition to independent riding. The speakers were playing “give ‘em hell” music like “Eye of the Tiger” and “How You Like Me Now?”, and at the far end, the head volunteer was trying to coax Miss Julianna, in her Frozen t-shirt and polka-dotted skort, off her roller bike and onto two wheels for the first time this week. She was not enthusiastic about the prospect.
And then the strains of The Heavy disappeared to be replaced by:
It worked. Soon enough, Julianna was circling the gym—slowly—on two wheels, the head volunteer holding onto the support pole on the back. Singing, of course. (Julianna, not the volunteer.) And about the time Julianna started sing-shouting, “The fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all!”, she picked up some speed and the volunteer was able to let go and Julianna rode a bike about twenty feet without anyone holding onto her for the first time in her life.
As special needs parents, these are moments we cling to. Because the reality is that although these tend to be the moments we share, they are not the rule in our lives.
For every one of these, there are five or ten where I tell Julianna, “Put your clothes away,” and discover that she’s put her dirty underwear and socks back in the drawer with her clean clothes; then, when I scold her and tell her to put them in the laundry, she puts the entire contents of the drawer in the laundry. Or, in an excess of desire to be like her brothers, who are packing for vacation (and who are occupying every bit of my attention and then some), she pulls out every shirt she owns and dumps it on my bed. And when I say, “Julianna, we’ve got to make lunch right now. Put those back, and we’ll pack you after lunch,” she instead empties ALL of her drawers onto the floor of her room.
It’s hard for me to know how much she really doesn’t understand, and how much she is pretending not to. In the above examples, I wasn’t being very concrete. But often I do stop, look her in the eye, and speak very slowly: I need you to put your dirty clothes in the laundry…(pause)…and THEN…(pause)…fold your clean clothes and put them away. Sometimes I even have her repeat it back to me. And more times than not, the outcome is virtually the same.
It’s hard for me to accept that my 10 1/2 year old, who can read literally anything you put in front of her (well, okay, if you presented her with a foreign language or with medical jargon, you could stump her, but otherwise) really is incapable of carrying out a sequence of three simple instructions that she’s been doing every single day for years.
It’s also hard to accept that this experience gives credence to the stinging note on the final reading assessment of last school year–the one where it said she would be well served by handing her preschool books to read.
We’ve been very laissez-faire with Julianna…pretty much her whole life. Partly it’s philosophical, but mostly I think it’s because hey, we have three boys and it’s madness–madness, I tell you. This summer, for instance, I made a conscious decision to focus on getting Nicholas and Michael to swim lessons, because they can learn and learn quickly and be safe in the pool, and that’s one set of lessons we don’t have to mess with anymore! But Julianna isn’t served well by the same instruction–I mean, she does fine, but she’s so slow to progress, it’s a poor use of time and money–so right now she’s sitting out, and when fall ball is over we’ll spend the money on private swim lessons through the winter, when other things are not going on.
But I often feel my conscience pricked at the conviction that if I worked with her more consistently–on reading comprehension, for instance–that she would progress more, that she would be doing better. That I am underserving her mostly because I find the process frustrating. That I, in sum, am not being the best mother to her that I could. Or should.
And often I remind myself it doesn’t matter that much if it takes her 2-3 years longer to learn something than it would if I were more on top of things–because it’s not like we’re chasing a goal of success in trigonometry, statistics, and AP English.
But I really thought by the time she was 10, I could be reading Anne of Green Gables with her. I’ve been looking forward to that for a long time. And she’s just nowhere near that.
So when special needs parents share those moments that seem so small, so ordinary, it’s not just because we want people to understand that our kids can do the same things other kids can do, even if it’s harder or takes longer to get there. It’s also because we have this whole deep ocean of repeated failure that we don’t share. In part that is because we don’t want to be the whiners nobody listens to. But it’s also because we feel a huge, huge responsibility not to scare people off welcoming kids with disabilities into their worlds.
It’s an impossible juggling act, and one we navigate every single day of our lives. Just some days, we are better at it than others.