We got a broken one, I whispered to the nothingness of the dark. After months of sleep deprivation, constant vigilance, and numbness, I was finally able to put into words the despair that overwhelmed my heart. It had been fifteen months since we brought home our unexpected child from Serbia. Fifteen months of more bruises, bite marks, and scratches than I’d sustained in the previous forty-three years. Fifteen months with a child who did not understand the word no in any language and with a throwing arm that rivaled Nolan Ryan’s. As I’ve written before, my expectations colored everything.
When we embarked on our journey, seven years ago this month, I expected to add a stereotypical child with Down syndrome…affectionate, funny, cute, and generally happy. In hindsight, if those were my expectations, I would’ve been better served with a puppy. I cringe now at my rose-colored arrogance and stupidity. I imagined a child who would seamlessly blend into our family. I anticipated that love would be enough.
It’s not enough, yet at the same time, it’s everything. It’s not enough to overcome the effects on the brain from early childhood trauma. It’s not enough to change autism into neuro-typical behavior. It’s not enough to heal significant cognitive disability.
But it’s everything for the perseverance and tenacity needed to cope with these things long term.
I recently read that “Americans are really good at acute compassion, but really bad at chronic empathy. We don’t want to be care workers. We want to be heroes.” It was like a window into my soul.
I’m really good at grand gestures and crisis management. I’m all in for the weddings, and the tragedies, and the newborns, and the funerals. It’s the in between living that I struggle with. My kids can tell you that I’m fantastic if you’re going to admit you’re an atheist, you’re pregnant at eighteen, or you’re gay. I am full on supportive and the mother you want to have for the big moments. But, if you expect to eat dinner every night, or have clean clothes to wear, or want to process every little part of your day…go ask your dad (he’s amazing at all of it.)
Chronic empathy, day-to-day love, enduring all the behaviors with compassion? The struggle is real. I am ridiculously selfish. The daily wears on me. I don’t want my life interrupted. Children are exhausting in general, but a perpetual toddler is a whole different level. This child is one consistent life interrupter. Our support system, our faith, even our geographical location have all been interrupted/changed due to him.
Warm-fuzzy-feeling love, the kind I’m good at, is great for the grand gestures. It’s needed to fall in love, to bond with your newborn, to go after the orphan, to take a leap. But in-between love, the kind that’s committed and tenacious, is what’s needed on the daily.
Seven years later, I would do it all again. He is absolutely my son. But I realize more than ever that what I whispered in the dark was wrong. I am the broken one. He deserved a mom who would show up for the mundane with a hell of a lot more grace than I have. He deserved a mom with less glitter and more grit, without expectations, ready for the long haul. He needed a better in-between mom.
He deserves so much credit for how much he’s learned and how far he’s come. We both do. For every inch of growth he’s accomplished, he’s stretched me a mile. All the grasping, striving, and reaching for love in between is worth it. One day at a time, we can do this. There is grace for that.