Why I Am Grateful for My Daughter's "Label"

We had waited for four months to get this appointment, but really I had been waiting for years.

***

My daughter was an easy baby.  She slept great, ate great, and cried rarely. 

I knew that something was “off” around the time she turned eighteen months old.  My easy baby became an extremely challenging toddler.

“Oh, she has just hit the terrible twos early,” friends would say.  “She’ll grow out of it.” 

“She’ll grow out of it,” I kept telling myself.  But as I listened to others talk about the challenges they faced with their own children, my “mother’s intuition” told me that she might not.  Now she’s almost six, and many of my fears were grounded.

The longer I struggled to parent my child, the more I retreated into myself.  I got tired of hearing well-meaning people offer parenting tips and embarrassed as others openly condemned our parenting style.  We had tried it all and were grasping at straws.

Over the last year as we have had children from the foster care system in and out of our home, I have been somewhat blind to the needs of my own daughter.  I thought that maybe she was doing better, but the reality is that she continued to struggle, and I continued to be unavailable to her.  I recognize all of that now that we are four months removed from fostering and our lives are back to “normal”.  (Well, a new normal.). So in January, once I could see more clearly, I made an appointment with a team who had come highly recommended as a last-ditch effort to figure out what is going on with our sweet girl.

***

As five doctors sat around a table and talked at me, I tried to drink as much information from the fire hydrant of information as I could.  I came away from the evaluation with a stack of papers, a plan, and, for the first time in years …

hope.

I hated hearing them say all of those things about her and I hated reading those bold words at the top of the first page they gave me: her labels.  I hate that this issue isn’t something that will resolve itself or go away with time.  I hate the diagnosis, but I’m also extremely grateful to have it.  As with cancer, the disease is truly terrible, but ignoring it or being in denial doesn’t somehow make it less terrible.  These things can’t be treated unless their presence is known.

It felt strange to be on the receiving end of these life-altering conclusions about my daughter.  Having taught special education for years, I was often part of the team of professionals who would sit down with parents for the first time and explain the results of evaluations to them.  I’ve seen all sorts of reactions to this information, ranging anywhere from quiet tears, to “deer-in-the-headlights” looks, to refusal to sign the paperwork, to leaving the room.  I always prayed that I would have an appropriate reaction if I was ever in a similar situation but never dreamed that I actually would be.

***

I cried all kinds of tears in the days following the appointment. 

Angry tears because watching her struggle behind the glass that day was just one of the many times I’ve watched her struggle in ways that many other children don’t. 

Sad tears that she will deal with these things, to some extent, for the rest of her life. 

labels

But also, tears of relief.  I’m not crazy!  The doctors all validated what I’ve seen for years, but unlike me, they know where to go.  Those words at the top of the page, they’re just words.  And yes, words are powerful, but these particular ones aren’t powerful enough to defeat us or her.  Now I just know how to fight.

You know what other words are powerful, more powerful than her labels?  You’re a good mom, and I’m glad she has you.  Those came from my husband.  I’ve felt many things in regard to the challenges of parenting a child with these needs, but “good mom” hasn’t been one of them. 

More tears.  This time, tears of gratitude.  All of those times I have beat myself up for wondering where we went wrong and not knowing how to help her … her diagnosis is not my fault!

Does this all change how I love her?  It absolutely does.  I don’t love her more or less, but I can love her better.  I can start giving her what she needs.  I wouldn’t change a thing about her.  She’s perfect and exactly who God intended her to be.  But now I can have more compassion and grace for her (and myself!), and I can find her help.

This “invisible disability” doesn’t define my daughter.  It is a part of her, but it isn’t her.  When she introduces herself to other people, this thing won’t be the first or second, or probably tenth thing she tells them about herself.  She’s still the little girl who asked to visit our sick elderly neighbor this weekend.  She still loves gymnastics and reading and babies and her dog and being outside with her sister.  She’s still one of the best readers in her class, and she is still crazy good at art.  I couldn’t be more proud.

I’m grateful for her label because those little words open doors for her, and she’s too stubborn to let the words win.

School In This Season: Managing College with a Family and a Life

Cut me a break, please.  It was the 90s.

Cut me a break, please.  It was the 90s.

(Originally published on Blogger in December 2016)

When I was six years old, my dad graduated from college.  

He was 41.

I clearly remember Dad's graduation ceremony, partly because my little brother was complaining of a stomachache the entire time, partly because the ceremony itself was dreadfully long and boring for a first grader, and partly because I thought my dad was just so cool to be walking across the stage in a black hat and "dress".  

For years, I never knew that graduating as a 41-year-old was not exactly "normal".  I always just knew that Daddy worked tirelessly for our family.  He was, and is still, the only one of his four siblings to graduate from college, just as my granddad was one of a select few in his generation to do the same.

I went to college because my granddad started a college fund for both my brother and me when we were infants, and this savings account grew until I was 18 so that my parents paid relatively little to help me attend the University of Oklahoma.

I never took out student loans.  I realize that, in today's world, that is nothing short of a miracle.

I also went to college because of the legacy that my granddad left, even after his passing, and the example that my dad gave me as he completed his degree.  I honestly didn't realize that there were other options after high school, and I'm not sure that I would have considered them anyway.  

College as an 18-year-old certainly required some effort on my part, but much of my time at OU was spent playing ultimate frisbee until 2:00 a.m. and doing lunch dates in the Union.  I graduated with an excellent GPA and did not kill myself trying to do so.  My social life was rich.

Today, I'm back in school, ten years after graduation, and I am only now comprehending the many sacrifices that my dad made for our family when I was little.  He worked full-time, went to school in the evenings, and still found time to be with Tim and me.  I remember him being gone at night, but he was never absent from our lives. 

Several years ago, I started working on my master's degree at OU.  The longer I was in school, the less I felt the calling to become a reading specialist.  My original motive to pursue a higher degree was based out of a love for learning and a desire to recreate my undergrad experience. Selfishly, I wanted to boost my ego and knew that a master's degree would make me look better on paper.  In the end, those were not good enough reasons to continue.

This time around is different than when I was fresh out of high school, and it is also different than when I was working on a higher level degree.  

This time, school is for my family.

I haven't loved coming home from lab at 10:00 p.m. with studying left to do, and there are so many days when it feels impossible to hold a part-time job and make everyone stop screaming and fold the laundry and do all the things.  (I truly have no idea how single parents make that happen.)  

College isn't exactly fun this time around.

It's also expensive, and I frequently find myself questioning if all of this is worth it.  But, I keep coming back to the same answer that it is, or at least it will be.

It will be worth it when I can help my girls pay for their own college and their weddings.  

It will be worth it to have a job which allows my people to get my best instead of getting my leftovers because I gave everyone else's people my best all day.  

It will be worth it when I can say, "Yes, I will read you that book for the 47th time today because I can because it's a Tuesday and I only work three days a week."

Right now, all of those "worth its" seem forever away.  They are at least six more semesters away, to be exact.  They are coming, though, and that thought has pushed me through many a night when I would rather be home with my family than listening to another lecture about electrons and other topics which have virtually no relevance in my everyday life.  

I finished my first semester back in college with As, but my perfectionist self surprisingly would have been okay if I hadn't.  I don't need to be perfect to do well or to get accepted into the dental hygiene program (I hope!).  Sometimes, everyone's best interest is found in closing the textbook and running around in the backyard with the little people, who aren't going to be little for much longer.

 
As somewhat of a related side note, God has continued to show me grace when I've most needed it throughout the school year.  I randomly had the sweetest lab partner who became a good friend as the weeks passed.  She works, is married, has two little girls the same ages as mine, and tries to balance it all, too.  We struggled through tests together, ruined labs together, and laughed a whole lot.  This is Amanda, and she made chemistry not only bearable, but kind of fun sometimes.

As somewhat of a related side note, God has continued to show me grace when I've most needed it throughout the school year.  I randomly had the sweetest lab partner who became a good friend as the weeks passed.  She works, is married, has two little girls the same ages as mine, and tries to balance it all, too.  We struggled through tests together, ruined labs together, and laughed a whole lot.  This is Amanda, and she made chemistry not only bearable, but kind of fun sometimes.