So much of parenting a child with special needs comes down to picking your battles.
I don’t like “battle” imagery, in general; I’d prefer to find a gentler, more cooperative word to describe my parenting challenges. But in the trenches, (more battle imagery!) this is the word that often comes to mind.
I walked into my 14-year-old son’s room this morning, picked up the clean laundry he’d dumped all over the floor, and put it back in his basket. The basket, theoretically, is supposed to be empty, his clean clothes residing in his drawers. This is our deal: I will sort the clothes, wash the clothes, put the clean clothes in their baskets… and my kids have to put their clothes away.
Only my middle son, my 14-year-old, doesn’t. And he argues with me: Why should I put my clothes in drawers? They can just live in a basket on my floor! It’s basically the same thing.
It is not the same thing, I want to say, as I pick up strewn t-shirts from the floor of the room he shares with his two brothers. They live in a basket on your floor until you dump the basket every morning, and then I pick them all up again
I scoop up two pairs of black jeans and wonder if this is a battle worth fighting. Even typically-developing 14-year-olds might struggle to see the point in putting their clothes away, right? Does the laundry on the floor really matter? After all, I have other things on my mind — my older daughter’s new work schedule, my older son’s driving test, my younger daughter’s musical auditions, my youngest son’s evaluation.
“Is he going to be one of my special friends, too?” my middle son’s special education teacher asks about my youngest son. “Probably,” I reply.
We have so many other battles to fight… I wonder if I should just let the laundry go.
Parenting a child with special needs is hard. The battles, the anxiety, the exhaustion… that special swoop in your stomach when your phone pops up the number of the school. I often think I’m the one fighting the battles, but I have to remember: my son is most likely fighting battles I don’t even know about.
My new picture book, When I Go to Church, I Belong, tells the story of six different children with special needs, some of the challenges they face, and the welcome they find at church. One early reader wrote about sharing the book with her seven-year-old son, who doesn’t have special needs. Upon finishing the story, he asked why some parts of church might be hard for kids, which led to a discussion about kids who might be different in some ways. And how some things are hard for some kids that might not be hard for others.
Which brings me back to the laundry.
All parents face these questions: Do I pick this battle, or let it go? To that, I add, when am I enabling my son, and when am I cutting him the slack he truly needs in a world that wasn’t designed for him? It’s a question that surfaces over and over again — in therapy, with his special education team, in every single IEP meeting. And the answer is always the same: We don’t know. We make an educated guess. We do the best we can.
But I want to get this right. It’s hard, when the stakes feel so high, and the internet tells me every choice I make is wrong.
I was bemoaning this to a friend once, and she replied, “If you always got it right, if you were a perfect parent, you would leave no room for God.” And I thought, what a wonderful way to reframe the battle. In my mistakes and missteps and wrong turns, there is room for God.
There is room for the One who knows my son better than I ever will.
So, today, I’ll pick the clothes up off my son’s floor. I toss a sweatshirt in the basket and pray for my son, and the unknown challenges he is facing. I try to relinquish the image of a battle, and instead, leave room for God.