My son didn’t speak for five years. Five years.
I had two recurring dreams during these years that I recall distinctly. In the first, I would be sitting on the couch or at the kitchen table, and my son would pad over, in his little one-piece pajamas, and in his tender voice that I had never heard, sweetly say, “I love you, Mommy.”
My second dream was more elaborate. There was always a dinner party with a big table and a whole host of guests who played critical roles in my son’s treatment. There would be therapists, medical doctors, and behavioral aides, all there to celebrate my son’s recovery.
This celebration never happened.
It is a reflective period for me as I move into the New Year, marking exactly ten years since my son had brain surgery as an infant and was subsequently diagnosed with autism. A new mother myself, I could hardly believe doctors could perform such an enormous surgery on someone so tiny. I felt inducted into a club that I’d never sought membership in—parents connected against their wishes by shared experiences of grief, isolation, and loss of the dreams they’d held for what their children’s lives might look like.
I used to hate my association with that group of parents. I sat in parent support groups and listened as families of 10- and 12-year-olds shared that although their child never was “cured,” life was actually okay. I couldn’t imagine these two truths could exist together—that you could live that reality and actually be happy.
We’ve learned to be thick-skinned and take it in stride.
But slowly, we found our way forward. From these families, I learned how to be the kind of parent you become when you raise a child with a disability. We act as therapists, case managers, and pharmacists. We’ve learned to be thick-skinned and take it in stride. We’ve learned to keep our heads up and gracefully pick our hearts off the floor when we’re kicked out of, or never accepted into, play groups, youth programs, schools, doctors, and more.
We’ve also learned that when you don’t get to jump on the superhighway of typical family experiences—music classes, soccer games, book reports, middle-school dances, sleepovers—other opportunities and assets can reveal themselves.
I’ve learned that my son is extremely empathetic. When other children cry, even complete strangers, his face contorts, his lip starts to quiver, and tears roll down his face. When I wake up in the morning and express excitement or joy, he carries that with him through his homeschooling program all morning. My son loves the outdoors and being in nature. He has taught me to love camping and to find a deep gratitude for nature. He is also incredibly funny. He doesn’t have the filter other youth have and says, with abandon, what is on his mind, revealing observations about the world I have long taken for granted.
Raising resilient children is foremost about learning resilience yourself. You can’t give what you don’t have.
Raising resilient children is foremost about learning resilience yourself. You can’t give what you don’t have. My support system, my inner circle, showed me that sometimes you just need people along for the ride. While you have your kid’s back, they have yours. They aren’t there to judge you or question why you’re trying another homeopathic remedy involving avocado. We sometimes forget that caretakers need caretakers, too.
Raising resilient children transpires through the sum of the small moments in which you make a child feel seen, heard, and valued.
Raising resilient children transpires through the sum of the small moments in which you make a child feel seen, heard, and valued. Even before my son ever spoke, I tucked him into bed and told him every night, “You are perfect exactly the way you are.”
Raising resilient children is also about maintaining high expectations, providing consistency, and demonstrating follow-through. People often ask if I think my son will ever go to a typical school, have a job, or live with me forever.
I’ve learned not to borrow problems from the future, ruminate on the unknown, or put parameters on what is possible.
Instead, I focus on what I can control and on holding high expectations for him each day. I believed he could learn to spell and read, and I demonstrated that belief through my engagement and support. I believed he could ride a bike and I spent hours chasing him through the neighborhood until his wobbling subsided and confidence grew. Holding high expectations for children is not about defining where they will be or what they want for themselves. Rather, it is about creating the opportunities and support for young people to define this themselves.
My son is eleven and he speaks now. After years of daily speech therapy, he started to echo the word “bubble” and we’ve grown from there. It has been a long, arduous journey to get to where we are today. In 2017, he started saying, “I love my mommy so much.” Every time he does, it catches me off guard and feels like the very first time I heard his tiny voice. In that one statement, he reminds me of our entire journey together and how we have taught each other what resilience looks like.
Jennifer Bateman lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her partner and two children. She received her Ph.D. in Applied Psychology and Human Development from University of Pennsylvania and manages health, gender, and wellness work at Boys & Girls Clubs of America—helping to raise a generation of emotionally resilient youth.