Many of us hold dual citizenship: Card-carrying creds from the world of Special Needs parenting, and membership in the “normal” world of typically developing children (“Sibs.”) We occupy both realms, but may not feel legitimate or fully included in either. For those of us chronically aware of our “Other-ness,” we’ve experienced feeling like an outsider, even in the midst of an intentionally inclusive, cultural diversity event.
Good News, though: Our Other-ness can also work for our good. The upshot to never belonging anywhere…
When “Normal” Becomes the New Weird
Last week, I attended my younger son J2’s “International Day” at school. Like most grade school events, it was absolutely darling — if not a little visually incongruent. A room full of predominantly Asian and Southeast Asian 3rd-graders (we live in Silicon Valley), resplendent in German, Chilean and Egyptian paraphernalia.
To be honest, I’m always hounded by Imposter Syndrome at these events, attending as a “normal” parent, that is. After twelve formative years as SpEd mom to J1, first, I just feel kind of awkward at these things. Doing “normal” has become the New Weird for me.
For the record, I am an official, card-carrying, bona fide Normal Parent. Typically developing J2 grants me access and unlimited passage into the Realms of Normal. Part-time, at least. But the primary, baseline part of me? I was born and bred a SpEd Mom, from the moment of conception I was thoroughly steeped in the arts of IEP advocacy. That is my default setting; that is how I was christened and birthed into the world of parenting.
Those panicky Early Intervention Years, being thrown into the deep end of IEP’s, ABA’s, SLP’s and OT’s, have completely scrambled and reformatted my maternal DNA (“It’s imperative we do forty hours a week of intensive therapy, while his disabled brain is still malleable! We must smash as much in there, before it hardens like wet cement in a sponge… sponge… sponge…!)
Like a person who learned to drive only on a stick shift, I’d never known anything else. Then J2 came along. Then I had to reboot, reset and re-learn parenting all over again,
“Why do you keep getting all these birthday party invitations? Are you supposed to attend every single one? That’s like one a month?! If you can’t go, do we still have to send a gift? Do we have to invite every one of these kids to yours? What about the girls? And how do all these other moms know about Little League and Soccer sign ups? How am I supposed to find out about these things?”
With J1, I never had to deal with these categorically Typical Problems. J1 never got invited to parties and he couldn’t play regular soccer or Little League. We were exempt. Life was blissfully simple in that regard. Only now, I had to slow down and learn how to drive an automatic, aka “How to drive Normal.”
Typical Parent Imposter
At International Day, all the other moms seemed to know each other. They chatted freely, probably arranging playdates and coffees, talking yoga and Lululemons or what not. I mean, I could schmooze, too, if I wanted to. Schmoozing comes easily to me. I’m an ambivert, for crying out loud. I can do social. But right here, right now? I just want to eat my German strudel and deep-fried Chilean plantain chips, and slip out the back door. Quietly. I just want to get out of here.
Because I feel like an Other. I may look Normal on the outside. But I know I’m not. Because as nice as the Normal Moms are, if I linger to chat, the topic of our other kids will inevitably come up. My older son J1 with autism will come up, usually followed by a sympathetic,“Ohhhhhh!” at best, or at worst, an uncomfortable, “Oh, I’m sorry,” <awkward silence here.>
Depending on how special needs-savvy the other mom is (or not), I’ll end up explaining to put them at ease. I’ll smile harder. I’ll pump up the cheer. I’ll make the effort to allay any discomfort and assure them, “Oh, it’s fine, really. It’s really quite alright!”
“Smiles, everybody, smiles!” as Mr. Rourke from Fantasy Island would say.
I don’t look forward to those moments. You never know what you’re gonna get. Life has enough surprises, both good and bad. Some surprises, you can just do without. To be fair, I’ve been delightfully surprised on occasion. One time, Normal Mom was a psychiatrist who worked with kids with developmental delays. Another time, Mom turned out to a fellow Special Needs Mom: a bi-ped, a bi-vo, a two-fer, a Neither-This-Nor-That, just like me. We sniffed each other out fairly quickly and shared a relieved laugh, one of mutual understanding: we were Normal Parent Imposters. Our cover uncompromised, we then we went our separate ways.
Hyphenated: Always Neither-This-Nor-That
It’s not that I’m ashamed of J1. I’m immensely proud of how hard we’ve worked, to get to where we are today. It’s just that even the slightest addition of pressure is unwelcome: the expectation and burden of knowing I’m about to “represent” My People. And I want to represent, to educate and advocate so well, so bad. I’ll even put on lipstick for these gigs, that’s how much. But it can be wearying, always having to be on, even when you’re off.
Does anyone know what I’m talking about? Or am I just navel-gazing here…
I suppose it’s not too dissimilar to how I felt growing up as an Asian-American (or Asian American if you’re from Cal Berkeley. NO HYPHEN, thank you very much.) Fifth grade flunkie-bully “Vinnie” would spit into my second-grade face on the playground, every chance he got. He’d yank my hair and taunt, “Hey, Ching Chong Chinaman! Go back to China, you Ching Chong Chinaman!”
Vinnie failed to appreciate that I won the spelling bee, and was likely more fluent in English (and gender and geography, apparently) than he. In Vinnie’s expert eyes, I would never be, “a real American.”
But I’m not fully accepted as a Korean either. Any visit to my “homeland” (I immigrated when at age three and grew up speaking English) is a stark reminder I’m an outsider there, too. My clothes, my casual assertiveness and mildly entitled air, all scream American without having to utter a word. And when I do speak Korean, the local grandmothers and aunties berate me for my shameful ignorance of my mother tongue.
Regardless of what country I stand, despite the militant NO HYPHEN stance of my alma mater, mine will always be a hyphenated experience: Neither-This-Nor-That. Both-and-neither. Always.
Cast Away, “I have made fire!”
In the film Cast Away, Tom Hanks’ character attempts to assimilate back to normal life, after being lost at sea and presumed dead. At his welcome back party, he eyes a platter of crab legs. The camera lingers for a moment on the stacked platter. You know he’s thinking back to the years of desperately trying to catch a single fish, to fend off starvation. And here sits a mound of crab legs, piled over and ignored. So easy for the taking. And nobody cares.
Later, he sits alone in the dark of his hotel room. He plays idly with a portable lighter, flicking it on and off, repeatedly. Eventually, he rejects the bed in favor of sleeping on the floor. As he’d grown accustomed to.
So much agony and struggle. So much fight to survive: to catch a fish, to light a fire. After countless failures, the moment he finally succeeds in igniting a flame, he stokes it into a raging bonfire. He preens about and bellows in primal victory,
“YESSSS. LOOK WHAT I HAVE CREATED. I have made FIRE. I. have made FIRE!”
Such easy access to comfort, luxury and convenience. All this, after years of isolation and suffering, trying to survive. He can never look at creature comforts like beds, lights, or crab legs in the same way again. He can never do Normal in the same way again.
Like soldiers returning home from the front-lines of battle, many who suffer from real PTSD, it’s hard to snap back from Hell into Normal in an instant.
Easy is hard to do, when Hard is all you’ve done.
WE. Have made FIRE. Together
Over the last twelve years, J1 and I have fought to survive and make progress. At present count, we’ve burned through over 72 professionals, educators, therapists and clinicians. Along the way, we’ve flamed out on a handful of incompetent therapists, and raked over the coals not a few administrators who turned out to be flat-out lying, looking out only for themselves at public expense. But fortunately, most of his Team have been amazing and extraordinary. I thank God for those He’s sent into our lives, blazing with passion to teach, reach and push J1 to be the best J1 he can be.
Together, Team J1, we have made FIRE. YESSSS. WE. Have made FIRE.
After over a decade of tracking and advocating, pressing and persisting to get what we need; after seasons adrift, feeling like no one would notice or care if we drowned; after countless days of working hard all night but catching nothing, but by the grace of God, our little family has flickered on to forge a way.
It’s no simple thing to flip on a switch and jump back into Normal.
Easy is hard to do, when Hard is all you’ve done.
Made for another world?
Despite nine years of typical parenting and dual citizenry, jaunts into Normal still feel like field trips; brief excursions from our real life. I do live in Normal. I’m a naturalized citizen with proper certifications and such. But I still don’t feel like I belong. I don’t know that I ever will.
I’m learning to embrace this tension, of never feeling quite at home: Never fully at ease as a “Normal” Parent. But never feeling fully qualified as Special Needs Parent either (don’t we all feel like we’re failing every day?)
I’m learning to be comfortable with discomfort: even nurture an affection for this peculiar, cultural and spiritual dissonance. It’s the same fondness I feel towards my 3rd generation Korean-American son (who speaks not a lick of Korean. His immigrant grandparents are forced to talk to him in English), as he waxes on about German pretzels, Gutenberg’s printing press, and Bavarian Motor Works.
Caught somewhere between Normal and Not, we occupy a clumsy space that is neither and both. We may never feel fully at home in either, and that suits me just fine. It serves as a daily reminder that my only, most important identity, and my ultimate destination was never meant to be here.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Eph. 1:3)