Last time I posted I shared with you the wonderful news that we welcomed our baby girl, Sloane. She is now two months old and what we’ve learned over the last two months is that parenting two under two (well, Finn just turned two) is HARD! So hard in fact that Patrick and I hit a breaking point not long ago. He had just returned from a trip to see Ariella in Australia and was immediately pulled from the emotional stress of saying goodbye to his seven year old into the throws of chaos with our other two, a naturally needy newborn and an often tantruming toddler. Add to that a very tired mama who’d been alone with those two children for a week and you have a recipe for disaster. It was a perfect storm that resulted in a huge fight that neither of us handled our best. There was screaming topped with tears finished off with a long dose of avoidance and silent treatment. Was this normal? Were we doomed? We’ve since rebounded and settled back into the semi-routine we’ve established over the last two months, but for a moment we both cracked and in that moment it felt like we were failing at this whole parenting thing.
In the midst of the stress, tears and feeling of complete failure, I panicked and called a close friend to come over and talk — a friend who has three kids and had been through the phase of parenting a newborn and toddler at the same time once herself. As we chatted for a while on my front porch she finally looked at me and said something like, “You know I’ve been there, but what you’re going through and what most of us go through, isn’t quite the same.” She explained how when her first child was a toddler he could do a lot to entertain himself without needing her constant supervision or help, and could often help her with certain tasks by the time the newborn came along. She followed with a question, “Have you and Patrick ever allowed yourself to recognize that Finn isn’t a typical toddler and that you are under more than a typical level of parenting stress because of that?” My gut reaction was to say, “Oh, all parents have it hard and we’re no different!”, but I stopped myself. Her perspective really threw me so I took some time to ponder her question. We give so much focus to Finn and his special needs and behavior, but I’d never really taken the time to examine how those needs and behaviors impact our parenting.
Patrick and I both strive to make Finn feel “normal” and know he can do anything he put his mind to, with certain adaptations. We never want him to feel incapable and we do our best to ensure he’s treated the same as any other child his age. We also never want to convey a message of “poor Finn” or “poor us”. As a result, I continually find myself saying things in conversation like ” Finn is doing X … which is typical of any kid his age.” Or, Finn is doing X … but I don’t think that’s because he’s blind, that’s just because he’s 2.” And I do think that’s often true, but my friend’s question was a reminder that even though Finn has all the usual toddler traits such as tantrums, throwing food and speaking in his own funny language, he also has the unusual challenge of being blind, which means parenting him isn’t always typical, and may just be harder than we sometimes want to admit.
I took a trip last month to spend a long weekend with some of my closest girlfriends and their children. I took Sloane with me, but left Finn home with Patrick. The age ranges of the other children there were from one to three. I watched my friends’ kids over the course of the weekend and we talked a lot about the things our toddlers are doing – speech, behavior, eating, etc. — the usual parent talk. Every child is different so I tried hard not to fall into the trap of comparing milestones and development – I learned early on that this just doesn’t serve anyone well. Instead, I found myself observing the parenting tactics of my friends in the hopes of leaving with some new tools and tricks to use at home. (Can you tell we’re going through the terrible two’s??) It ended up being a stark awakening that a lot of the tools they can use with their toddlers just don’t work with Finn. For example, a quick episode of Daniel Tiger kept their kids quiet for a half hour while they showered or prepped dinner. Or, my friend pointing to a bag in the corner while saying “grab that for me please” alerted her three year old to help her mom. On the beach or at the park, the kids easily found something to entertain themselves without any direction, explanation or hand holding by their moms. When simply asked what they wanted, the kids could point to exactly the food or toy they desired.
Finn can’t watch an episode of Daniel Tiger or anything else to give us a quick reprieve when we need it. This is especially hard on airplanes or road trips. Finn can’t point to things or locate what he wants on his own (and currently can’t say what he wants for the most part either) so we’re constantly asking questions such as, “Do you want your keyboard? No. Do you want your puzzle? No. Do you want a book? No.” And so it goes until we hit the magic sign for “Yes”, sometimes 30 questions later. If I were to point and say to him, “hand me that green bag over there”, “green” has no meaning for him, and “over there” has no meaning for him. If we’re at a park or a beach, Finn needs physical guidance and verbal direction just to know what there is to do, so we walk him around to the different options until he makes a choice. In his weekly music class when the teacher brings out the instruments to choose from, the other kids hop up immediately and race to the center of the room to select their chosen one. For us, I often feel stares from other parents who don’t know Finn is blind, probably thinking I’m an overprotective hovercraft parent, as I guide him to the center to make sure he doesn’t bump into the other kids on his way and then quickly explain what each instrument is until he chooses one of the few left on the floor. Sure, we can take shortcuts by taking him straight to the slide and not telling him there are monkey bars. Or by choosing an instrument for him and not telling him what others are on the floor. Or by getting the green bag myself which will take half the time. But when we do, we’re robbing our son of the same experiences other kids his age have and of learning about the world.
We try to balance leading Finn and guiding him with trying to build his independence and knowledge, and all of that takes time and effort and more so than it would be for any other sighted toddler. It is exhausting! Yes, we adapt and have figured out our own set of tools and tricks, and yes it will get easier as he gets older and can communicate more but, I have to admit it’s also really hard sometimes and I imagine new challenges will begin to replace some of the current ones.
Finn was my first born and I’ve never known any other way of parenting or toddlerhood than what we have, but experiences like that weekend away or in music class when I’m around other parents and their toddlers really open my eyes (no pun intended) to our parenting differences. We have a special needs child which means we aren’t just parents, we’re special needs parents. Thankfully that talk I had with my friend on the front porch that day has allowed me to give myself grace, and the permission to recognize that those differences sometimes make parenting for us extra hard. I know there are parents out there who have it much harder than us and for those who do, I hope they give themselves the same grace to recognize that they have it extra extra hard. Does this mean I give myself permission to feel sorry for myself? Absolutely not. I could not be more lucky to be Finn’s mom and wouldn’t want it any other way. But to be the best parents we can be for him, we need to recognize and accept the added layer of parenting stress we’re under. Anyone with very young children is sure to hit a breaking point along the way, is sure to scream and want to run some days. If you’re not then I’d say you’re a unicorn. But for special needs parents, that breaking point may just be in closer range many days. Maybe we’ll hit our breaking point again tomorrow or maybe it will be a while, who knows. But when we do, this time I’ll cut us some slack and give us both the grace of believing we’re doing our best and aren’t failing as parents, we’re just having a momentary tantrum and it will pass.