Welcome to Holland. A little over twenty years ago, a woman named Emily Perl Kingsley wrote a short essay with that title. The piece became an unofficial rallying cry for parents raising kids with special needs. In it, she likens preparing for the arrival of a new baby to planning for a fabulous trip to Italy. Then, instead of landing in Italy, the reader finds herself in Holland. Holland, obviously not the planned destination, takes some adjustment. In the end, one discovers the beauty of Holland. No, it’s not Italy. But, Kingsley argues that if we spend our lives mourning the mixed up itinerary, we will miss the beauty of the journey that we did take.
Thing is, sometimes, Holland sucks. This week, I was moved by an exchange between two women on Facebook, each raising kids with special needs. One had posted the Kingsley essay. The other woman was in a different “place.” She’s (rightfully) angry about her son’s struggles. She must fight the bureaucracies of school, county and state agencies which determine the services her son will receive. Stacks of paperwork, painful assessments, unreturned phone calls, insurance denials, and an endless stream of interactions with people who seemingly lack an “empathy gene” are all part of this journey. This mom is not experiencing a vacation anywhere. She’s living in the real world with an extremely challenging child who has multiple diagnoses and struggles. Just surviving the day is an accomplishment, sometimes the only goal.
I identified with both of these women. Of course, any parent living with a child with special needs knows that the complexity of our lives can’t be reduced to a simple Holland versus Italy idea. No one feels completely sanguine about their life in Holland. Certainly, I have days when I want to scream about how much I’m hating Holland. Still, I do think that the analogy is helpful for people on the outside, offering a different perspective. One hopes that parents living in Italy might catch a glimpse at our world, a life of beauty and magic, not in need of pity. Early on, Kingsley helped me consider that there might be brilliant surprises in this world, yet to unfold.
So, when both realities are true, how do we reconcile the two positions? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you just travel back and forth and hope that as time passes, you are able to spend more time admiring the tulips and windmills of Holland than wishing you were cruising the streets of Italy on a Vespa. Or, in my case, you buy a Vespa and ride it all over Holland!