It’s a good thing that I was raised to fight. Sandwiched between two brothers, the three of us within only 2 ½ years in age, I learned early to stand my ground. As my parents divorced when I was in first grade, my brothers and I learned to survive in two different households, one in the suburbs with our mom, and each weekend on the Southwest side of Chicago with our dad. That kind of early experience will toughen a kid, and it did me. By the age of 12, I was taking trains and buses all over the city, often by myself. I knew how to navigate my way around Chicago, which means I understood that different neighborhoods required different behavior. I knew which areas I had to avoid altogether, and in which areas I had to be hyper-vigilant to guard my safety. In addition, my parents made an effort to take us everywhere, exposing us to all sorts of different experiences. I spent most weekends exploring some part of the city: the museums, performance spaces, parks and restaurants.
When it came time for college, I didn’t choose any easy path. I chose Antioch College in Ohio, which required that students move each quarter to “co-op,” that is, to complete an internship as part of their education. We’d study on campus for a quarter, leave to co-op the next quarter, and return back to Ohio for more study. Summers were spent co-oping as well. As if that weren’t enough, most of us studied abroad, as I did in London, England (where I met my fabulous husband). Although I remember feeling keenly aware and occasionally frustrated with the sometimes difficult path I had chosen, I knew it was the right one for me. I learned a tremendous amount, perhaps most importantly about mental toughness.
A friend of mine lamented the other day that as a stay-at-home mom she was “wasting” her education, and not using what she had learned. I would guess that most SAHMs struggle with this “waste” at some point. (Fortunately, my degree is in Psychology, which I have ample opportunity to use every day! Had I studied plant biology, maybe I’d feel more conflicted.) But, I see it differently. Nothing that we have done is a waste; it all forms us into who we are. Our experiences make us US.
And that brings me to the point. I am thankful for my tough upbringing because I draw on it just about every day. All moms are warriors. Mothers of kids with special needs are super-warriors. There are so many large battles – for health insurance, with school districts and sadly, for our kids’ very lives. But often the little battles are almost more difficult. Usually, no one is there to help support a mom when she’s fighting the small fight, and it’s not always clear how to proceed. The other day, I took Jukie for a haircut. I stood right next to him and offered to help the hairstylist in any way that I could. About half-way through, she stopped and announced, “well, that’s not the best haircut I’ve ever done, but it’ll do.” WHAT? It looked terrible. And Jukie had been using great behavior. All I can imagine is that this woman figured that it didn’t matter so much what his hair looked like. Sure, Jukie wouldn’t have cared. But, I certainly did. So I insisted that that hairstylist pick up her scissors, get out the clippers and give him a proper haircut JUST AS SHE WOULD FOR ANYONE ELSE. I shared this experience with the mom of a “typical” child, who remarked that she’d never have had the courage to ask the woman for a better haircut. Another example: Jukie sees a wonderful pediatric dentist. But, while the dentist was content to imagine that Jukie’s teeth were healthy since his sister’s teeth were, I had to insist that he actually examine them. I understand that the dentist didn’t want to traumatize Jukie. But, I also think that the dentist imagines that Jukie doesn’t need or deserve what other kids get. That infuriates me. Now Jukie’s every successful dental exam leaves me smiling in pride. Jukie can do it, I think to myself; give him the chance.
This same inner strength is needed every time I take Jukie out in public and encounter some overly curious person who just can’t help putting her foot in her mouth. Once at Costco a woman slowly followed me throughout the warehouse as Jukie screamed his head off, and acted in a typical Jukie fashion. I’d have thought it was my imagination except that she finally approached me and asked, “what’s WRONG with him?!” Fighting the urge to ask what was wrong with HER, I replied, “Nothing. He is Jukie.” My daughter laughed, I smiled at the woman, and we were on our way.
Last year, we took Jukie to the White House. Perhaps that seems almost ridiculously ambitious. As we were on the Metro heading to Pennsylvania Avenue, big sister Geneva asked, “so…um…is Jukie ALLOWED in the White House?” I chucked and said, “of course – EVERYone is allowed.” True, I almost ate my words when Jukie tried to run into the roped-off rooms, tear the pictures off the walls and reach for a sharpshooter’s rifle (all true), but he walked out with the White House still intact. We all high-fived each other and felt great pride in Jukie’s success (though if anyone’s White House deserved a little Jukie vandalism, George Bush’s did). Jukie deserves no less than any other child. And I will never stop fighting to make sure that he receives the same treatment the rest of us would expect.
As we’re heading into a Season of gratitude, I find myself thinking daily of everything for which I have reason to give thanks. Today, I am grateful for my tough childhood, knowing that it groomed me perfectly for my career as Mother Warrior, especially because I have a kid who demands more protection than most.