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42193-IMG_0234 (711x800) OK, so thankfulness probably isn’t supposed to be a competition. And before parents of typical kids stop reading — or start sending hate mail — let me quickly say that for a few months I was a parent of a typical kid, and I sure was grateful. I celebrated her first smile (right on track at six weeks), gleefully welcomed her first laughs (which we even have on video) and appreciated the heck out of my lovely, growing, happy, healthy baby girl. Had some parent of a kid with special needs tried to tell me “We’re more thankful than you are,” I would have bristled like a porcupine, shot some eye daggers and thought passive aggressive things.

But really, it’s kind of true.

A parent of a typical child has the luxury of “taking things for granted” — a phrase so overused that it’s worth taking a minute to really break that down. In taking something for granted, one accepts something as a given or true, often without showing appreciation. While all parents wonder and worry about the future of their child, the worries of a typical parent have an undercurrent of things-taken-for-granted.

  • Will she get good grades? Of course she’ll recognize letters and numbers, and learn to read and do math, and understand abstract ideas like weather and history. And obviously, she will be able to hold a pencil and learn to write and sit in a desk and listen to the teacher (sometimes, anyway).
  • Will he play sports? Of course he’ll stand independently, and walk and run and jump and climb stairs, and not need a walker or a wheelchair or a cane.
  • Will he be teased? Not “When will he be teased” or “Will he understand when he’s being teased” or “Will he ever have friends who will just accept him as he is” or “Will he have the strength and resiliency to rise above the kids who tease him, because, oh yes, there will be kids who tease him.”
  • Will she get married? Of course she’ll have relationships and date and all that jazz.
  • Will he go to a good college? Will he stay on the path to college? Of course he’ll go through K-12 like everyone else, graduate high school and be college-ready, if that’s the path he chooses.
  • Will she make good friends or fall in with the wrong crowd? Of course she’ll have meaningful friendships and relate to other people and get phone calls from her friends and have sleepovers and hang out with people besides her mom and dad.

Parents of kids with special needs lose some of those things-taken-for-granted (some families may lose all of them, others may only lose select ones — like if their kid can walk and run just fine but can’t interact with other kids). Nothing is a given for your kid, not even the simple ability to someday say, “Hey Mom, what’s for dinner?” It makes your heart implode.

But then, over time, progress happens.

When a new skill emerges you’re thankful — and then you see that what you thought was truly thankfulness before was just a shadow of the real thing. Like the way you think you’ve had good apples, but then you have one fresh from the tree and are like, “Holy crap! That’s an apple!” or how you thought dial-up internet was perfectly great and then you got a modem and thought, “Whoa, this is a whole different world!”

This is a whole different world.

Maya has been walking for nine months now, and to this day there has not been a single time that I’ve watched her walk/run down a hallway without thinking, “I can’t believe she’s really doing it.” A week ago she started eating waffles by herself (she holds the fork in one hand and feeds herself with the other hand, but whatever), and it was the first time in almost four years that she’s eaten a full meal by herself. I didn’t have to sit and feed her. It was amazing.

Walking down the hallway? Eating a waffle? These would, without a doubt, be things my former self would have taken for granted from my typical child. But I notice them, I celebrate them, I am thankful.

I am so thankful.

There are other things — stepping-stone-skills, I think — that are totally life-altering for us. When I first realized that Maya was learning to recognize letters, my entire world shifted. If I was a typical parent, I might have thought, Awesome, what a smart girl! She’s already learning letters. Maybe she’ll be an early reader, we could read stories together!

But as a special needs mom, seeing her recognize those first letters sent up a giant, shining, exploding firework-of-a-thought: She will be able to read someday. And then, not far behind: If she can read, someday she will type… so even if she never talks, she will type and people will understand her. 

What a typical parent would mark as a stepping stone on the given-road-of-progress, I saw as a game-changer.

That difference brings with it a more profound level of thankfulness. It just does.

Two years ago, Maya had her brain MRI. Two years ago, we found out that her brain was normal. two years ago, at the Thanksgiving table, we were thankful for her normal brain… that’s a profound level of thankfulness.

Yesterday we went to a “Thanksgiving Feast” at Maya’s preschool. The parents all came and brought food and sat with the kids and celebrated, and I noticed one of the moms excitedly chatting with the teachers and aides and watching something on the teacher’s cell phone. It was a video the teacher had taped. Earlier in the day, the mom’s son had taken his first unassisted steps. Ever. Her little guy has been kicking butt with his walker for a few months now, but yesterday he let it go and took a few steps. And while we were there, he did it again with both of his parents excitedly looking on. He’s almost 4 years old.

And I watched him take steps, and I watched his mom and dad watching him, and I thought about how lucky I was to get to watch that moment. That moment that takes them from “I hope that someday he’ll walk” to “He walked.” From hoping that someday he would be walker-free to seeing that there’s a good chance. From “Let’s keep working towards independent steps” to “Let’s work on more steps.”

They are more grateful for those first steps than the parent of a typical child. That’s just the way it is.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone — near and far, old and young, typical and not-quite-as-typical. For the parents of kids with special needs, I hope that you can look back over the past year and remember some of your own game-changing moments, big and small. And for the parents of typical kids, I hope that you can look back at some of your stepping stone moments with fresh eyes and realize how much you have to be profoundly thankful for.

This post originally appeared on Uncommon Sense.

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