To the Special Needs Parent Feeling Anxiety About the Unknown

To the new special needs parent,

I was like you once, overwhelmed with sadness, anger, guilt, fear and anxiety regarding the unknown. The anxiety was so strong and overwhelming that it became an extension of myself. Questions whirled around in my head in what seemed like a non-ending loop: Will he walk? Will he talk? Why did this happen? How will we get through this? How will this affect his older brother? Will my marriage survive? Is he getting enough therapy? Is he getting too much therapy? Should I go back to work? Should I stay home?

I’m not going to lie — in the early days, I cried a lot, I slept very little and I isolated myself from my friends, family and even my husband. I felt alone in this new world, ostracized in this new life I did not recognize as my own. I struggled every day to reconcile the need to prepare for the worst and the need to hope for the best. I struggled every day to keep my head above water when it seemed like life just wanted to drag me down. I struggled every day to see the light at the end of what seemed like a long and dark tunnel. I’m not going to lie and tell you that one day the clouds parted and everything miraculously fell into place, because that only happens in the movies.

Yes, this journey will take you to difficult and unchartered terrain, but it will also take you to amazing and beautiful places. This journey will shed your expectations and notions of what it means to be happy and teach you to appreciate the little things in life. In the two years since my journey has begun, my son has taught me the true power of acceptance, compassion and love. I’m a better and stronger person because of this experience.

I will tell you that it’s human nature to project and overestimate the hardship we face, while underestimating our ability to cope. Our stories and experiences may all be different, but we all share one thing in common: thousands of years of evolution that have provided us with a genetically hardwired instinct to protect and nurture our children. MRI studies have even shown that a mother’s impulse to love and protect her child appears to be hard-wired into her brain.

Humanity has survived for thousands of years thanks to this instinct and our innate fight-or-flight system, which when faced with danger triggers the brain to secrete stress hormones, increasing our strength and alertness to deal with the perceived threat. For special needs parents, the perceived threat can be a part of our daily existence. In fact, one study showed that mothers of adolescents and adults with autism experience chronic stress comparable to combat soldiers. However, despite all of this, these mothers were just as likely to have positive experiences each day, volunteer or support their peers as those whose children have no developmental disability.

So to you, new parent, I know you may still be wiping away the tears and struggling to see the light as everything is still fresh and new for you. But know that like the many parents who have come before you, you are resilient, you will grow stronger every day and not only will you learn how to cope — you will learn how to thrive in your new environment.

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