When I Cried With a Stranger About Our Fears as Special Needs Moms


I cried with a stranger today. It was awesome. Jake, my son, has been diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). He attends an occupational therapy “camp.” Essentially it is a group therapy session he attends one hour each Wednesday for eight weeks. He is 3 years old. I am always tired.

Each week I wait in the waiting room with an older woman. Her son is seeing the speech therapist. He is about 6 and appears to be on the autism spectrum. We have spoken several times in the waiting room while our sons receive services, though we never discuss the needs of our children.

This day, the U.S. Women’s soccer team defeated France in the London Olympic game opener. I spoke of how I enjoyed the Olympics, especially since the Michael Phelps craze of the previous games. I spoke about the difference four years makes. Four years prior I was married and pregnant. Here I was now, pregnant and smack dab in the middle of a divorce. Four years. Life can change so much.

She gave me a pained smile. Her hair was frizzy and she furrowed her brow. Four years ago, she said, she would have done it so differently. I grasped her pain, the pain you feel as your fears are realized.

At this point, the woman’s eyes fill up. As my throat begins to close, I manage to choke out a pitiful “It’s so hard.” She nods. The tears slip out of her eyes.

As my eyes begin to fill, the woman dabs her own as she struggles to continue. She begins to delve into my least favorite (and perhaps most selfish) part of parenting a child with special needs: the fears. Fearing judgement. The fear that no one will see the wonderful, brilliant, soulful child. The constant explaining. The terrifying “And what of him after I am gone?” The pain of avoiding the few birthday parties to which he as received invitations. The gripping fear that no one will give him the chances he deserves.

These fears are almost unfounded, yet there they are: hiding in the recesses of my brain, only poking their heads out often enough to remind me that this will always be my reality.

Usually I can keep these hurtful and quite useless thoughts at bay. But today, in this conversation, I can only relate.

I need her to keep talking. I need to hear her pain, to see my own reflected back at me.

With all of the support I have, the specialists, my co-workers, my family, my friends, I am, with this woman, finally understood. As is she. We are not embracing. We are not saying, “It will all be OK.” We aren’t pointing out the blaring untruths in our fears. We are validating the challenge. These thoughts are not all-consuming. They don’t hover like “Charlie Brown”-esque rain clouds. They are shoved into the dark corners of our psyche, pushed away and held at bay by all of the tasks and duties of life.  But they are real. The pain in real, the fear. Useless and stupid, absolutely. But present.

Except, of course, in the joy. The fears, the pain for my child, keep me awake at night. Sleepless, I fret for my son. As he sleeps and dreams, I worry. When will he have another meltdown? When will he lose it and I wont be able to help? Is there anything more I can do for him? Knowing my child needs something, but not having a clue what that thing is, breaks my heart.

To this the woman nods.

She closes her eyes and says she can see when her son begins to become agitated. On good days she is able to redirect. Most days, though, she says she is in the bottom of an hourglass, trying to stop the grains of sand from falling one at a time. Before she knows it she is buried.

I usually cover my face when I cry but now I sit staring at her. My jaw is locked. My face is hard. She looks back at me. We have the same tired lines at our eyes. The same weak but hopeful smile. She is in her late 40s, I am barely into my 30s. Her tears are mine. Her pain is mine. Her fears are my own. We are the same.

woman smiling at young boy she is holding in her arms
Sarah and her son Jake.

The door opens. My son, a 3-year-old with social and sensory integration delays, cheerfully bounds into the waiting room. We embrace. I speak with his occupational therapist for an update. I turn to the woman. She waves to Jake, smiling, eyes bright. I know it has passed, our moment of honesty, the shared succumbing to our thoughts. The brief lapse in strength. We are again composed, back together. No different than before we began our discussion.

Well, maybe a little different: stronger. Free. The kind of peace that only comes with honesty. We love our sons. Would die for them. We fear for them. Love them. Live for them. We are mothers.

As I smile at my new friend, I am overwhelmed with love. For this woman, her strength. Love for moments like this, profound epiphanies that change how I view myself and the world. Love for my son, perfect just as he is. The raw and uncensored encounter, all about pain and fear, has erased some pain, relieved some fear. I offer a grateful smile. She nods, closes her eyes and leans her head back. I know her moment is not over. But soon her son will be out and she won’t have time to focus on her own feelings. And that is how she likes it. I know this because she is me. I am she.

We will be OK.

Follow this journey at You’re All a Bunch of Liars.

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