Don't Call Us Great Parents Just Because We Have a Child With Disabilities

Considering parents of kids with special needs to be saints overestimates us, and underestimates our children.
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The woman smiled at me as I walked by. "I just wanted to say that you two are excellent parents," she said.

We were hanging at a "leapfrog" pool where kids could jump onto giant green pads, swinging themselves from an overhead rope. Max can't reach his arms up that way, so Dave was carrying him from pad to pad, Max was loving it and I was standing on the sidelines cheering them on.

We hear it on occasion from strangers, kudos for parenting Max. Chances are, if you're the parent of a child with special needs you've heard it, too, especially that well-worn phrase "God only gives special children to special people." Perhaps you caught that story the other week about a diner who paid for the meal of a North Carolina family that had a child with special needs, then left that message on their bill.

I know people mean well, and it sure beats pity-speak and stares, but this thinking always takes me aback. The help we give Max is part of parenthood; we just happened to get a kid who needs extra assistance. When people admire me or Dave for the simple act of parenting Max, it makes me hyper-aware that they think it must be so tough -- a burden, even -- to parent a child with special needs.

Considering parents of kids with special needs to be saints overestimates us, and underestimates our children.

Look at it this way: If Max were your average toddler and Dave was in the pool helping him move around, would the woman have said a word about what amazing parents we are? No, I'd venture, she wouldn't have. That's what parents of toddlers do, right? She deemed us "excellent" parents because Dave was moving around a child who was physically unable to do it himself and I was happy to see him happy. That doesn't make us excellent -- it makes us parents.

Really, Max deserves the kudos. He's a cheerful, loving, quirky, bright kid who's a lot of fun to be around. Parenting him isn't some magnanimous act we do out of the goodness of our hearts; he's our child. We feel the same about Max as we do about Sabrina: We're every bit as lucky to have them as kids as they are to have us as parents.

I am not saying the gig isn't draining at times; it is. I give Dave and me props for juggling all of Max's doctor and therapy appointments and still managing to keep it together. (Well, most days). I give us props for doing battle with the insurance company to get said therapies paid for. I give us props for the physical labor; Max's cerebral palsy means he still requires a fair amount of lifting. I give us props for building a great team of experts to help Max. Truth is, though, parenting in general takes a lot of work; Sabrina, my so-called typical child, has plenty of special needs, too. What I don't need is acknowledgment from strangers who assume we rock just because we're raising a child with disabilities.

Part of my struggles here come from a desire for our family to fit in. If you meet us at the pool or the park, chat about the weather, how old the kids are, my amazing bikini bod (somehow, that never happens) -- you know, like you would with any parent of any child. Exalting us can make us feel even more alienated from other parents than we already do.

Putting a halo over the heads of special needs parents could actually do kids harm. What if I were a bad parent, the kind who abused her kids? Would it go under the radar because people assume I'm good simply because I have a kid with special needs? As Rick Smith of Noah's Dad pointed out in a recent post, "I've talked to more single mothers than I want to count whose husband divorced them after their 'special' child was born. Divorcing your wife or abandoning your family isn't something a 'special' (good) parent does..."

I'm a fine parent, although I have my share of mom fails: I yell when the kids get on my last nerve, sometimes let them watch too much TV and allow them to skip baths when they ask because I need a break. This is called real-life parenting, the only kind I know. I am not supermom, super-human, super-saintly, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. In many ways, I am a mother like any other mother. In many ways, Max is a child like any other child. I'd so like people to see us both that way.

What I said to the lady at the pool was, "Thanks! We do the best we can, like any parents." And that's exactly the way it is.

Spare me the kudos for being Max's mom. I treat him the way other parents treat their kids, with or without a disability. We enable them, we help them thrive, we make sure they're having a whole lot of fun. It's called: parenting.


This post was originally published on Love That Max.