My 14-year-old daughter, Kathryn, has ''special needs,'' aka cerebral palsy and autism. My parenting journey has mainly revolved around understanding her needs so I can help her be all she can be. This path has led me to see specialists, attend conferences, join support groups, and try every diet du jour. After running the gamut of emotions upon hearing my daughter's diagnosis -- feelings of grief, isolation, and longing for a child without ''special'' needs -- I ended up experiencing a most unlikely epiphany. One day, it dawned on me that as parents we all have children with special needs. Take my niece Jessica and her exceptionally gifted 5-year-old son, for example. This little guy reads at a middle school level and is more articulate than most teenagers I know. When I put myself in Jessica's shoes as she drops her son off at kindergarten this fall, the playing field seems amazingly level.
The truth is that from the time our ''At Home Pregnancy Strips'' read ''positive,'' we never know who's preparing his or her entrance into our lives. The key is that we listen, observe, and do all we can to nurture and accept these individuals -- whether they're the world's next Pulitzer Prize winner, local barista, or longshoreman.
I recently chatted with a prima ballerina from my high school. She couldn't help but harbor a desire for her daughter to follow in her footsteps (no pun intended). But wouldn't you know, her soccer-loving daughter took to ballet like a duck to the desert. And then there's the father of my children, whose birth announcement predicted him to be the 2004 President of the United States under the Democrat ticket. The closest this man ever involved himself in 2004 politics was to head to the polls -- as a card-carrying Republican! Ahh, our children's outcome seems as predictable as a rainstorm in July -- despite our best (or worst) efforts.
While it's really not our job to produce ballerinas or U.S. Presidents, it is our job to pay attention to our children’s needs -- those subtle and not-so-subtle signals that help our children feel valued and understood. Does he shut down in large crowds, break out in a rash every time he eats strawberries, or write his name in pretzels instead of using a writing utensil? Regardless of our child's ability, he will communicate his needs, and if we're receptive enough, his cues will educate us far more than any parenting manual or well-meaning friend.
Getting back to my epiphany, the term ''special needs'' is no longer a tragic designation to me. It's something that brings all of us parents together -- that desire to identify the unique needs of our child, whether his I.Q. is 50 or 150. It's about parenting in such a way that whatever your child's ''abilities,'' he will use them to make a contribution on this earth. While I will never see Kathryn dressed up for the school prom or head off for college, I'll also never worry about her coming in late from a date or anguish over her not making the cheerleading team. Besides, it's not about me anyway. It's about her. And as her mom, I celebrate all that makes her my one-of-a-kind girl.
This season, I wish you all happy and healthy celebrations with your one-of-a-kind families. May you and yours feel loved and ''gotten.''