“When we speak over autistic voices, we teach our children that they don’t have the power to speak for themselves…
“When we uplift autistic voices, even when it means lowering our own, we show our children that we honor them as the experts on their own experience: both now, and as they continue to find new ways to express themselves.”
Click here to read the full article, which I’m so grateful to have published at Not An Autism Mom. (If you missed part one, you can read it first here.)
“The moment we (as non-autistic parents) enter conversations with autistic adults, we bring our privilege with us. Living in an ableist society that caters to people with brains like ours means that we have blind spots – whether we realize it or not.”
Click here to read the full article, which I’m so grateful to have published at Not An Autism Mom.
I wrote this piece in a flurry of emotion on Tuesday night, in the wake of the Derek Chauvin verdict and the killing of Ma’Khia Bryant. I am so deeply honored to have had it published on Her View From Home. Please click here to read it.
Happy Autism Acceptance month! So far, I’ve spent April doing my best to amplify the voices of autistic people on social media – the advocates who have been irreplaceable in my parenting journey since our almost-3-year-old, Koimburi, was diagnosed last July.
In that same spirit, I’m here to share 5 facts I’d like our loved ones to know about autism – with links to learn more on each topic from advocates who are actually autistic.
I recognize that most of our friends and family aren’t exposed to autistic perspectives on a daily basis. The nature of our “real” lives can be very segregated due to societal barriers and inaccessibility, and the online world can be an echo chamber. After all, I only started following autistic adults on social media after Koimburi’s diagnosis, so I can’t expect every single friend and family member to suddenly do the same. (Although I hope that after reading this, you’ll follow a couple!)
What I can do is share what I’ve been learning in hopes that it will pique your interest to learn more. There is so much to know, but today I’m writing about what feels most crucial for our loved ones to understand as they form a circle of support around Koimburi and our family.
So if you’re looking for an introduction to how to love and support the autistic kids or adults in your life, this post is for you!
1. Autism is a neurotype, not a disease.
Autism is part of the essence of who someone is. It can’t be separated from them, and it doesn’t need to be cured.
Most of us are only exposed to the “medical model” of understanding autism, which leads us to believe that it should be “treated”: that traits should be minimized in order to function like a non-autistic person. The neurodiversity movement, on the other hand, insists that there are many different ways in which the human brain can be wired – and that’s not a bad thing. While society considers the neurotypical brain to be the most desirable, or even the only “healthy” type, neurodiversity embraces both the pros and cons of how different brains function. Because society is designed for neurotypicals, the positives of the autistic brain aren’t often seen, since barriers are in place that prevent autistic people from succeeding as easily. But if we embrace neurodiversity, we can begin to fight against that discrimination, instead of fighting autism itself.
In a sentence: autistic people aren’t broken – society is.
Because you can’t separate a person’s autism from their deepest sense of self, the vast majority of autistic people prefer identity-first language (“autistic person”) over person-first language (“person with autism.”) I know it may feel awkward to say, since many other communities with disabilities prefer person-first language. I also hear people say “on the spectrum” frequently, perhaps because even the word “autism” sounds harsh to our ears due to society’s negative perception. But if we truly believe that people who are marginalized are the experts on their own experiences, we should respect their requests.
This doesn’t mean that identity-first language is absolutely correct; we should always defer to the preference of the person to whom we’re speaking or referring. But for now, since my son isn’t able to express how he self-identifies, I will follow the lead of the vast majority of his community and describe him as “autistic.”
This is a tough one, especially in communities that are already marginalized due to race. I’m white, but I’m raising Black children. At the heart of our parenting, we fight to ensure that our kids grow up empowered, with minds that are as free of societal limitations as possible.
In a country where labels of all kinds are consistently used to limit Black and brown children – especially in school settings, and especially when it comes to “behavioral” issues – I understand deeply why parents of Black and brown kids would be wary of pursuing a diagnosis. While I won’t tell another family what to do, I will simply state that, for us, a diagnosis is a very positive thing. Again, we are following the lead of autistic advocates on this, and the number of people only diagnosed in adulthood is staggering. In every account I’ve read of this experience, there is a sense of finally understanding – of everything “clicking” – that they wish they had much sooner.
So that’s what we want to give our son – a full understanding, from the start, of all the beautiful traits that make him who he is. Equally importantly, we want to learn everything we can about autism so that we’re equipped to help him thrive, and able to access all of the services and accommodations he may need. We’re not naïve about the battles we will likely be fighting throughout his education, but having a fuller knowledge of how his brain works helps us to advocate for him more effectively. And at the end of the day, the opportunity for our son to know, embrace, and celebrate himself fully is our number one priority.
4. If you’re wondering how to interact or play with our son, feel free to ask!
Koimburi is often “in his own little world,” but you can definitely enter into it if you engage in whatever he’s engaging in. And even if he doesn’t show a response to what you’re saying, please talk to him like you would any other kid! There is definitely some overlap in instances of autism and instances of cognitive impairment, but autistic people have a whole range of IQ levels, and we’re pretty confident that Koimburi is comprehending everything we say. So chat away!
And there’s no need to feel awkward if your kids are super blunt or ask questions. That’s one of the greatest things about kids, if you ask me: they cut through all the weird societal hang-ups we have and just keep it real. And they usually don’t need overly complicated definitions of autism – “he communicates in other ways besides talking” and “he plays a bit differently than other kids his age” work for us.
5. We’re probably not as focused on traditional milestones as other parents you know.
Koimburi is on his own timeline, and that’s okay with us. In many categories, he is far “behind” his peers. In others, he’s “ahead.” What we’re concerned with is making sure he grows into exactly who he’s meant to be, and that he feels loved, supported, and nurtured along the way.
Of course, conversations about kids often center around milestones, especially in the early years. It’s exciting when a baby rolls over for the first time, starts walking, or says their first words. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating all the little joyful surprises that come with parenting! But with Koimburi’s autism, we’ve observed that those little “achievements” ebb and flow. One week, he’s communicating with us in a particular way that’s super exciting… and then he stops. One day, he does something new completely out of the blue… and then doesn’t do it again for weeks.
So, although I’m happy to answer questions about how speech therapy is going, or if he’s doing anything new, just be aware that 1) his progress in uncovering how he communicates best will probably not be linear, and 2) we’re much less focused on the traditional sense of progress, and much more focused on empowering him, advocating for him, and fostering his sense of creativity and self-determination.
One last thought: Koimburi doesn’t speak right now. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t like him to, or that we don’t think he will. But we want to clearly affirm that spoken language is no more valuable than other forms. Whether his growth at this stage includes communicating with spoken words, with sign language, or with an AAC device (a tablet where he can press pictures to put a sentence together), we are simply grateful to increasingly know what’s on his mind.
We had a free trial for a fun coding game that Keziah enjoyed, and it was on its last day. She and I talked that morning about how this was our last day with the app, but we clearly both forgot. Sure enough, just as my husband and I had gotten the kids to bed and kicked up our feet to watch Schitt’s Creek, we hear her voice calling out: “I forgot to play the gaaaaaame!”
We looked at each other, sighed, grabbed the tablet, and let her play it in the next room while we finished our episode. Then she went back to bed. Everyone was happy.
A few minutes later, she called for us again, distraught. “Mommy, I showed you the wrong obby (obstacle course). I made one that was really hard and I only showed you the easy one.”
Now, Kez is the stalling queen, so I shut it down quickly and said GOODNIIIIGHT. But then, I heard her sobbing. Hard. For several minutes. Tears of real pain.
I climbed into her bunk bed, and she explained to me how upset she was with herself that she’d shown me the wrong obby, and that now she’d never have a chance to show me the harder one because the game – and her creation – would be gone.
I sat there silently for a moment. Everything in me wanted to stick to my word and say no. I mean, it was like 9:30 at this point. I had already let Kez stay up past her bedtime to play this game – surely another indulgence would move me from the “fun parent” category to “spoiling her rotten,” right?
But who is the keeper of those categories?
I knew deep within me that saying yes in this moment wasn’t “spoiling” her – it was showing her compassion in a genuine moment of difficult emotion. Or, in the words of @empowered.parenting, I was simply treating her as “a whole person, with a completely valid human experience.” Even still, I could literally feel the internal conflict making my chest tight.
Why such a tug-of-war? I quickly realized I wasn’t actually worried about spoiling her at all – I was worried about some mysterious audience watching and judging my parenting. Somehow, I had let the standards of people I couldn’t even name creep into that top bunk where we were cuddling. And that’s a pretty poor reason to make a parenting decision.
“Yes, my love,” I told her. “You can show me the obby.”
Her whole demeanor immediately shifted: not the usual smug victory smiles that she displays when she’s won a dessert negotiation, just genuine relief and joy. She giggled gleefully as she watched me play her obby, and then she went to bed with a sweet, quiet sense of contentment.
Sometimes the desire to do things “right” in parenting is so strong that I don’t stop to examine where my definition of “right” is even coming from. We are so inundated with information, advice, cultural norms, and societal attitudes that it can be hard to cut through the noise and actually access our own intuition, values, and spiritual truths.
At my core, I want my children to feel deeply affirmed for exactly who they are. I want them to feel respected and valued as humans deserving of dignity – small humans, growing humans, but still complete in themselves. I want them to know that their emotions and needs are valid, even when they inevitably need help learning how to express them in healthy ways. Put simply, I want to treat them the way I’d like to be treated.
Like my daughter, I also feel my emotions in a deep place, often in situations that others may deem inconsequential. I can become consumed with regret about a tiny missed opportunity, or unable to shake a certain emotion for hours on end. And I’m a reasonably healthy and well-regulated adult. If there’s something small I can do to calm an all-consuming storm in my child’s heart – a child who’s still trying to make sense of her internal world – then I’m committed to doing it. It’s what I’d want someone to do for me.
Each decision will look different, and another parent’s decisions will almost certainly look different than mine. What this night showed me has little to do with any one parenting philosophy, and everything to do with who and what we’re allowing to have the biggest say in our parenting decisions.
If you asked me on an average day whether I care what others think about my parenting, I’d likely brush it off with, “of course not!” Intellectually, I know that societal pressure alone is rarely a valid reason to do something. But real life isn’t that simple. It’s impossible not to let the messaging and opinions around us seep into our decisions subconsciously.
That’s why growing in parenting mindfully has been crucial for me. If I’m able to pause and reflect, like I was that night, I can sift out the truth from the many voices trying to influence me. I can ground myself in the present moment and focus on what my child is experiencing in the here and now. I can take the time to acknowledge my own emotional state and weed out any factors having an unfair influence on my response. And I can evaluate whether my response is actually in alignment with my core values.
I don’t do this nearly as often as I’d like, but it feels so good when I do. I’m a work in progress, but I hope that both the parenting “wins” and “losses” will keep me humble and remind me to see my kids as I strive to see myself: far from perfect, in need of so much grace, and yet deeply worthy of unconditional love.
Last Sunday, my husband and I were on a Zoom call with friends, and the conversation drifted to how excited we were to be getting our vaccines. Hunja had just gotten his, along with a few others on the call, and the rest of us were feeling hopeful about getting it soon.
After listening patiently to our excited chatter, Hunja – if I can describe how I felt in the moment – rained on our parade. He spoke about his heartache at the horrific disparities in how the vaccines are being distributed globally. While every American will have the chance to be vaccinated by this summer, Kenya’s vaccine roll-out plan, by contrast, will take two years just to vaccinate 30% of the population. High-income countries like ours are currently hoarding enough doses to vaccinate our populations 2.5 times over, while our beloved family members in Kenya and elsewhere sit and wait, even as COVID numbers begin to climb again. To add insult to injury, we’re patting ourselves on the back for the COVAX redistribution plan, which barely puts a dent in those numbers; there won’t be enough vaccine doses to cover the world’s population until at least 2023.
Way to burst our happy little bubble, right?
Be honest with yourself for a moment: have headlines, conversation topics, or maybe a flood of social media posts about injustice ever made you feel like I felt – like someone’s raining on your parade? “Dang, I guess I can’t post this happy selfie now.” Or, “I mean, I get it… but why do we have to keep talking about it?”
If you can relate, you’re not alone. When Hunja was breaking down those stats, I don’t think I’ve ever been so close to literally biting my tongue in order to keep my gut reaction to myself. Everything inside of me wanted to blurt out, in a half-joking tone to lighten the mood, “Um, that’s important and everything, but can your own wife get her vaccine first before we talk about this??”
My privilege – in this case, my citizenship in this wealthy country – was being confronted head-on, and it hit a nerve. A bubble was being burst, but not to maliciously ruin my day. Instead, my perception of reality was being expanded, and the layers of comfort and protection that my privilege provides were being peeled back and exposed.
In the moment, that made me want to run and hide.
Thankfully, in a (rare) moment of restraint, I kept my initial reaction to myself. Instead, we lamented the situation together, and later on I sat and asked myself, why did that moment feel so awkward?
Well, I’ll state it very simply: growth feels awkward. (Remember puberty, anyone?)
Seriously, though. When we’re presented with a chance to grow – to remove a set of blinders and replace a singular way of thinking with a more nuanced perspective – it can be a cringey, nails-on-a-chalkboard kind of feeling. The way I see things feels like it’s being assaulted; suddenly, my heart’s beating faster and my cheeks are hot.
Studies show that when we’re presented with information that challenges our current understanding, our brains react by “signaling threats to deeply held beliefs in the same way they might signal threats to physical safety.” This fight-or-flight reaction makes complete sense in the context of beliefs that are so deeply held, it feels as if a part of us is being attacked.
But what do deeply-held beliefs have to do with privilege? Well, think of it this way: privilege, by its nature, shields us from the adverse experiences of others, and thus blinds us to other ways of seeing the world. With those blinders on, our experiences become our deeply-held truth. For example, as an able-bodied person, accessibility issues rarely – if ever – pop into my mind while I’m out and about. Similarly, as someone with an American passport, I spend almost zero time considering the fact that many people can’t simply pop in and out of whatever countries they wish to visit. In these two examples, wherever I want to be is open and accessible to me. That is my truth. So that’s how it is for everyone, right?
There are entire systems counting on our blindness in our areas of privilege, whether in the categories of race, sex, income level, ability status, sexuality, gender expression, country of citizenship, or any number of other areas. We often don’t even know what we don’t know because we lack direct experience and exposure, and we haven’t chosen to seek it out. This ensures that the systems governing our lives will continue to benefit those of us in the privileged category, at the expense of others.
So back to my fight-or-flight moment.
Someone has introduced a perspective that threatens to take off my blinders, and my insides react like I’m in a war zone. But why?
That fight-or-flight urge can be rooted in many things, but a few that come to mind are:
Shame: If I’m potentially wrong about something big, I must be a bad person.
Embarrassment: If I’ve been wrong all this time and openly admit it, what will people think of me?
Fear of instability & need for security: There’s so much we don’t know. If something that I thought I knew for sure isn’t actually true, my world feels less dependable – and I feel less dependable.
No one likes those emotions. We all want to feel sure of ourselves, confident, on steady footing. But what if we reminded ourselves that those emotions aren’t final? That they’re simply a bridge to a new state of being where we’re walking in fuller awareness of the injustices around us and truer solidarity with those who’ve been marginalized? This quote by Jamie Gerdsen says it well: “The transition between what was comfortable and what will be comfortable is scary.” I love that. We won’t feel that sense of shame and instability forever. Yes, our ground has been shaken, but what awaits us on the other side of that discomfort will have been worth it.
My role as a neurotypical parent of an autistic child immediately comes to mind. Parents generally have a deep desire to feel competent in how we’re raising our children. But in my process of learning from autistic adults, I may hear things that challenge what I thought I knew. Because my love for my child is so deep, this can feel like an attack on my parenting, and therefore on me. (@the.autisticats had an incredible post on this last week.) But for the sake of my child, I can’t run and hide. If I want to truly love him well, I need to push through the discomfort to learn and grow.
Growth is possible when we lean into the discomfort and see where it leads.
But that requires real work – work that runs counter to our instincts, which compel us to preserve our privilege.
In a 1963 interview shortly after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, James Baldwin said, “It is ironical [that] the people who were slaves here, the most beaten and despised people here, should be the only hope this country has. It doesn’t have any other. None of the descendants of Europe seem to… have taken it on themselves to do what Negroes are now trying to do.… It probably has something to do with the nature of life itself. It forces you, in any extremity, any extreme, to discover what you really live by, whereas most Americans have been for so long so safe and so sleepy that they don’t any longer have any real sense of what they live by.”
This concept was swirling in my head as I watched Judas and the Black Messiah, an incredible film that beautifully captures the passionate, unapologetic activism of Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. My spirit was deeply moved by the solemn clarity of Hampton’s statement, “I believe I’m going to die doing the things I was born to do.” I cried with his pregnant partner as she contemplated what that meant for the life in her belly. And then I looked somberly at my own life; my own safety; my own lack of real, material sacrifice in the ongoing struggle for liberation.
It is deeply uncomfortable to realize how much my own devotion to the cause falls short. It is painful to watch white supremacy, a system from which I benefit, snatch the lives of fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons.
What do I do with that? Do I run away, or do I press deeper?
After taking in the film, I chose to embrace the discomfort, to sit with that reality. I asked myself, what is my response? How should I live – how must I live – in light of that?
I hear EbonyJanice Moore in my head posing the powerful question, “What are you doing for freedom today?” as I often do as a means of accountability. I come to terms with the fact that, whatever my efforts, they will never be “enough.” I resolve that, instead of using this realization to justify complacency, I will allow it to keep me unsatisfied with the bare minimum. I can never do “enough,” but I can do more.
The recent hate crime in Atlanta has only underscored the need to face our discomfort head-on. White people, I’m speaking specifically to us right now. It’s uncomfortable to hear the “justifications” for murder and notice that a part of you may want to believe them, to minimize the racial implications. It’s uncomfortable to see the “yes, all white people” posts on social media when your whole being wants to scream “but I promise, I care!!!”, knowing that caring isn’t enough to stop people from being killed, and yet feeling ill-equipped to take action. And it’s uncomfortable to step out and act, knowing you may get it wrong, have to apologize, or re-think some things.
Embrace the discomfort. Remind yourself that an idea being under threat is not the same as our selves being threatened.
In fact, the opposite is true. When we fight or flee discomfort, we forfeit the chance to grow into our best, truest selves. “I’m a person who seeks out diverse perspectives. I listen humbly as I learn from those who don’t share my privilege. I’m committed to growing and deepening my knowledge.” That feels great to say, right? But if fight-or-flight wins, that version of “me” loses.
There are endless variations of the quote, “discomfort is necessary for growth.” And when it comes to certain areas, we totally embrace that. No one who understands fitness feels their muscles burn while working out and says, “Nah, you know what, forget this. I’m good.” They persist, knowing it’s a sign that they’re doing the necessary work to see a positive change.
Becoming a mother is beautiful, thrilling, and deeply fulfilling. It’s also all-consuming, and can bring us to a place where we have trouble remembering who we are. In Part 1, we discussed that two things can be true: becoming a mother forever changes us, AND, at our core, our unique wiring and the passions and dreams inside of us haven’t disappeared. We talked about how changing our definition of “productive” can help us regain a sense of accomplishment, and how expressing our passions and interests in the act of parenting can help us still feel like ourselves.
Today, I’ll touch on three more identity struggles we face as moms, and how I’m pursuing peace in the midst of them.
The identity struggle: We lose touch with ourselves as we spend our days immersed in the big, unruly emotions of another person.
Healthy adults have boundaries. When we’re at our best, we avoid projecting our feelings onto others. (*ahem* When We’re At Our Best, lol.) We set aside time to intentionally discuss difficult topics. If we sense some tension in our friend or partner, we back off and give them some space.
Young kids do none of these things. There they are, with their hearts on their sleeve at all times, pulling us immediately into their emotional reality. My pleas of, “mommy just needs a little space/silence right now” get only quizzical looks in response, and no matter how many times we hear that bringing us their unruly emotions means we’re their safe space, that doesn’t feel like a beautiful truth in the moment.
For those of us who are deeply empathetic or highly sensitive (*raises hand*), this can be especially overwhelming. But the truth is, each of us has a profound connection to our children that’s unique to parenthood, making us impacted by their every high and low in a way that’s not quite like any other relationship we’ve experienced.
To pursue peace: “Zoom out” to see the grander narrative, accessing your faith and sense of purpose.
So how do we untangle our emotions from theirs?
I’ve observed lately that how consumed I am by my children’s moods is often related to the vantage point I’ve embraced that day: how “zoomed in” or “zoomed out” my perspective is. What I mean is, if I’ve taken a moment to bring big-picture concepts – like purpose and calling – to the front of my mind in the morning, I’m more likely to be clear-headed through the ups and downs of my day.
For me, this can be as simple as just thinking about God – reading my devotional or a quick passage of scripture, or even just playing a song. These can all serve as simple reminders that the world actually doesn’t revolve around me (surprise, surprise, I know!) I’m reminded that I’m rooted in a much grander narrative, and that there’s a reason I woke up this morning. With that renewed sense of purpose, it’s like I’m operating on offense, rather than defense. I’m front-footed, not surprised by challenging moments. Instead, I’m ready to tune into what’s going on in my body and mind, take stock of what my kid’s emotions may have triggered within me, and pause before responding. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m probably getting a barely-passing grade in this area, at best. But recognizing this reality is a crucial first step! As we increase our awareness, we begin to give ourselves space to give calm, measured responses to our children when we need a moment to process. (On that note, I saw these wonderful suggestions on Facebook recently for helpful vocabulary to use with our kids).
What helps your mind “zoom out” and recall the big-picture motivations that guide you? Maybe glancing at a vision board on your wall in the morning? Having meaningful scriptures or quotes on display around your home? Repeating an affirmation in the morning? Find what works for you to get a breath of fresh air and a bird’s eye view. Just a few minutes at the start of the day can turn a hard moment around later on.
Motherhood – especially in a pandemic – can feel all-consuming. As we resist the urge to auto-pilot our way through and stay tuned-in to purpose instead, we’ll be better equipped to respond rather than react when we’re confronted with the complex, emotionally-loaded world of our kids’ hearts and minds.
The identity struggle: Distanced relationships and FOMO
In Part 1, we discussed how what we do and who we are feel deeply intertwined. This makes our transition into motherhood, which changes up pretty much every aspect of our days, especially jarring for our sense of identity. Suddenly, we can’t spontaneously meet up with a friend or attend that event or wander into our favorite museum/mall/coffee shop “just for fun” like we used to. And that creates some serious fear of missing out. Our schedules look different, so we have to say no more often, so people invite us less often, and soon enough we don’t even feel plugged into what’s going on anymore. (Granted, I’m definitely having to rewind my brain to pre-’Rona to remember this feeling, but you get the point.) The worst part is, when we do get invited somewhere and the logistics work out, we’re still likely to have less energy (physically and emotionally) to enjoy it fully.
To pursue peace: Cultivate the relationships that feed your soul.
The simplest adjustment I’ve made in this area: initiate, initiate, initiate. I’m a sensitive soul, so it’s easy to take things personally that are simply NOT personal. We all make plans all the time, with large groups and small, and all different combinations of friends (again, pre-Rona, lol). I’ve had to tell myself many times, “no one is trying to exclude you, Ellie!” Initiating moves me away from believing things that aren’t true, and helps me focus on doing what’s in my power. I’ll find an event that look fun and invite someone along, or even just initiate an intentional, distraction-free conversation. (I’m still easing back into doing this more, now that my energy supply is slowly returning after this crazy year.) Intentionality is key, because our time is limited. One example: “let’s schedule a call to talk about this book!” It may sound super nerdy, but it’s one way for me to feel more like my true, full self, and I’m grateful for a few bookworm friends who feel the same. 😉
It’s also been crucial for me to stay in touch with people who remind me of who I am: who make me feel fully known simply by referencing old memories or asking questions others wouldn’t think to ask. My sister is a perfect example. Even if we’re not discussing anything profound, I feel lighter when I speak to her because of our unspoken understanding of one another. I don’t have to word things in a certain way or feel limited to specific topics; I’m simply free.
Here’s another example. I was visiting my alma mater for an event a few years ago, and I stayed with one of my dearest college friends. Now, returning to a prestigious university with super-accomplished alumni when your resume doesn’t boast the same types of traditional successes as those of your peers can be a recipe for feeling small. But at the event, some younger alumni were genuinely excited to meet me and hear my story. To be honest, I was really surprised, humbled, and moved. Teary-eyed, I tried to explain to my friend that it felt so good to feel “seen” and valued for who I am, despite taking a different, less outwardly “important” path than many of our peers. But I didn’t even have to finish my sentence. With a knowing look and some beautifully affirming words, she wrapped me in love and reminded me that I never have to doubt my life’s impact or importance. I will never forget that moment.
Who in your life just gets you, and brings you back to your true self? When I keep those people close, I don’t get as caught up in FOMO. Yes, life does look different, and the time I spend doing things “just for me” is way too infrequent. But centering these key relationships rejuvenates me in a way that, in this season, is enough. Of course, this doesn’t stop FOMO when we miss our favorite artist’s concert when they come into town, or have to leave an event early that we’d been looking forward to. But cultivating a few close, grounding relationships can give us a solid foundation to keep our souls healthy and thriving in this season of life.
The identity struggle: Mental fog
We’ve all heard of “mom brain” – the very real neurological changes we experience in the early years of motherhood that make us more forgetful, emotional, and absent-minded (to name a few). These changes, paired with the general overwhelm of having a whole new category of responsibilities on top of our old ones, can make us feel like we’re navigating our way through thick haze.
Who am I?
What do I even care about?
I feel like I don’t have anything to talk about.
What day is it, even?
When days start blending into one another and I can’t remember the last time I had a truly meaningful adult conversation, it’s easy to lose touch with my own thoughts, feelings, and interests. Without the mental sharpness and clarity I used to experience, I can feel like I’m losing my grip on who I actually am.
To pursue peace: Choose to join your kids in the present whenever you can.
This may not seem like the most natural cause-and-effect, but it’s been working wonders for me these past few months, after a very mentally foggy year.
Children naturally occupy the present. They dive into play with their full body and soul, and when they’re talking about an interest of theirs, you can see in their eyes that it’s lighting up their whole world. They live in this beautiful space that I wish I could get back to more regularly, where productivity and multitasking don’t even cross their minds, and there’s no phone to unlock every 3 minutes to be sure they didn’t miss anything.
So, whenever I can, I try to enter that world – even if it’s just for 5 or 10 minutes at a time. By the end of it, my head is clearer. My shoulders have relaxed. My to-do list feels just a teeny bit more do-able.
How does this work? Being present and choosing to focus our whole self on one thing – whatever that thing is – parts the clouds in our minds. This act of “single-tasking” and practicing mindfulness stops me from letting future concerns affect my present, giving me clarity to see what’s right in front of me. And that flows into whatever tasks I’m doing that day, child-related or not. I’ve gotten way too used to doing so many things half-way that I’m actually not getting anything meaningful done. And as a mom, nothing fills me with more regret than using the hours I’m not with my children inefficiently. Being present for a few minutes with my kids is like a reset button that reminds my brain what it feels like to actually make a choice to direct my energies toward one thing. That clarity and purpose then spills over into other areas, and helps to clear my mental fog.
I read here that “people spend almost 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing.” What a waste, right? There is so much our children can teach us in this area. Sprinkle a few short, truly intentional moments into your day and let me know what changes you see.
I hope these words encourage you to take one small step toward returning to yourself today – whether that’s “zooming out” to gain some perspective, reaching out to a friend who feels like “home,” or immersing yourself in the simple joy of play for a few minutes. Each season of motherhood is temporary, but you will always be you. Let’s grow together in understanding our needs and learning how to meet them. Your kids deserve to experience their whole mommy, in all of your beautiful complexity.
“Parents need to focus on healing and empowering themselves. They must shift their beliefs about autism. Once the parent knows who they are, the child will respond.” — Lori Shayew
A note: I wasn’t sure whether to share this story. I want everything I share about autism to be from a perspective of joy, strength, and empowerment. I want my writing to reflect that every facet of my son is a gift; it’s not autism, but the world’s response to it, that brings any fear, inconvenience, or negativity into the equation. But I want to be transparent at this moment, although the topic is painful. If my desire is for the world to heal and become a place that fully embraces my son, then I need to be honest about my own journey of healing. Even more importantly, I need to invite others to heal alongside me. I hope you will receive my reflections below in that spirit.
As I was heading out to do our grocery pick-up last Sunday, my 6-year-old asked me if I could pick up a donut for her on the way. We are all about random special treats around here, so I happily said yes.
I wasn’t planning to get one for Koimburi. Keziah can just eat hers while he’s napping, I reasoned — that way he won’t see it, so no harm done. I mean, it’s not like he asked for one, so why spontaneously give him something that’s not exactly the healthiest choice? Makes more sense to just save the $1.75, I thought to myself.
By the time I pulled up to Krispy Kreme, though, I was on the verge of tears. At some point on the drive, the ableism embedded in my logic hit me hard, and my heart felt sick. It does even now, as I type these words, and the tears are returning.
I love my son with everything that I am. I love him so much it hurts. But inside of me, I’ve internalized a value system that calls him less worthy because he doesn’t speak — less worthy of something as simple as the joy of a donut. Would his taste buds be less delighted than his sister’s? Would he be less excited, or feel less of the love that a thoughtful surprise conveys? Surely not. But because he couldn’t request it verbally, I almost denied him that simple joy.
It’s about so much more than missing out on a Krispy Kreme — although that is a tragedy in and of itself. It’s about who we decide to honor in their full humanity, and who we relegate to the category of “less than”. It’s about the assumptions we make and their heavy impact. Eden of @the.autisticats on Instagram recently discussed this in the context of stimming (self-stimulatory, repetitive movement/noises). They said, “It’s common to assume that people who move & sound like me automatically can’t write like me. Too many people who move like me are denied the opportunity to learn how to write, because they can’t speak.”
My mind immediately went to an article I read last June entitled “I am a proud, Black, nonspeaking young man with autism. My life matters.” I was floored by the honest, heartfelt reflections from this 14-year-old poet at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. I also felt immediately ashamed of the assumptions I hadn’t even realized I’d made about how a nonspeaking person would write.
I’m unlearning so much, and the process is painful. But I’m so deeply grateful for the chance to grow.
Reflecting on these early days of our journey (Koimburi was diagnosed last July), it angers me that the whole conversation around a diagnosis — at least how we experienced it — only serves to perpetuate ableism. This will honestly take a whole separate blog post at some point, but I raise it here to lament the missed opportunity that could have saved us — and all parents with similar experiences — so much heartache.
Both society at large and doctors — even kind and gentle ones like the specialist we saw — treat autism like a terminal illness, like “bad news”, a problem requiring intense services to “fix”. Even before the diagnosis, when we’d google possible causes of his sudden speech regression, autism was always the first word to pop up. And despite having a decent amount of exposure to what autism actually is, my heart would sink every time.
To make it really clear: autism is not like a terminal illness. It is not something to grieve, any more than sexism in society makes me grieve being a woman. Do I grieve the impact of discrimination and gender-based violence? Obviously. But I love being a woman; there’s no one else I’d rather be than precisely myself.
And so it is with autism. If I had known then what I know now — that autism is a beautiful, unique, and inextricable part of who my son is — I don’t think my heart would have sunk. In that specialist’s office last July, I wouldn’t have desperately attached my hope to the fact that she had used the word “mild” to describe his autism. My mind wouldn’t have raced with thoughts of all the interventions that would get him as close to “normal” as possible. I could have soaked in the information as the gift that it is: a gift with the power to help me nurture my son’s thriving, exactly as he is. I could have started daydreaming not about “normal,” but extraordinary. Unfortunately, this perspective is not offered to tired and fearful parents when they need it most.
Ableism, like every other -ism, poisons the air around us. We breathe it in without even noticing. I breathed it in without even noticing, until something as random as a donut stopped me in my tracks. If I want my son to grow up in a world that values the unique gifts inside of him, affirms that all forms of communication are valid (hello, assistive devices!), and truly acknowledges the fullness and depth of each person’s humanity, I have to start with me. I have to create that world inside my own home. Will you join me?
When I became a mom, I didn’t realize that when I met my first little blessing, I’d also be meeting another completely new person: me.
It’s not that I was suddenly unrecognizable, but a gulf now seemed to separate the old me from the new one. That disconnect was jarring. How I spent my time, the things I cared about and prioritized, where I invested my emotional energy — it all changed, and left me dizzy in the process.
The innumerable ways motherhood changes us are both remarkable and disorienting. The capacity of our hearts seems to have grown overnight, with newfound purpose and motivation, and yet we’re left grasping for pieces of our life we weren’t yet ready to part with.
For me, when the dust settled, I remembered that two things can be true at the same time: becoming a mother forever changes us, AND, at our core, our unique wiring and the passions and dreams inside of us haven’t disappeared.
Internalizing both of these truths is easier said than done. I don’t want to throw motherhood under the bus by believing that I’m not complete unless I add other, more “interesting” things to my resume. I don’t want to devalue my role by insinuating that mothering isn’t a good use of my skills — that I’m somehow “overqualified” and not living out my potential.
At the same time, I don’t want to spend the next 18 years pushing down my most heartfelt dreams. I don’t want to sacrifice other areas of fulfillment because moms “just don’t have time”. And honestly, it’s not even mainly about not wanting to sacrifice; as we’ve heard time and time again, you can’t pour from an empty cup. We give our children a gift when we mother them from a place of inner thriving. Joyful, fulfilled people are more present, engaged parents. Society hasn’t caught up to this concept and begs us to choose, but we don’t have to allow it.
The list of identity struggles we face as moms is long. Today, in Part 1, I’ll touch on two of the struggles that are looming largest in my life right now, and how I’m pursuing peace in the midst of them.
Struggle #1: Who we are feels deeply intertwined with what we do…
…and what we do changes drastically after having children. Suddenly we’re having much less contact with other adults. When we do, we’re less likely to be having meaningful, high-level conversations thanks to shorter chunks of alone time, our kids’ interruptions, or decreased mental energy. Our world seems to have shrunk, and we’re no longer getting the energy boosts that creative thinking and new ideas bring.
And on top of that, if we’ve reduced our work hours or taken a break from the workforce altogether, we have much less of a sense of completion at the end of the day. We likely haven’t checked any items off of a to-do list that seem “significant” to us. It feels like the parts of our brains that we’d use at work, or having an intellectual debate with friends, or even just chatting about our favorite TV shows, are all gathering dust.
To pursue peace: Change the way you see your “wins”
Two things that have helped me combat the lie that “I haven’t accomplished anything”: celebrating little wins, and different wins.
Little wins can energize us toward bigger ones (see last week’s post on willpower). To maximize on this, I’ve begun daily practices that I can “check off” with minimal effort for a sense of empowerment that carries me into my next tasks. A solid, quick morning routine (7 minute workout, devotional, affirmation) has been instrumental for me. I’m pretty much bursting with pride by the time I complete those three simple tasks, since consistency has always been a struggle for me. Celebrating those little wins makes me feel like I can exercise discipline and prioritize the things that are important to me on any given day. It helps me feel confident and competent.
I’ve also found celebrating different wins to be impactful on an even deeper level. I often evaluate myself as being much less productive now that I’m a mother; I’m used to the deep frustration of stewarding many areas, and getting a barely-passing grade in all of them. But what if we changed our definition of productive? This isn’t a feel-good technique, but rather a more accurate appraisal of the impact of our days. If our checklists included things like “laughed really hard with my daughter” or “really stopped and listened to her silly story when I wanted to zone out,” we might realize we’ve made a greater impact than we thought, AND be motivated to be more present in the little moments than before. This is a work in progress for me, but I’m already seeing a difference.
But missing the intellectual stimulation of a former job or hobby you no longer have time for is still oh-so-very real. Which leads me to:
Identity struggle #2: “I don’t want motherhood to be all there is to me”
When I look in the mirror, I see a compassionate soul, a bubbly extrovert, a caring friend, a singer/actress who wishes she could dance, a bookworm, a Georgetown and Michigan grad, a passionate advocate, and so much more. Those closest to me see all (or at least most) of those things, too. But I can become fixated on this nagging fear that most people see me as “just a mom.” This feeling is so unhelpful for two reasons:
1. Even if I were “just a mom” (which literally no one is, but I digress), that would be a fabulous, glorious thing. Motherhood is a million jobs in one, a profound and fulfilling calling, and an incredible feat of which every single one of us should be deeply proud.
I don’t think it’s the “mom” title itself that makes us want to push back against it, but rather the way society devalues it. The longing to be fully known is universal. No one wants to be pidgeonholed as “just so-and-so’s daughter” or “just that quiet girl” or even “just a doctor.” But being seen as “just a mom” adds an extra layer because it carries a particular connotation in our minds: one-dimensional; bland; lacking vibrancy, color, and nuance. And who wants to pour their whole heart and soul into a job that (we fear) others perceive in this way? This thought pattern leaves us feeling not only insecure, but demotivated.
2. We shouldn’t believe how motherhood is often characterized in our society because it’s a lie. But also, by falling into this mental trap, I’m giving others permission to define how I feel about myself. Who cares if 99% of the world doesn’t know that I taught myself to cook and bake from scratch, or that I was high school valedictorian, or that I watched every Jim Carrey movie released between ‘94-’04? Does that somehow make me less interesting, less intelligent, less creative? How could it? Yet I can easily hand that power to others and, in so doing, forget to water my own grass and cultivate what makes me “me”. When others’ perceptions infiltrate my own, I’m more likely to neglect the parts of me that make me feel unique, fun, and whole. As self-sabotaging as it is, I subconsciously resign myself to the attitude, “if they don’t care, why should I?”
To pursue peace: Never stop basking in — and uncovering — who you are
Take some time to really examine, “who am I at my core?” Motherhood changes every facet of our lives, but it doesn’t erase the beautiful complexity of who we were created to be. We’ll almost certainly grow new passions and discover new priorities, but everything that has brought us to this point is still with us. And the best parts of motherhood only serve to enhance and sharpen who we were “before.”
One of my favorite things about motherhood has been the way I can integrate my passions and interests into the way I parent. One example: I’ve always been deeply invested in the fight for racial and economic justice. In parenthood, I cherish taking my children to protests, choosing books that help them understand history and embrace their power, and answering their questions in a way that inspires deeper thought. This energizes me and reminds me that my passion hasn’t been put on a shelf, even though I can’t attend many community meetings or research current policies as much as I’d like in this season.
What’s important to you? How can you creatively integrate self-expression into your parenting? Maybe it looks like more museum trips or science projects, or creating incredible household routines, or choosing some new supplies for arts and crafts time, or trying a new workout/dance class together. Whatever gets you excited!
The more I’m expressing my core identities in the little moments of parenting, the more I can truly celebrate motherhood — not seeing it as something that ties me down or limits the fullness of who I am, but something that is intricately woven into all the things that make me “me”.
And in those quiet, kid-free moments (however rare they may be these days), we can nourish those parts of ourselves, too. This year, I am thankful to have 4 hours per week set aside in my schedule to write. I look forward to this time to explore whatever topic is on my mind, and it fulfills me in a way that helps me enter the rest of the day satisfied and renewed.
Maybe you don’t have 4 hours that you can dedicate in that way. But what can you do? Maybe find an audiobook or podcast on a topic you wish you had the time to engage in more, and just listen for 10 minutes before you go to bed, or while you’re folding laundry. (This is another practice that gives me so much life, and occasionally even makes me excited to get to folding, lol!) Any time you carve out for you will have a ripple effect on your family.
We also need to ask ourselves, “who and what am I living for?” It’s so easy for the perceptions of others to be a driving force in our decisions. Take this very post, for example. I realized quickly while writing that it would take two or three posts to cover everything that’s on my heart for this topic. At one per week, that means maybe three weeks of motherhood-specific posts. My heart sunk. “But I don’t want people to think I’m ‘just’ a mommy blogger!’” (There goes that “just” again.) Because I’ve internalized society’s valuation of motherhood, I think I have to put all the other amazing aspects of myself on display in order to “be” somebody in the eyes of others. But if approval is what I’m chasing, I’ll end up drained. When I pursue purpose, I find myself recharged and empowered to walk in the fullness of who I am.
Take a moment to remove others’ perceptions from how you evaluate your choices. What truly makes you feel as though you’re walking in your purpose? For me, my evaluation consists of:
Am I living in a way that’s consistent with my faith, bringing glory to the One who created me?
Am I honoring the unique way I was created, maximizing the gifts and passions I’ve been given?
Am I impacting those around me in a positive way, while tending to my own mental and emotional health?
Figure out what questions get at the heart of what matters most to you, and don’t settle for choices that make sense to others at the sacrifice of what you’ve decided is most important.
Of course, there is so much in our lives as mothers that simply can’t be changed. Our time, our relationships, our priorities are different. Those realities are worthy of stopping to truly grieve — even if we wouldn’t trade motherhood for anything — and they affect us all differently. Like you, I’ve heard plenty of well-meaning advice and thought, “that’s nice, but you don’t know my situation.” Mental or physical health diagnoses, availability of childcare, financial status, marital status, size of your “village”, number/ages/special needs of children, and so much more all have an impact on how much time or emotional capacity you’ll have to pursue self-discovery.
That being said, I invite you to take stock of not only your limitations, but of what can change — even if that’s something as small as a mindset shift, like changing what you consider a “win”. We’ve all been in that low place of comparison and discontentment. Sometimes the feeling is acute, like a pain in my chest. But getting stuck there doesn’t help us to experience joy and live intentionally. What does? Recognizing whatever power is in our hands, and using it to build a life of wholeness.
This is only scratching the surface, and I can’t wait to post Part 2. In the meantime, tell me: where are your biggest identity struggles in motherhood? What ways have you found to return to yourself?