My Best Friend’s Death — and My Own Survival — Taught Me the Vulnerability of Joy

My entry into the Medium Writers Challenge is about the single most impactful moment of my life. It’s about my journey through grief, and the sense of “foreboding joy” (as Brene Brown calls it) that has been a part of my life ever since. And of course, it’s a tribute to one of the greatest humans I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing: Terrance De’Shawn Davis the First.

Click here to read the full piece on Medium.

There’s More To You Than Motherhood (And It’s OK To Say It Out Loud)

| 5 minute read |

I don’t want motherhood to be all there is to me.

Has this thought ever crossed your mind?

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 have this nagging fear that most people see me as “just a mom.”

Click here to read the full piece at Her View From Home.

I Almost Let My Expectations Steal My Joy

| 3 minute read |

We recently had a beautiful family getaway to a nearby hotel.

But I almost let my own expectations get in the way of my joy.

I had spent hours searching for the perfect hotel. I knew it had to be beautiful and a little bougie, because that’s what feels restorative for my husband. (I’m the on-the-go, sightseeing type, in contrast with my husband, who puts the STAY in staycation. We alternate on whose needs we cater to, and this time we were definitely going for restful vibes.)

With that in mind, my only other requirement was: a pool. Since we wouldn’t be out and about much, I imagined splashing around with the kids as a central feature of our time away. So I ordered a new swimsuit for my 3-year-old son and super cute floaties for both kids: a classic flamingo for my 6-year-old daughter, and an airplane complete with a steering wheel for my son. I went all out, y’all.

And I found the perfect spot! A hotel with not only a pool, but a splash pad and water slide just for kids! I just knew it was gonna be – let’s use that word again – perfect. I definitely feel guilt over multi-tasking and not being present enough during the week, so in my mind, this getaway we were going to have ALL the fun. ALL. OF. IT.

My daughter had seen the photos of the hotel and kept asking, “when we get there, can we go STRAIGHT to the pool??” So once we checked in, we changed clothes, used up all the breath in our lungs to blow up their floaties, and eagerly headed downstairs…

…and neither of them were feeling it.

My son couldn’t care less. My daughter was overwhelmed by the number of people. No worries, I reasoned. We have 2 more days.

Saturday morning, the splash pad was empty, so I convinced my daughter to just walk in and take a look.

We got one tiny surprise splash from one bucket, laughed hard, and ran out… and that was it.

We didn’t so much as dip a toe in the rest of the weekend.

The old me would have been furious. I feel my emotions HARD, and I know my disappointment would have turned into anger and been hard to shake.

Embarrassing story: I once had a whole temper tantrum (crying, foot stomping) after we had run across Disneyland to try to get a photo with the Zootopia characters. They cut off the line a minute or two before the narrow time window was supposed to end, and I was livid.

My daughter, a toddler at the time, who that whole trip was for, was unfazed. If only that had been enough for me. Instead, I let my deep need to check off every single box on my “FUN” to-do list ruin a whole portion of my day.


Fast forward a few years later. You know what has helped me prioritize true enjoyment and connection over my image of what fun “should” look like?

Parenting an autistic child.

I’ve realized I find so much more joy in his joy than I do in pursuing what I thought would be fun. Sifting through tiny rocks on the nature trail, chasing each other around giggling, and playing with the same toys over and over puts more pep in his step and sparkle in his eye than any elaborate plans I could make.

“Wait,” you’re saying, shocked. “You mean actually HAVING fun together is more enjoyable than dreaming up and stubbornly pursuing hypothetically fun scenarios?”

Yup. I know. Mind = blown, right?

And, surprise surprise, that applies to both my kids!

So this weekend, we laughed a LOT. We played a LOT. We did crazy dances during Uno Dare and acted out hilarious “lie detector” skits during LIFE. We cuddled and played Roblox and got Happy Meals and built Legos and cuddled some more.

And even as we packed the unused floaties back into the van, I could genuinely say it was perfect.

I didn’t let my expectations steal my joy…

Until I tucked my daughter into bed on Sunday night, and her face looked as though she were about to confess to a heinous crime. Timidly, she said:

“Mama? …I want to go to the pool now.”

Parenting. It’s a trip!

PART TWO — Non-Autistic Parents: Why We Should Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

| 4 minute read |

“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.)

Non-Autistic Parents: Why We Should Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

| 4 minute read |

“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.

5 things I want you to know about my autistic kid

| 6 minute read |

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.

Helpful articles on neurodiversity at Bigthink.com and Neuroclastic.com

2. “Autistic” isn’t a bad word.

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.”

A thorough, balanced blog post with additional sources at Autistichoya.com

3. We don’t feel like our son has been “labeled”.

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.

An important perspective on “labels” from Portrait of the Autist on Facebook

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.

More on an autistic kid’s perspective of the playground at Neuroclastic.com

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.

More on nurturing autistic kids’ growth from @neuroclastic on Instagram, and on autism and speech from @fidgets.and.fries on Instagram


Let’s connect:

How would you parent if no one was watching?

| 4 minute read |

I had a mini parenting crisis two nights back.

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.


Let’s connect:

Confronting our privilege: how to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable

| 7 minute read |

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.

Let’s persist together.


Let’s connect: