A letter to my son

On reveling in the present moment as you grow into all that you are: autistic, loving, joyful, and free

My precious one,

I love your smile. I’ve never seen such twinkling eyes, such pure sweetness. I thank God for each smile, each laugh, remembering when they were much harder to come by not so long ago.

I love your energy — how you sprint across the room out of pure excitement, over and over again, squealing with glee and clapping along to Cocomelon. The pitter-patter of your feet is unmistakable from every corner of the house.

I love your determination — the force with which you grab my hand and lead me to wherever I’m needed. The way you sneak away to find the iPad hiding in my bedroom, or stealthily grab a treat from the dining room table the moment I step away.

I love your love — the way you lay your head on daddy’s shoulder so gently as you dance to “No Letting Go” before bed. The way you climb onto my legs as we play and slip your arms around my neck into the tightest hug.

How can I express my gratitude for the peace your presence brings? Your glow, warm and pure, chases away every anxious question in my mind. When I’m tempted to dwell on the burdens of our therapy schedule or wonder about milestones and timelines, your joy keeps me rooted. Present. Mindful.

There is so much ahead of us, but right now there is a beauty in our simplest moments together that I want to savor. I know that as we emerge from this pandemic and venture out into the world, as you begin to brave playgrounds and preschool, there will be attempts to weigh you down with expectations and labels that were never yours to bear. I want to revel in this time, before the world accosts us with its boxes. It’s just you and me and Daddy and Sister, learning each other and growing together one day at a time.

But even as I soak in these moments, I also remember: just as we learn and grow, so does the world.

You are growing up in a world where new generations are carving out how freedom will be defined. Right now, as we celebrate Black History Month, activists are not only honoring the past but envisioning #BlackFutures. They are centering the fight for liberation around Black joy and the celebration of every unique, intersecting facet of Black identity. They are writing their own history, not defined by pain but by the inherent dignity of Black life.

They fight, that one day you would step out into the world and be truly free. And they are not the only ones fighting for you; you are part of another fiercely loving community. Autistic adults* who have walked in your shoes are raising their voices with passion and care for your well-being. I know I’m not immune to the assumptions and biases of the world, so I am learning all I can from them. Like those marching for Black lives, these advocates are working to craft a future where you can not only survive, but thrive — where your uniqueness will be seen, valued, and celebrated. You are their motivation, the reason why they fight, and I am listening closely as they speak to learn how to love and honor you for all that God has created you to be.

I love you, sweet angel. You bring so much joy to my journey. Forgive me for the moments when I yearn so deeply to hear you say “mama,” that I miss the chance to embrace you for exactly who you are today. Keep wrapping those soft little arms around my neck and keep me right here in the present. There is absolutely no place in the world I’d rather be.

Love,

Mommy

*a note: at this moment, I am choosing to use identity-first language (“autistic adults”) instead of person-first language (“adults with autism”). If you’re curious, here’s a great post about this debate. (Bonus: it’s by a fellow Georgetown alum!)

I would like to sincerely thank the following Instagram creators for their invaluable insights in this very early stage of my journey parenting an autistic child: @fidgets.and.fries @the.autisticats @notanautismmom

Doing what makes me come alive

In 2021, I decided that I’m going to write.

It started out as a whisper. While making my (first-ever) vision board last month, the word “WRITE” in a cute font stood out in a magazine, so I pasted it right at the top. I’ve always loved to write; I love the way it pulls tangled thoughts out of my brain, and I’m fortunate that my job requires a good deal of it. Even just taking the time to write a long Facebook post on a social issue or a reflective Instagram caption brings me energy and clarity like little else. But I’ve pretty much just left it at that.

This year, though, I’m chasing down joy. I’m cultivating purpose. I’m pursuing what invigorates my soul and brings health to my heart. After last year, I’m not settling for less.

Of all the ways 2020 affected me, more than anything, it kept me in a mental fog. If you asked me how my week was on any given day, I probably couldn’t tell you. Griefs blurred into one another, and waking up with any kind of intentionality seemed impossible. I’m so grateful for the sunshine-y humans who fill my home; they sprinkled so much brightness into last year. They — along with God and dear friends — grounded me. But I wasn’t able to focus on growth, on truly thriving.

Towards the end of the year, though, something shifted. I began to feel more like myself — like I could start trying to live “on purpose”. I started some daily practices that have been keeping me rooted, grateful, and present, and have given me the space to daydream about what I want my life to look like. How do I want to feel when I get up in the morning, and at the end of the day? What do I want to spend my time on?

My mind kept coming back to writing, for how it both enlivens me and helps me process my reality. I’m a verbal processor, which Hunja knows better than anyone. As we get ready for bed, a lightswitch flips on in my brain, and it becomes what he (affectionately/exhausted-ly) calls my “soapbox hour”. I process my thoughts on current events and strategies for racial justice and the highs and lows of parenting and on and on. I feel clear-headed and alive. And I get that same feeling when my fingers are on a keyboard.

So, once a week, I’ll be here posting — for my own sake, but also because I am a big believer in what written words can do. They have the power to spark conversations (within ourselves, and with one another) that can foster introspection, empathy, and understanding. They can even create community, when we see our own reflection in the experience of another.

And I don’t know about you, but I long for community — as much of it as I can get, particularly after a year that paired collective traumas of all kinds with deep isolation. I think community, more than anything, is what drew me to making this commitment. “WRITE” means I could always just start journaling, right? That would save me from the vulnerability of asking for likes, shares, and engagement. But if I’m anything, I’m a relational being, so the chance to spark connection and conversation is everything to me. So if you’ve read this far, please know that I’m grateful for your company on this journey!

It feels a little strange to have just written about… writing. But I’m sharing my process, firstly in hopes that it encourages somebody to pursue whatever brings life to their weary bones this year. And secondly, to ask for your support as I express what’s on my heart, in hopes of cultivating human connection, shared reflection, and a sense that we really are all in this thing together.

Fears, “shoulds,” and treasure hunt parenting

“I learned a long time ago that my children would inherit one of two things: either God’s promises, or my fears.” — Lisa Bevere

I don’t consider myself a fearful person. I’m free-spirited, tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, and don’t map out my future with much detail.

Enter parenting.

Suddenly two people exist in my world who make my heart burst with love, and whose destinies are seemingly up to me to decide. Will they be kind? Will they be socially conscious? Will they love God? Will they love themselves? Will they make wise decisions? I want them to dodge every mistake I’ve ever made and avoid every heartache I’ve ever felt. And if I parent them well, I can, right?

When I write it out like that, of course it seems absolutely unrealistic. But in my day-to-day, that doesn’t stop me from trying. I will raise a daughter who is secure in her identity. I will raise a son who never feels limited by a label. Those, and a million other hopes and dreams that are deeply important and valuable — and yet ultimately not up to me.

As I write this, my mind takes me to a moment last year that stopped me in my tracks. One of my best friends (and my daughter’s Godmother) and I were doing an Instagram live together discussing parenting and race. We began talking about what my daughter’s identity development will look like as she grows up, being half-white American, half-Kenyan, and growing up in the U.S. where (in a sense) she is also African-American. I casually mentioned, “I’m gonna have to re-read Dreams from my Father and get some wisdom from Barack!” My friend replied graciously but firmly, something like: “…or she’ll carve a new path and decide for herself what her background means to her.”

I felt rebuked (in the best of ways, as only your closest friends can) and also… lighter. I realized I had been carrying this self-imposed, impossible expectation that I was the sole bridge between my children and their experience and understanding of the world — the sole influence on how they will bloom, on who they will be. Now, don’t get me wrong: at ages 6 and 2, my kids are definitely most heavily influenced by their mom and dad at this stage. But that won’t always be the case. And when they’re “out in the world,” will I be fixated on wielding my power over how they “turn out,” or will I be a steady, nurturing operating base from which they can explore?

That’s a big difference. It doesn’t mean that our choices as parents don’t matter — they matter deeply. What it does mean is that parenting is not me, as an artist, painting the masterpiece that is my child. That’s God’s job. Maybe I’m more like a lovely grass green amidst all the other colors on the palette that God dips into as He pleases, my guidance and love swirling in unexpected ways into the finished product. Or as Paul Tripp puts it — in the only parenting book I’ve managed to read cover-to-cover*:

“Parenting is not first about what we want for our children or from our children, but about what God in grace has planned to do through us in our children.”

It’s a mindset shift that is so much easier said than done. At the end of the day — if I can be real with y’all — my happiest daydreams are of my daughter becoming an activist and eventually president of the United States (or Kenya!), while performing on Broadway in her spare time. (Just typing that puts a giddy smile on my face!) But that dream has everything to do with me, and involved zero consultation with the One who actually created her and placed her own unique gifts inside her, just waiting to be uncovered.

I want to be a Treasure Hunt Parent. When I came across that phrase in Glennon Doyle’s Untamed, I’m pretty sure I broke down crying because it felt so beautiful and so hard at the same time.

“When it comes to who my children are, I don’t want to be an Expectations Parent. I don’t want my kids striving to meet an arbitrary list of preconceived goals I have created for them. I want to be a Treasure Hunt Parent. I want to encourage my children to spend their lives digging, uncovering more and more about who they already are, and then sharing what they discover with those lucky enough to be trusted by them. When my child uncovers a gem inside and pulls it out for me to see, I want to widen my eyes and gasp and applaud.”

She continues with this directive: “un-God yourself.” In other words, resist the urge to author the narrative. Remove the “shoulds” that cloud our vision of the unique creations standing in front of us. Say to our children, in word and deed: “My only expectation is that you become yourself. The more deeply I know you, the more beautiful you become to me.”

When I reflect on this, I simultaneously feel so inadequate and so freed. Inadequate, because resisting my desire for control is a daily battle. Freed, because God’s hands are a far safer place for my children to be than my own.

More than anything, though, I feel excited — and of all the emotions that parenting brings, that’s a pretty great one, right? When I think of how much I have yet to learn about these small, wonderfully complex humans living in my home, my heart skips a beat. They deserve my wonder, my awe, my delight. By God’s grace, I hope to walk in that more and more each day.

…..

*This should communicate two things: One, if you’re looking for a parenting expert, look elsewhere, lol. Two, get into this book! It’s SO essential (although I guess I’d be a terrible judge of that, since I haven’t read the competition). It’s called Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family.

“Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me” and other MLK quotes

I took this photo from behind the pastor’s pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. While interning for the SPLC in Montgomery, AL in 2008, I had the honor of attending this church, where Dr. King began his journey as a pastor and organizer.

As a teen, I was enthralled by the history of the Civil Rights Movement, but that summer in Montgomery was revelatory. It pushed my mind to see beyond the isolated stories of “heroes” who were always pictured in black and white, in some seemingly faraway time and place. I began to see in full color: to picture ordinary Black women and men walking miles each way to exhausting jobs —for a year— to end the indignity of segregated buses. They had walked the very streets I walked each day, and they were not a sentence (or, if you were lucky, a paragraph) in a history book — they were living, breathing, beautifully unique human beings.

And so was Dr. King. As pastor of Dexter in 1955, he insisted that every member become a registered voter and a member of the NAACP. He saw faith and the fight for human dignity and human rights as inextricably linked. Can you imagine how that would go down today? When we keep his image trapped in those black and white photos, we don’t really allow our minds to imagine how revolutionary he was, how absolutely hated he was for holding up a mirror to this nation and forcing it to stare its ugliness in the face. I wish we could take the “just preach the gospel,” anti-Critical Race Theory, “BLM is doing it wrong” white pastors back in time a few decades and challenge them to post MLK quotes on their (metaphorical) social media pages then.

A few friends I love and respect posted a challenge today: to listen to a speech of Dr. King’s today in its entirety. I chose his final Sunday sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”. I was moved to tears on multiple occasions, struck afresh by the biting truths spoken and the urgency with which he shared them. My favorite part:

“One day a newsman came to me and said, ‘Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?’ I looked at him and I had to say, ‘Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion.’ Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.

“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?”

He didn’t mince words, he didn’t compromise, and he certainly didn’t soften the fiery fervor of what God had laid on his heart to make white folks feel better about themselves.

And he was killed for it.

I have found in my life that an untimely death serves to intensify that person’s legacy. I pray that we get to a place in our nation where that is true — where we no longer settle for a whitewashed narrative of Dr. King’s work and mission, but instead recognize his legacy in the words and actions of those fighting on the front lines for Black Lives today. Let us not seek out a watered-down version of his vision that makes us comfortable. Rather, let us draw deep inspiration and resolve from his bold, unapologetic demands for an end to war, an end to the evils of capitalism, an end to police brutality, and an end to racism in all of its forms.

Our default setting: the audacity of white supremacy

The morning after last week’s U.S. Capitol Insurrection, my 6-year-old, Keziah, and I went on a mommy-daughter date to celebrate the end of winter break. We laid out an adorable picnic near a pond, played a game of Candyland, and giggled as the ducks ducked their heads underwater and helped clean one another’s feathers.

Last time we were at this park, we were enjoying watching the ducks in and around the pond. Keziah was walking up as close as she could to them, enjoying studying them. When she’d get close, they’d often scurry back into the water.

Near us, there was an older white woman throwing bread for them to eat. In a rude, impatient voice, she snipped at Keziah: “Stop chasing them away! I’m trying to feed them!” First of all, the audacity to take that tone with not even a fellow adult, but a 6-year-old.

Second of all, from what I could recall, feeding bread to the ducks is not even allowed. But not seeing any signage in that immediate area to point her to, I simply said, “Ma’am, she’s a child” and moved on.

But my mind went straight to that incident in reflecting on the armed white men who stormed our nation’s Capitol Building.

Whether or not our little duck-feeding incident was racially motivated, the analogy to white supremacy is spot-on: a person asserting their dominion and self-defined rules over a space that should be available to everyone, while at the same time excusing themselves from any rules laid out for the common good.

White people, this is our default setting.

Our education and life experiences have taught us to take up space, ignoring the harm caused to those whom we bump in the process. They have convinced us of our “rightness” and, at the same time, have assured us that the rules don’t apply to us. We will spend a lifetime unlearning this. No matter where we are on our journeys of racial justice advocacy, I hope we don’t walk away from yesterday’s display of unabashed white supremacy without continued introspection. When I enter a metaphorical room, do I look to see who may have been squeezed out? Do I stop and interrogate myself when I theorize in my head about how BIPOC activists “could have said/done that differently”? Do I justify ways in which my privilege has allowed me to bypass rules that my BIPOC friends must adhere to?

Food for thought. I will also shared some words on the topic from Brittany Packnett Cunningham — the most spot-on take on last week’s events that I’ve heard thus far:

“This is the literal example of white supremacy. What does white supremacy mean? It means that white people believe that they have dominion over everybody and dominion over everything; that they are, in fact, supreme. So we saw a group of white people, of white supremacists here, thinking that they own a country that they colonized and therefore they can do whatever they want with it. They think they can storm any building in that country because they believe they own it. They think that they can erect a noose on the side of a building that was built by enslaved Africans in America because they think they have full permission to do so — and did so on camera because they knew the police would do nothing about it. But they do not own this country. They do not own democracy. They do not own us. They are tragically confused, and we will not be intimidated, despite the fact that police did not hold the line today.”