A few weeks ago, I was out enjoying the gorgeous Colorado sunshine with friends new and old, hanging out at a local craft brewery. Beer and sunshine are the elixir of this mother’s soul. We all had our kids with us, who were happily playing and hanging out with each other.
My gorgeous middle child began to have a meltdown, over what I’m not even sure. She’s ten years old, but developmentally perhaps six or seven. Meltdowns are not uncommon; in fact, they’re a near-daily experience. Not whining—full on meltdowns. Or as we like to call them, Olympic-caliber meltdowns. The world is hard for her to process and she gets overwhelmed easily.
I calmly spoke to my daughter, let her know that I was listening, but was not going tolerate a meltdown. She needed to figure it out and calm herself down. This process took several minutes, but she got there: she figured it out and calmed herself down.
After my daughter went back over to her friends, one of the women (a newer friend) that was with me looked at me with a somewhat forced smile.
I was used to this smile. I see it a lot.
…yep, she’s going to say it…
then tilted her head in a universally empathetic way, reaching out to softly touch my arm,
…please don’t say it…
I don’t know how you do it.
Ugh. She said it.
I know. I know she meant only good things. To imply that I’m strong. That I have some secret fountain of superpowers that “normal” moms don’t have. But her comment, along with the same statement said by many other people over the years since we’d had our daughter, had come to make me feel more alone than ever.
It felt as though she was saying to me that my life is so difficult—so out of her comprehension—that she cannot even relate to me, mother-to-mother.
It felt as though she was saying that I was somehow made differently than her, making me feel even more alienated.
It felt as though she was saying that I was in a club that she was not a part of, and thank goodness for that.
While probably good-intentioned, my new friend, along with everyone else who has said that to me over the years, does not know how saying those words to me reminds me that we are in a different place than most families. A harder place. Holland, not Italy, as it were.
Those Seven Words
“I don’t know how you do it.”
First of all, to be blunt about it, I don’t know how I do it, either. I mean, there isn’t some secret stash of magical power the moms to kiddos with special needs have: we’re built the same as every other mom.
And the “how” grows out of need. I have to do it. It’s as simple as that.
I do it because she’s my daughter.
I do it because she needs me to.
Sometimes I Just Don’t
Secondly, I don’t always “do it.” There are days I fail; some days magnificently. Sometimes, the stress of caring for a child with complex medical and behavioral needs is overwhelming.
Add in “normal” family stress, raising other kids, working, maintaining a house and trying to somehow work quinoa into family meals undetected and find my abs again, it’s collectively exhausting.
I melt down. Sometimes spectacularly. I order takeout. I snap at a loved one who was just trying to help. I eat ice cream in bed. Just because you don’t see the times when I fail doesn’t mean they aren’t happening.
Honestly, the reason I’m able to do most anything at all is because of my village. My village sustains me, supports me, encourages me and takes over for me when I’m tapped out. They listen to my worries and my stresses and my venting and they love me and our family, meltdowns and all.
This village includes my husband, our other children, my friends, our extended family, amazing teachers, great doctors and wonderful neighbors. They are how I’m able to do anything at all.
And my village knows that I’m not any different from them. I’m flawed and short on patience and long on overanalyzing, but they know I’m just me. And they treat me like I’m just me, which I greatly appreciate. I don’t want to be put on a special pedestal of hardship—it hurts much more than it helps.
What to Say?
Okay so I’ve publicly shamed someone for saying “I don’t know how you do it.” Public shaming is not my intent, but perspective sharing is.
Maybe instead of saying “I don’t know how you do it,” consider some of the following alternatives:
“We had a day like yours the other day. It was so rough—I can totally relate.”
“Girl, you are rocking this. You’ve got this.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Let’s get together for mimosas and gripe about our burdens together.”
Find commonalities, not differences. Connect on shared experiences, even if minor. Bridge the gap, don’t widen it.
Own Your Strength
If you had told 20-year old me that one of my children would have high medical needs, I would have said that I wasn’t strong enough, or patient enough, or compassionate enough to be her parent. And I wasn’t.
Raising our daughter has made me stronger, more patient, and more compassionate. It’s given me skills and resilience that I simply didn’t have before. Adversity uncovered strength that I didn’t know was there.
I don’t know how I do it, either. But I’m rocking it. Then failing. Then rocking it again.
Time for mimosas.