On Trading Places

El Jaleo
Forever trapped oil on canvas

I grew up in a small town in the New England; it’s rumored that when I was born there were more cows in the town than people.  As a teenager, pre-license, I resented the long expanses of subdivisions, corn fields, and barns housing dairy cows; they kept me from freedom.  I dreamt of big cities and bright lights; art and music; most of all, I dreamt of freedom.

I dreamt of a place where I was free to shed the cloak of expectation that shrouded me and manifest my own destiny.  Perhaps, it was not this at all, but rather, the familiar dream of trading places.  Perhaps, I was caught in the universal theory of mind game–what would it be like to be her, or him, or anyone other than me in this stifling place?

When you grew up in a town where everyone knew your name they tended to also know your business.  Ironically, nobody there really knew me at all.  It was the strangest sense of isolation.  I spent my life surrounded by those who had the utmost familiarity and simultanseous estrangement.  It was the confusion of being met with the assumptions of others then surprising them, letting them down, or simply being completely misunderstood.

This was a strikingly similar experience to parenting a child with rare and extraordinary needs.

Recently, another mother of a child with rare disease told me that she never thought about running away when she was young; but that she probably thought about it way more than she should as a parent to a child with special needs.  Her experience is not unusual.  Research has shown that mothers of children with autism have stress levels similar to combat soilders.  Who in our line of parenting wouldn’t at least imagine themself somewhere, or someone else?  Nevertheless, she likely wouldn’t share her deep desire to escape or trade places with most of her mama friends (yet I’m the one who goes writing it on the internet for all to read) for fear of being judged or misunderstood.

Parenting a child with rare and extraordinary needs is like living in my childhood small town–there is a simultaneous familiarity and estrangement.  Most of the people we run into in our day to day interactions are other parents who have some understanding of what it is like to raise tiny humans–there is a familiarity.  Yet, our world is so very different than theirs; it is full of complex medical jargon, life or death emergencies, therapies on top of therapies, the bittersweet meeting of milestones, and milestones that will never be met–there is a complete and utter estrangement.

Much like my adolescence, parenting my children has been an isolating experience.  I am surrounded by others who hold assumptions of what both me and my brand of tiny humans are and should be like.  Over the years I have learned to brush the well-intentioned yet oblivious, parents aside, but it remains a part of my daily life to deal with doctors, nurses, therapists and school administrators who I must educate and shake free from their shackle of assumption in order to see me, but more importantly, my children clearly.

Perhaps hardest with which to deal is the desire to feel free–it is similar to that adolescent desire for freedom.  Parenting children with excptional needs can feel stifiling.  All parents trade some dreams to care for children and for special needs parents it is more than that.  There is no end date in which you can say, “when my child is in kindergarten I can return to work” or “I will get my Master’s when my child is in middle school.”  We are forced to surf the wave of our child’s needs no matter how capricious the sea.  There is an inexplicable trapped feeling that accompanies that reality.

Despite the stark reality of parenting a child with extraordinary needs, there is great love and great hope.  Unlike the dial-up days of my adolescence there are a wealth of resources online to find your Tribe of fellow parents and decrease the isolation.  There is also freedom in the very imagining itself–to dream of yourself as someone else, somewhere else–and to run away in your mind–if only for a little while.

I used to dream of bright lights and big cities, art and music; unfortunately, I spend way more time than I would like in a big city, Boston, for medical appointments with my crew.  Not exactly what I dreamed of; yet, I still permit myself to dream.  I find the time when I can to get lost in my favorite place on earth, The Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum.  I stand at the foot of John Singer Sargent’s, El Jaleo and I imagine what it was like to be the Andalusian flamenco dancer.

John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo
Photo from my last sojourn

I trade places places in my mind’s eye and imagine myself deliciously free and moving to the beat.  And, in that moment my burden is lighter, my dreams more vivid, and my soul reinvigirated.

I have a magnet of El Jaleo on my refridgerator.  In moments of deep despair, when I feel as though I cannot meet the challenge that has been bestowed upon me, I imagine myself the great Andalusian dancer and I buy myself a moment of freedom.

How ironic that a woman forever trapped oil on canvas can make my soul feel so free.  I guess that is the magic of dreams–we can imagine ourself anyone and anyway we want to be; whether that be far away from small town New England or the high-stress, high-demand world of special needs parenting.

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