I apologize in advance for my second entry in a row that springs from an experience I had during a different century. I’m approaching a couple of milestones this year. I’m turning 50 years old soon and this is my 25th year working as a counselor. So forgive me if I get a bit indulgent. I’ll try not to stray too far from what I hope will be a point.
For about 10 years, I worked part-time for an organization called Project Joy. PJ, like Academy MetroWest, was a program that grew out of The Academy of Physical and Social Development. At its inception and for the first 10 – 15 years of its existence, Project Joy conducted groups for homeless and disadvantaged pre-schoolers and toddlers in Cambridge, MA. These groups centered on the same non-competitive, cooperative approach to children’s activity that we continue to use today at Academy MetroWest. Project Joy also added a component of music and movement therapy that was very helpful in creating a safe and supportive environment for our kids. The organization did wonderful work and grew to the extent that a few years ago, it was folded into the organization of Life is Good, their main benefactor. Today, the Life is Good Foundation focuses its work on training day care providers and pre-school teachers all over the world in how to use its model with young children who have had experiences with trauma in all its different forms. They do wonderful work and their director, Steve Gross, remains one of the most talented professionals I’ve ever worked with.
When I was working with Project Joy, one of our goals was to try to incorporate parents of the group’s kids into our sessions in whatever ways we could. There was a mutual sharing of knowledge and experience that was invaluable to both counselors and parents. We formed some unforgettable relationships with the parents, some of whom stayed on and continued to help the organization well after they found housing and their kids grew up. In particular, I became close with one mom whose daughter and son had both taken part in our groups. She led a life remarkably different from mine but for some reason, we clicked. While I grew up in a stable, upper middle class, suburban home, this mom grew up in a poor, urban environment and had a childhood marked by abuse – physical, sexual, and substance. Somehow, she soldiered on and became a remarkable parent. Her kids are both in their twenties now and are doing great.
At any rate, one day I was talking with her about her experiences and her kids and I asked her if, when she became pregnant with her first child, she felt ready to be a parent? I was in my early 30’s and felt as though it was going to be a long time before I was ready to be a dad. Her answer to me was immediate and simple: “It doesn’t matter if you’re ready or not. Once they’re born, there they are. You don’t have a choice. You just do it.”
For many years after that exchange, I’d look at the lives of some of the families I worked with at Academy MetroWest. Owing to our focus on social skill development, many of the kids we work with present with diagnoses of ADHD, Asperger’s Disorder, Non-verbal Learning Disorder, and other issues in which social skill delays play a big role. For all parents, raising kids is a 24/7 experience. For many of the parents I saw, assuring that their kids attained some measure of success and esteem was a more intense, 24/7 experience than it was for most. Then there were others whose lives afforded few opportunities to do anything other than work for and agonize over their kids with the mere hope of getting them through each day without catastrophic failures. I remember running into one of my clients and his dad at Home Depot one beautiful Saturday afternoon. This boy had Asperger’s Disorder and, like most kids with that diagnosis, had intense, all-encompassing fixations on certain topics. For this boy, the fixation du jour was Wheel of Fortune and the reason he was at Home Depot with his dad was that they were getting materials so they could make their very own Wheel of Fortune. The dad looked happy but I couldn’t help but wonder if this is what he thought he’d be getting into when he became a father.
I didn’t become a parent until I was in my 40’s and I’d be lying if I said that the lives of my clients did not become cautionary tales for me. Even though I’ve always loved being around kids, it was hard for me to roll the dice and become a parent when there was a chance that my life would be “owned and ruled” by a kid with special needs just like many of the parents I knew.
Once I did become a parent, I realized that my friend from Project Joy was right. It doesn’t matter whether or not you feel you’re ready for becoming a parent. Once your kids are born, there they are! You hit the ground running and keep going with the faith that the incomparable love you feel for your child will provide you with any sustenance you’ll need to keep fighting the good fight, even when the challenges seem insurmountable.
Obviously, some parents face obstacles much more daunting than others’ but what has amazed me in getting to know parents personally and professionally is that – ready or not – most of them fight the fight every day without hesitating or relenting. So, as we head into Mother’s Day Weekend, I want to tip my hat to moms – and dads (I won’t write another one of these for Father’s Day so they get a nod here too) – who bleed, sweat, and cry, through the toughest but best job in the world. Enjoy your day and keep doing what you do!