When my daughter was born prematurely, they said she might not breathe. Then they said she might be in a hospital for two months. They said she might need a year to catch up. Soon enough, she was at the top of the charts. Then they said she might be delayed. Then they said she was ahead. Then just last week someone said she might be slow, and need an extra year to catch up.
I no longer have faith in these pronouncements. My daughter has never been anything but completely herself, no matter what they called it.
All parents struggle with fear, hope, and expectations for their children, so I wanted to respond publicly to a mother who contacted me last week.
I’m totally unqualified to give guidance in her circumstance, so I’m only going on faith. That’s all any of us has to go on.
First of all, thank you for taking the time to read my mail. I feel a bit silly for writing to you, but I decided to get over that because my need for relief is so great.
The willingness to feel foolish is the first step on the path. It’s also the last step on the path. To be honest, it’s every step on the path.
I am mother to two children: a less ordinary boy of just 5 years with a mild disability; and a girl of 2 1/2. I have noticed that having a non-average child complicates matters in a way I never saw coming.
Give yourself credit for what you didn’t see coming. Most of us think we see much farther ahead than we really can. We anticipate outcomes and draw foregone conclusions. Then we leap to either a false sense of security or a false sense of insecurity. Anything we conclude about the future is false. All that we can ever see is what is right in front of our eyes, and so I encourage you to keep that focus. Then you can be sure that you are always seeing clearly, because you are seeing things as they are.
It takes strength to see things as they are without interpreting it to mean one thing or another.
I’m not one of those mothers who always knew that there was something wrong. It is rather the opposite. My son feels OK to me. I see his delayed development and the stress he experiences because of that, but it’s nothing we can’t handle. I see a solid foundation in him and know that he will grow.
You’ve said two things here that are profound. First “my son feels OK to me.” This is the peace we seek: to be OK even when it is not OK. What makes it OK is the second thing you said, “it’s nothing we can’t handle.” This is the ground of faith. Not faith in a certain set of outcomes — the ones we want, wish, like, push, and prod for — but faith rooted in the reality of the present moment. The present is where we stand, and to stand upright where we are is the embodiment of strength. This is the strength we use to handle things as they occur, staying steady and aware without getting caught in the mind-spinning panic and paranoia of a future we cannot predict.
And let’s be clear: the future is unpredictable for everyone, no matter what.
But then there are professionals: doctors, teachers and any random stranger who feels free to express an opinion. We have met a lot over the past few years. When they talk to us there is concern. While we are glowing with joy when our son boldly goes where he has never gone before, they smile and turn our attention to the fact that it is still not average.
The Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi was famously quoted, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” Expertise is a form of blindness. Furthermore, your joy in your son never needs to be validated by an expert.
To their credit, I think that professionals respond to what we as parents want above all: To know. To know what things mean, what to expect, and what to do. To know how things will turn out. They use their diagnostic and deductive powers to fashion a story. Sometimes, this story is helpful. We can get guidance and support. We can try new things. We can open our minds. But no one really knows how things will go, and so the story keeps changing.
Don’t put your faith in a story. Don’t put your faith in what anyone tells you, not even me.
My mind seems to want one true story, as if it will end the heartache and suffering. I can’t find it, and I also can’t seem to stop searching for it. People expect my daughter to be perfect and successful because she is witty, playful and her body and brain are functioning as expected. And on the other hand, they expect a bleak future for my caring, brave, smart but not-so-average son. And my mind is unable to wrap itself around it all.
When we realize that the mind cannot “wrap itself around” anything, then we are seeing clearly. We can stop relying on flimsy notions, and put an end to the torment and blame we produce by our mental activity.
To be sure, you will always worry about your children. You will worry forever. But you can practice seeing them clearly and without fearful prejudice. Few of us ever see our children as they are; our vision is clouded by hope, despair, expectation and disappointment. We are nearly always evaluating them against some false standard of future performance. Our judging mind takes us out of the reality of the present moment, which is the only moment our children occupy. No matter what the predictions, no one ever has or ever will live in the future. There is only one place we live. There is only one place we can be together.
My personal practice doesn’t seem to bring relief. I feel stuck and need to know where faith and strength are hiding out. Do you know where to look?
I can’t take away your pain or give you anything you don’t already have.
Look — really look! — in the only place you can see. It is the place where faith, strength and truth abide.
Have faith in yourself and your life as it is. This faith is never hidden, this faith is always present, this faith is always where you are, in your hands, which is where and how you handle everything. Always practice with your eyes open, and then you’ll see it for yourself.
Your baby will be OK. You will be too.
That’s not saying anything. That’s saying everything.
Artwork by Erika Montyvdas