Our Lives

Our Lives: The best mom can do

CorrespondentJanuary 11, 2014 

Diane E. Morris.

JULI LEONARD — jleonard@newsobserver.com

I have been asked occasionally, what made me decide to start a charter school for students with special needs?

My answer: my utter failure as a mother.

For three years, I tried to home-school my two sons, who both have autism. I had done the research; I understood that my boys needed different experiences than those offered in a traditional school setting. They needed to be engaged in hands-on learning with lessons on topics relevant to their lives, not dictated by the curriculum for their age-based grade level.

Intellectually, I knew exactly what should happen daily in our home school. Practically, I just could not get it together.

There’s a reason I am not an elementary school teacher. There’s a reason I didn’t choose a career working with children daily.

I’m not good at it.

Number 1 on the list of platitudes people offer to parents of special-needs children is that God only gives special children to special parents. Number 2 goes something like, “I couldn’t deal with the challenges/pain/heartbreak/depression you face every day. You are so amazing!”

In my experience, neither of these is true. Before I was a special-needs parent, I didn’t think I could handle being one.

And after I became one, I wasn’t miraculously granted all the skills necessary to be the best mother for my boys. I didn’t develop an endless fount of patience and creativity. I didn’t discover the well of limitless energy that I needed to work with them all day and then spend all night creating two entirely different lesson plans for my two very different boys.

I also didn’t acquire the desire (or the financial wherewithal) to stop working. I found my job, with its clear assignments and appreciative co-workers, much more satisfying than home-schooling. So I juggled work and home-schooling, but not particularly well.

Perhaps my biggest problem was that I couldn’t handle the emotional triggers of working with my own children. I was too easily frustrated when they couldn’t understand something or wouldn’t cooperate. And I was highly susceptible to distraction by Theo’s adorable impish grin or the way Kenny looked at me out of the corners of his enormous brown eyes, smiled and then dissolved into giggles. I found it impossible to keep focused on academics when my sons asked for hugs and tickles – and the little buggers knew it.

The “right” mother for my children would have been better organized and not so easily distracted or overwhelmed. She would have been good at setting priorities, making lists and following through. I know moms who have done this, and their children have made amazing progress in their development.

But my boys are stuck with me.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not beating myself up over my failings. I see no point in feeling bad for being who I am, and guilt and regret are wastes of time and energy.

When I learned to accept who I am not, I figured out how to use the talents and skills I do have to benefit my sons.

I can analyze data and write a compelling proposal. I can tackle most any project with clear goals and a concrete plan. I can stay focused when the task at hand isn’t fraught with emotional triggers. I can work effectively with other committed adults, instead of my darling but befuddling children.

Once I forgave myself for not being the mother I thought I should be, I could focus on being the best mother I am able to be. As the Internet meme goes, “Though no one can go back and make a brand-new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand-new ending.”

And that’s what Dynamic Community Charter School is – my effort to create a new ending for Theo, Kenny and classrooms full of children with developmental and intellectual disabilities. When it opens this August, my sons and 78 other middle- and high-school students will get to go to a school where every adult in the building is focused on promoting their cognitive, emotional and social growth.

Would my sons have been better off if I were a different kind of person? Probably; at ages 12 and 14, they likely would be much further along in their development. But with the skills I have, starting this school is the best I can do for them.

This is the best way I know of to give them a shot at having fulfilling, purposeful and happy adult lives.

And that’s the best this mom can do.

Morris: diane.e.morris@gmail.com

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