Parenting—or life, really—requires holding a certain tension in your mind between two truths. We must love our children exactly as they are, exactly as God created them, exactly how they are behaving in any particular moment. (Even if, at that particular moment, they are throwing books at their siblings or dumping soup on the couch.) We must also love them so much that we desire and help them to grow beyond this, into the very best version of themselves, the fullness of the particular ideal self God is calling them to be. As created. As called to be.
God himself loves us parents like this, too. He loves me right now, in this exact, messy moment of my growth as a mother, a wife, a woman, and a human. He also loves me far too much to let me stay this way. He calls me away from my selfish desires and concupiscent tendencies, toward spiritual union with him and fruitful agape love in the world. Eventually, toward my life as a saint in heaven with him.
For children with special needs, this spiritual journey can provide us with a model and a
template for loving children through the physical realities of their life on earth, where they inhabit atypical bodies and minds. We love these beautiful bodies and minds, exactly as they have been created. And—as we do with our able-bodied children—we love them so much that we must never cease to push and encourage and train them to grow beyond their current limitations.
I was thinking about this juxtaposition during Mass today. We have started attending Mass in person as a family again. Our youngest son, in pre-pandemic days, was familiar enough with the routine that he could sit (fairly) quietly in his wheelchair through the entirety of the liturgy nearly every single week. These days, we are often doing laps in the narthex before Father reaches the homily. The tension is right there, staring the entire congregation in the face. We love Oscar so much that we want him to claim his place within the Body of Christ, to sit among the congregation exactly as he is. Which means: Restless. Sometimes vocal. Obsessed with spinning toys that occupy his hands...but also making a subtle shh-shh-shh as they move. He is a sign of contradiction. His needs are slightly inconvenient, and he belongs in that pew (the front one, on the left) right along with the rest of us.
We encourage Oscar to sit a little longer each week...which often means we sit there slightly longer than is comfortable, for him, for us, and especially for the people around us. But the needs of the community matter, too. Sometimes loving Oscar means knowing his limits, and taking the long walk to the back of the church. The same tension exists in other aspects of his life: at therapy, at home. We love Oscar exactly how he is--even if that’s refusing to stand up or throwing his cup across the room after he takes the last sip. And we love him enough to work, and work, and work some more, so that one day he might walk across the room for a hug or set his cup down gently to announce that he’s done.
As I said at the beginning, this balancing act is a trick necessary to all kinds of parenting. As with many parenting conundrums, though, it feels particularly acute for special needs parents. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking as the “end goal” as a place of ability, healing, and wholeness. That’s the default view of our ableist society, after all, and it takes time and constant practice to unlearn and deconstruct that mindset.
God loves you just as you are...and he sent his son to die for us all while we were still sinners, because he loved us too much to leave us there. We are called, likewise, to recognize this duality in our special needs children: their wholeness and goodness as individual children of God right now, and our vocation to train and encourage them to reach forward and forward, into new and different forms of organic wholeness.
Christy Wilkens, is wife to a tremendously patient and tender husband, Todd, and the mother of six tireless (no, seriously–tireless) children. They live in a tumbledown farmhouse on five unkempt acres. She drives a 12 passenger van and her family lives and breathes audiobooks. We fulfill every stereotype you have about orthodox Catholic homeschoolers. She blogs at Faithful, Not Successful.