When I became pregnant with my only child, now a three-and-a-half-year-old boy, there was something I sought to avoid like the plague: parenting books.
I was not exceedingly confident in my own parenting abilities, but I doubted the quality of the advice I could gain from others. Nevertheless, as my husband, a U.S. Air Force veteran, is always telling me, “No strategy survives first contact with the enemy,” or in this case, the baby. A month or so into parenthood, I began reading parenting books.
The authors of these books possessed all the confidence I lacked. One was certain I could keep my baby calm by following his five-step plan. Babies in rural Africa never have colic, he assured me. Another author believed in the superiority of French parenting. If you feed your baby vegetables first, they will soon be eating five course meals like French children, she promised. Then there was the author who was certain that a specific three-month period was the perfect time for children to potty train, and any failure to do so within this magical time frame would lead to disaster. I stopped reading the book before I discovered which nation has babies with perfect poop.
As our son grew older, my husband and I grappled with the issue of discipline. Despite our best efforts, he did not seem to change his behavior in response to our instruction. When we explained to him, “If you eat this, you will get that,” it had no effect. When we told him, “If you do that, you don’t get to watch Peppa Pig,” there was a similar lack of reaction. Frustrated, I began reading a parenting book written by a Christian for Christians. My son’s failures to obey, the author assured me, were due to his sinful nature. Every time he threw his milk on the floor, it was an act of rebellion against divinely appointed authority. Every time he failed to “come back” when instructed, it was evidence that he was turning his back not on me, but God.
But there was a possibility the author neglected to mention: my son might not be responding to my instruction because he literally could not understand the words coming out of my mouth. Nor did the book suggest the reason my son could not sit still for any length of time might be that he has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
As my son grew older and his developmental deficiencies became clear, I came to realize through painful experience what had been less clear in theory: even in the twenty-first century, the church has little sense of what to tell parents whose children have disabilities.
There is no Olympics of Suffering
There are certain childhood difficulties that Christians tend to be good at acknowledging. If a child dies at age five, for instance, the congregation is likely to rally around the family. Even those who have not experienced such pain can personally appreciate such an tragedy as horrific. If a child is born with Down’s Syndrome, or microcephaly, or a heart problem, we know the family will need support throughout that child’s life, even if and wehn we fail to properly give it.
In fact, we often highlight children with severe disabilities as proof of the sanctity of human life. In an age where certain conditions can be predicted early in a pregnancy, and most babies with severe genetic abnormalities are subjected to abortion, there is a sense that we must highlight the bravery of those who choose life. Nearly everyone understands that a child with muscular dystrophy or spina bifida must be treated with care, compassion, and sensitivity.
But what about children like my son? In many ways, he is perfectly healthy and happy, but he has deficiencies in language and social skills due to as-yet-undiagnosed factors. He is not exactly “normal” and cannot do some of the things children his age usually do. Yet, he is not as severely disabled as others. His developmental struggles were revealed gradually, not in a dramatic announcement the day he was born. My husband and I have found this places us in an odd kind of limbo where many people respond in ways that are not entirely helpful.
“Don’t worry. He’ll talk eventually.” How many times have I heard that platitude? I used to say similar things to other parents: “Sure, you want them to talk now, but once they start, you’ll be begging them to stop.” For many parents, the saying holds true, even if their child initially has difficulties. Some parents with whom I have shared details of our situation assure me, “When my child started speech therapy, their language exploded right away,” or, “As soon as we gave them proper time to socialize, they were fine,” or, “They were just too afraid to say the wrong thing, but pretty soon they started talking in perfect sentences.” This is indeed what happens for many children. It is not what has happened for our child.
“It could be so much worse.” That is what other people tell me. “At least your child is healthy.” I have heard it many times, as if the possibility that my son will never be able to attend college, hold most professions, or have a family of his own is a thing of no consequence. (We hope for a better outcome but cannot be certain.) I heartily acknowledge there are families in worse positions than ours. I am grateful for the countless ways God has blessed our son. But as I am fond of saying, there is no Olympics of Suffering.
The fact that another child is suffering more than our child does not mean our child is not suffering, and it certainly does not mean we are not suffering. I sincerely doubt any parent has felt significantly better about their child’s situation after being told, “It could be worse.” If the Holocaust is the standard for suffering worth lamenting, few of us will ever be allowed to cry.
And yet, Jesus wept. And yet, he weeps with us.
The Gospel for Helpless Parents
What most of these well-intentioned people do not realize is how much this issue is eating away at our spirits. We cling to each other as we take our son to appointment after appointment. We share in each other’s pain as we fail again and again to convince our son, who is due to start preschool in less than a month, to reply to the simple question, “What is your name?
All my life, I have heard people say that if a child is acting out in some way, it is because the parents have not properly disciplined him or her. “If only they would learn to tell him no.” But I have told him no. “If only they would refuse him food until he eats the healthy stuff.” Tried and failed.
My husband and I are reasonably intelligent people and have done enough research to put PhD candidates to shame, but we are helpless—yes, utterly helpless against whatever is afflicting our son. Part of me wishes that was not the case. If something I am doing is the problem, I can simply change my behavior, and my son will say, “I love you, mommy.” I could do more and try harder, and perhaps his future would be bright.
I have certainly blamed myself. I look at how “perfectly” other children are behaving, and I hear the whisper in my mind: “You are a failure as a mother. This is all your fault.” I am plagued by embarrassment every time I must explain to a nursery worker that my son will be a difficult charge, and then I feel ashamed of my embarrassment. So the cycle of shame continues, until I remember these are lies of the devil. Always, he uses God’s law as a club, trying to convince me that if I just do this, that, and the other thing, God will be pleased with me. In fact, God is already pleased with me.
The gospel tells me that the revelation of weakness in myself, my husband, and my son is the occasion for the revelation of God’s strength.
For it was not on account of my sin or that of my son that he is having this struggle. No medical professional with whom we have spoken has found a serious defect in my husband’s and my parenting decisions. We do not have a son with a developmental delay because we are bad parents. If anything, God brought this precious boy into our home because he knew it was a place where he would be loved for who he is and given the extra resources he needs.
The gospel tells me that the revelation of weakness in myself, my husband, and my son is the occasion for the revelation of God’s strength. It tells me that I cannot do it, but he can. I cannot heal my son, but he can. I can never be righteous, but he gives me his righteousness. It tells me even the dead will be raised to life.
God has not called my husband and me to do the impossible. He simply calls us to be faithful: to be conduits of his love and love our son with the love that he first lavished on us. Therefore, I daily recite Scripture to my son, even though he cannot comprehend it, believing that in the Word of God there is a power that will not return void. I tell him I love him, even if he does not understand. I give him to the Lord in prayer, knowing that only in those Almighty hands will my son be secure.
What parents like me need is the same thing every parent needs: the gospel.