When I was pregnant with Tate, people often showered me with advice: Get your sleep now; enjoy every minute because they grow up so fast; and your whole life is about to change.
When Tate arrived, I found the transition from woman to Mom to be both as I expected and nothing of what I expected. There were blowout diapers, long and sleepless nights, even longer days with seemingly endless nursing, standard “Mom worries,” and lots of questions. There were tiny toes, kisses, cuddles, and joy. There was also some sadness that accompanied this huge identity shift, especially on the long, lonely feeling days.
Tate’s birth was life changing; I now had this tiny life to consider in all of my decisions. But his birth was not plan changing. Generally, I was living out the version of motherhood I expected to find after pregnancy. While Tate’s birth brought sacrifice, it also didn’t. I changed, but I didn’t.
Then, Coral was born. Three days later her life crashed into mine, a tangible explosion of life’s unpredictability. Raw Motherhood wrapped me up: I watched new life sit on the edge of death; I saw my plans for the future disappear into a black hole; and I wondered (with guilt) not only about Coral’s future life but also about my own. Bare-naked Motherhood, exposing my every vulnerability and fear.
Over the past 18 months, raw Motherhood has taught me what years potentially could not: Having a child is not about fulfilling my life but rather about helping that child to be the best she can be. Coral’s life is not my life; it never has been. Completing my vision of motherhood is not her purpose. Rather, her intention is to live her own life.
Coral is Coral. She is not typical. She never will be. And that’s okay. She is living her life.
Motherhood whispered, “Let Coral be Coral.” Resist less. Accept more.
Letting Coral be Coral means letting others accept and grow their relationships with Coral in their own time, as they are ready. At times people may feel discomfort in their interactions with Coral and our family, but their discomfort is not my problem. When Coral is free to be herself, I give myself permission to release the discomfort of others- to be unaffected by their feelings and actions.
Letting Coral be Coral is releasing the developmental timeline for a “typical” child and embracing Coral’s incredible progress. There was a time when seeing Coral next to a “typically” developing baby of her same age was extremely painful. While it still may not be enjoyable (it is sometimes), it is manageable because I see the situation differently. There is nothing to compare. The “typical” child is developing as expected with few to no challenges to overcome, while Coral is jumping massive hurdles every single day. It may take weeks, months, or even years to get to the next milestone, but we see all of the accomplishments in between. Every tiny bit of progress is noted and celebrated grandly. It is truly a special experience to be given the opportunity to keenly and patiently observe the unfolding of Coral’s development.
Letting Coral be Coral is knowing that everything is not always black and white. There can be gray. Watching Coral learn and grow, I embrace the gray- that part in between the definitions of what should be. Just because Coral hasn’t done A and B, doesn’t mean she won’t do C. On several occasions I have seen her non-linear progression through typically linear skills. Recently, her teacher, Tom, and I noted that she purposefully says, “Mama” at specific times when she wants me. The other day she was sitting in her chair, ready to be done with the game we were playing. She looked up at me, made beautiful eye contact, reached her arms out and said, “Mama. Mama. Mama.” In typical language development, purposeful words follow an increased use of gestures- like pointing and waving “hi” and “bye”. Typically. She is not only on her own timeline, she is also on her own unique path.
Letting Coral be Coral means allowing there to be struggle and challenge in our family dynamic. As Coral’s ability to engage and attend has markedly improved, her relationship with Tate has blossomed. Daily, she looks at him, babbles to him, imitates very simple actions, and reaches out to him. It has taken significantly longer than in a typical sibling relationship for Tate to have the gift of this interaction with his sister. My heart explodes with joy each time I watch them. However, there are still times when Tate yearns for interaction that Coral does not reciprocate. Sometimes he will say, “Mom, I can’t get Coral’s attention.” I can see in his face the same pain I have felt at times in the past, and my heart breaks for him. But I can’t save him from this pain; throughout his whole life he will have to recognize and accept the difficult feelings and situations that arise in his role as a big brother to a very special little sister. If I rescue Tate now, he will not have the chance to develop resilience in the face of this adversity. Instead of “rescuing him,” I try to teach him the best strategies to use to engage with Coral– position himself just below her eye level, try singing to her, give her time to process and respond, or even hold one of her favorite toys close to his face. Struggle and challenge are not inherently negative; our family has the chance to control both our perception of and our response to these adversities.
Letting Coral be Coral means letting go of what I thought our family would look like to let our family be exactly how it is: Perfectly imperfect. When I am at the playground I watch as the kids run around freely, playing and laughing. I see their moms watching them closely, stealing a moment here and there to talk with each other. I realize that we have a lot in common with these families. We have strong family bonds. We have love. We have joy. We deal with expected parenting challenges and mild inconveniences. But I also I know we are not these families. In so many ways, our lives are fundamentally very different. We exchange opportunities for play dates and other activities for therapy and doctors’ appointments. We recognize that everything can change in an instant with Coral because we have already had that happen a couple of times; stability and comfort in our daily life is relative. We certainly face additional challenges, and at times we are exhausted in a way that few can understand. But our life is certainly not worse. There are times when people have told me how beautiful our family is; I used to think that they were just saying these words because they did not know what else to say. Now I realize many of these people see the authenticity in Coral and our family. We are neither the image nor the expectation society portrays of motherhood and family. We do not fit typical social media perfection. Our family’s beauty lies in its imperfection- in letting things be just as they are.
Motherhood did not choose me because “special kids go to special parents.” I was not special; I do not believe she chose anything. After Coral’s birth, Motherhood waited for me to choose that I can and I will, no matter the challenges or dramatic life changes it brings.
That is the thing about Motherhood. She will come at some point. She may sit quietly in the background for years, or she may arrive during pregnancy or at birth in the form of an unexpected event. It may be relatively minor (though possibly not felt as such), like disagreeing with an adult child’s major life decision; or it may be traumatic and immediately life changing- an illness, an accident, or an unexpected birth injury. Whatever it is, she will come. She will raise questions. She will bring discomfort. Ultimately, she will bring the opportunity to surrender to the unplanned path and to unconditional love.
It is hard for me to recall who I was before Coral was born, and it is even harder to imagine who I would be if everything had gone “as expected.” I genuinely do not want to be either of those people. Instead, I choose to surrender to this path- windy and bumpy, full of unknowns, full of imperfections, but also full of life.
Full of Motherhood.
Everyday I give thanks to God as I watch Coral grow and develop into the person she is meant to be- smiling, laughing, and probably doing some sensory seeking- as she leads us all on the journey of a lifetime.
“We must be willing to let go of the life we had planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”