“It’s not supposed to be like this!!!” I heard the voice in my head say over and over. “I did not ask to raise four children by myself! This was not part of the plan!!!”
I was sitting outside a large conference room at my youngest child’s school. Matthew was in 8th grade and his behavioral problems had gotten so challenging that the school psychologist had called me in for a conference. Now, I had been to many parent teacher conferences in the past, but this time was different. This conference included all his teachers, and they had been asked to come in at the same time. To sit down with me and discuss my son’s behaviors at school, and develop a plan that would help Matthew in his daily life at Westwood Middle School. The school nurse would also be there, and the discussion would involve placing my son in “Special Education” due to his behaviors.
I had known this would be coming. And while I had always wanted the best for my son, I also knew too well how cruel children could be to the other children that were in special education. I knew about the labels these children had to live with. How they were not accepted the way “normal” children were. And I did not want Matthew to be labeled. But I also had to acknowledge the fact that Matthew needed help.
So as I sat outside the conference room that afternoon, waiting for all of Matthew’s teachers to show up, the thoughts kept racing through my mind. “ It’s not fair! Why me? Why my son? Why do I have to go through this alone?? Why did my child have to struggle so much??? Why? Why?”
The teachers all arrived, and the school psychologist called me in. It was a large room with a large conference table. All Matthew’s teachers were sitting around the table. The discussion began with introductions. Around the table they went, none of the names sticking in my memory. I can’t recall a time when I felt more alone. I was fighting back the tears.
After the introductions, the psychologist read the synopsis of Matthew’s life to the group. He read out loud the sad story of Matthew’s short life thus far. How his father had abandoned him. How we had gone through a house fire, how he had difficulty socializing with his peers and had no close friends. How he would sometimes need to go see the school nurse because of his panic attacks. How sometimes he would completely shut down. He discussed his hygiene, his home life, and that he was a product of a single parent household. He read about how Matthew had difficulty articulating his emotions, and would act out inappropriately.
Now I had learned to hang tough through many challenges in my life. I had developed a pretty good poker face. I knew how to stick my chin out and suck it up. But this time was different. This time I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
As I sat there and listened to the story, and as I sat there and listened to the teachers tell me the challenges that they were facing with Matthew in their classrooms, I could not stop the tears from streaming down my face. There was no wall to hide behind. My life, my pain, and the pain of my son were right out there in the open, spoken in words of others, written down on paper for all the world to see. And I sat there alone. So very very alone.
I was given a box of Kleenex by someone. I could not look up to see who it was. As the teachers went around the table, reaing their own experiences with Matthew, I knew I had to let go. This was bigger than me. Matthew needed help that I could not give him. I wasn’t there at school with him to calm him down. Matthew was getting older, and needed to develop coping skills that would help him for the rest of his life. And the teachers weren’t there to tell me I was horrible. They weren’t there to shame me or my son. The truth is they really liked Matthew, and they just wanted to help. They knew he had a good heart and that he was extremely intelligent. They knew with some extra support that he would excel, and they wanted to put a plan in place that would help him, not label him. And I knew the time had come.
After discussing the plan that they would implement, they called Matthew in. I could see the uncertainty in his look, and his alarm at my tears, but I assured him that everything was OK. The psychologist went over the plan with Matthew, and we all participated in how we could help. Matthew had his own set of goals, and as I left that conference, I was deeply affected by it. I was emotionally exhausted, and felt like a failure. Why did I always feel like such a failure?
Parenting truly is the most challenging job a person can face. There isn’t a cheering section on the sidelines clapping for your accomplishments. And when you are a single mom, there isn’t even a partner next to you to give you that extra support. You are all alone. You have to make huge decisions that you are often not equipped to make. The road is full of potholes and forks. And if you are like me, your biggest critic is yourself. No one is harder on me than I have been on myself.
But, there is a happy ending to this story, and Matthew did receive the help that he needed. No, he did not just magically change. It was years of work, but at the end of 8th grade he received the “Most Improved Student of the Year Award”. Last year he graduated from high school Cum Laude and received a full scholarship to our local college.
About two years after this conference, Matthew was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. It is a form of high functioning autism that is found in children. It helped me to understand his behaviors and not blame myself as much. He still has trouble socializing and connecting with his peers. But we are working on it. My prayer is that slowly but surely he will take his place in this world, as his own person, whoever that may be.
So, I could tell you not to be so hard on yourself. I could tell you that I learned not to. But that would be a lie. I am still extremely hard on myself. I have had to work to forgive myself. And it is a work in progress. It probably always will be.
All I can say is keep the faith. Through the toughest times, never give up. Never. Things change. And I still hang tough. But even when I feel like there is no where to hide, that there is nothing I can do, I still made it through. And so can you. So can you. You are not alone.
Written by Debbie Brown