Hello fellow families of magnificent children who happen to have a diagnosis of cortical visual impairment,
I had the opportunity to speak to a group of families with children (ages birth to 7) who have vision loss at the Early Connections Conference at Perkins School for the Blind.
A few months ago, Education Director, Teri Turgeon wrote me and asked if I was game to come to the conference and speak. There may have been a moment of panic.
“What do you want me to say?” I asked her.
“Just tell your story,” she said.
This got me thinking. And over-thinking.
I have nearly 12 years of Eliza stories. Most often, I blurt them out at inopportune moments –
to E’s ABA therapists as they are collecting what they need before a session,
to GI nurses asking me for her health history,
to her school aide who just really wants to go to lunch. (And that is just this week.)
These are the people I see most frequently.
I realize as I get some perspective on this past decade or so, these stories have to be told. If only so I can get out from under them.
Here was an actual invitation to speak instead of someone politely nodding until I trail off…. Bliss!
Here’s the first half.
I am the mother of a child who received early intervention services. Which means that I am a mother who received early intervention services. These supports are as much or more for us than for our children. Even when your child “graduates” from EI, you’re always an early intervention mom. It’s a world we never knew existed until we needed it. I will always carry a debt of gratitude for the compassion and knowledge a team of women in two states brought into my house. Women who saw me at my most desperate and disheveled. Women who never once said, “Haven’t you been wearing those sweatpants for a week?”
I know firsthand how important early intervention is. It is critical to have intensive support at the beginning of your journey of becoming the parent of a child with special needs.
And, it is a becoming.
Becoming a parent changes you.
Becoming a parent of a child with vision loss and special needs changes you. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would have a chance to speak to a group of families like mine, I would have paid more attention, or tried to – as it was the sleep deprivation and worry nearly killed me – so, maybe not.
This is the 35th annual Early Connections Conference. Being here to celebrate Perkins’ commitment to the education and support of families like ours is an absolute joy for me.
When I thought about coming to speak to you, I thought about my own conference experiences. I’m usually sitting where you are trying write down every word. Because Eliza is a puzzle. She has multiple diagnoses but no definitive diagnosis as a cause for her issues, I’ve been to a lot of conferences trying to figure her out. I went to anything I could find on cortical visual impairment. I went to conferences on Cerebral Palsy, general special education and early childhood conferences. I was a conference groupie.
As life with Eliza unfolded, more complications occurred. We all got less sleep. Life became more stressful and – yes – complicated. (Complications make your life complicated. Mind blown.)
She was a puzzle. I was trying to find THE expert who could explain what was happening to us. Someone who could fix everything or SOMEthing. In spite of my best efforts, it slowly became apparent that this was not a possibility.
It was just really hard.
At the time, I thought if I just try harder, if we add one more therapy, if I read one more book or find one more specialist or go to one more conference – then I can help her learn how to bear weight on her legs, or sit up independently, or eat, or speak.
My thought process went like this: I have seen the movies! I can do this. All it takes it a plucky mom who never gives up. Right?
My experiences with conferences usually had one of the two following outcomes:
- Conferences where the speakers (either parents or self advocates or doctors) seemed to have everything together. They overcame challenges with a single bound and sheer dint of will. They held down full-time jobs as lawyers, saints, superheroes or supreme court justices, yet they still had time to do genetic research in their basements. And, this research solved their child’s (or their own) mysterious condition. THESE are the people Lifetime movies are made of.
- Conferences where a brilliant teacher or researcher knew what I needed to know – THE APPROACH I needed to learn. THE information that would improve my daughter’s quality of life. This teacher had all of 45 minutes to present, however, and I needed 3 to 5 years of mentoring/modeling in my home to understand it.
What’s worse, these presenters rudely refused my attempts to kidnap or clone them.
(I mean, what is a little hair sample between conference attendees? And, what if I had been able to kidnap or clone them? Now there’s your Lifetime movie right there, folks. We could even have been an HBO series. Maybe Dame Judy Dench or Tony Shalhoub would have played me. I’ve been watching Monk again recently. The man is a treasure.)
Either way, I would go into a conference bright eyed and hopeful. I’d see a few presentations. I would start to feel frustrated and overwhelmed. I’d slink away to a quiet spot somewhere to call my husband. I’d call (maybe crying a little bit) and tell him how much we don’t know, how much we aren’t doing, how I am failing as a parent and a human being, how everyone else gets it and I just don’t and what’s wrong with me, what’s wrong with you that you married me – you get the drift.
After listening as patiently as possible, Robb would inevitably threaten to change the locks on our front door if I continued to go to conferences as a form of self-punishment.
This is fair. (Uncool, but fair.)
It was just that – to me – it felt as though everyone else knew what they were doing. If I could just learn what THAT was, our lives would run smoother, my daughter would make more progress faster and easier, maybe we’d sleep a little. What was I doing wrong?
While the problem surely wasn’t with the events or presenters, it was with me, I still felt isolated and incompetent.
The Early Connections Conference has a lot of support to offer. I wanted my presentation to be a positive experience for any other conference groupies.
To be clear, I am no expert on anything. And, I don’t have time to be kidnapped. We couldn’t afford the ransom; we have a kid with special needs.
I may never again get the chance to address a crowd of parents who are just where I was a decade or so ago.
What would I want someone to say to me?
Image: A woman who hasn’t slept in 18 months smiles wearily at the camera. She is holding the hand of her blond toddler in glasses. The toddler leans up against her.
HEY YOU. Yes, you – the tired woman leaning against the counter in a dark kitchen cramming Baked Lays into your mouth at 3 a.m. You are standing in the dark, staring straight ahead, seeing nothing. You hope chewing will drown out the sound of your baby screaming upstairs. You just came down to take a break. You’ve been trying to console her for half an hour, 2 hours, 4 hours – depends on the night. You are beyond exhausted. You are numb. Wrung out. The only thing that makes sense is chewing fistfuls of chips and remembering to breathe.
You aren’t thinking straight, so may I suggest taking a shower? You haven’t had one in 3 days. Believe me, she will still be screaming when you get out.
You are numb, but somewhere in a tiny corner in your mind where your emotions are stuffed, you are scared that this is what your life is going to be from now on. That you will never have a solid night of sleep again. You are worried and so scared. There is so much you don’t understand. You want to scream. Or, more accurately, if you had enough energy you would seriously consider it. At times, you are stunned that you can produce that many tears. But, you are past that right now. You are aching to find a quiet hole to crawl into but your worry and your love wouldn’t let you rest even if you did.
HEY YOU. You will get through this. You won’t be the same. That can be a good thing. There are many of us who have gotten through this. We have stories to tell. And so will you.
You will be a more vulnerable yet tougher (if that makes sense) version of yourself. You will laugh louder and take yourself far less seriously. Years of living outside your comfort zone will give you the gift of not caring what other people think. (You may even start a blog! How crazy is that?) Your kitchen floor will often be filthy. You just won’t care.
You will find yourself filled with so much gratitude for the kindness and patience bestowed on you and your girl on a daily basis.
You will find yourself with far less patience for incompetence, below average medical staff, and uninspired teachers.
You will be startled by the haggard woman in the mirror from time to time, but you know she is doing the best that she can.
You will learn that people really do help when they can. Sometimes they just can’t. Even when you ask. As a result, you will learn that you can hear the word “no” and – surprise – the world will not fall apart. You will be broken down and broken open – by life circumstances, by other people’s perspectives, by the enormity of the love you never imagined until you became a parent, and by the responsibility that goes along with it.
You will learn that you can take hit. You can take a hit, get back up and get on with it. You are stronger than you ever imagined. This is not a meme someone posted to make you feel better for 10 seconds. This is the reality of living through challenge after challenge and standing up to love and to try again the next day. That is your truth.
Yes, she is really is a complicated kid. When she was born, you moved right out of any comfort zone you had grown used to and into the perpetual discomfort of the unknown. Unknown diagnoses, unknown potential, unknown ability, no support group for your puzzle kid.
So, no, you are not doing it wrong. It is really hard. It is a lot to learn.
You will learn over time that kids with vision loss, especially CVI, are complicated. CVI does not stand alone. The population of children with vision loss has changed over the years. Thanks to advances in modern medicine, our premature babies, babies who have medical crises, and puzzle babies like Eliza, are surviving. These babies often have multiple diagnoses. They are surviving and thriving!
This is a cause for celebration (after we’ve all had a 2 year nap and some early intervention services. I am an optimist and a realist.)
Because of this, however, we are all running to catch up to their needs – to learn how they communicate, how they learn, how to help them see.
And, NO, she doesn’t sleep! (Have I mentioned that before?) And, yes, that stinks. It is cruel and unusual.
It is overwhelming.
(A piece of advice: You know how they say don’t make any major life decisions when you are in crisis?
Don’t go to the hairdresser on a whim and ask for something completely different. Just don’t. You WILL end up with orange hair and it WILL NOT “compliment your complexion” no matter what anyone says. They are just saying that because you’ve been wearing the same sweatpants for 4 days and they feel sorry for you.
It had to be said.)
HEY YOU. This girl.
Image: A blue eyed baby wearing a bib with pink flowers stares into the camera.
She will bring the BEST people into your life. The. best. people.
There will be some crummy ones too, but they never stay long because she takes some work. We don’t have time for them anyway.
Life with her is intense. It is real. It can be boring. It can change on a dime. You will get better at this. It will still be difficult some days. Being a parent is difficult some days, period. It is not for sissies.
Image: A chubby cheeked baby reclines in a blue bouncy chair
She finds joy in the places you forgot to look.
Be with her. Learn from her. The bond you establish with her now just by being present and loving her unconditionally is the foundation to every future success.
And, the best part is that this is the best part! It is supposed to easy. It is.
There is no doubt that therapy is important. Doctor’s visits are important. Second and third opinions are important,
Remember that day when the OT cancelled? It was in the summer when Eliza wasn’t even a year old and Anna Cady was a curly haired toddler? You were relieved when the appointment was cancelled. For a moment, THE schedule lifted. The OT, PT, Development Therapy, the vision lady who came but didn’t understand CVI. For a moment, it all just stopped.
Image: Bright blue sky with white clouds
On that afternoon you took a blanket out in the backyard. You and the girls stretched out on the blanket. The grass was cool on your feet in the shade of the jacaranda tree in full fuschia bloom. You and Anna Cady looked up at the sky and watched the clouds drift by. Eliza didn’t see the clouds, but she was lying between two of her favorite people. She felt a warm breeze on her face. She smelled the blossoms. She heard your voices as you giggled and pointed out the shapes of animals shifting in the clouds above. She was included. It was simple and fun. Just the three of you enjoying each other’s company.
DO THAT MORE. Do not take any of this for granted. Slow down, sister. This time is so important. Enjoy her. Let her enjoy you. There is more to see here if you take the time to look. You don’t have to do all the time. She is who she is. Let her show you who she is.
Image: Two little girls, a bald blue eyed grinning baby and a wide eyed toddler smiles for the camera.
She is not broken. You are, a little bit. She loves you in spite of your broken parts. She and her sister will help you put them back together again in ways you never imagined.
That is what I would say to my 10 years ago self.
Thank you for indulging me.