Sitting on the couch with my chronically lukewarm coffee, I looked down at two matters that required my immediate attention. The first was some food source of unknown origin plastered across my new outfit. The second was my sixteen-month-old twins forcefully pushing themselves into the play circle taking place on the rug in front of me.
At the same time, my almost three-year-old son, Ethan, was struggling to pass an assessment that would tell us how much progress he had made over the last year. That’s when I heard the words I’d been thinking for a long time but just hadn’t had the fortitude to utter. They were coming from a stranger who smilingly whispered, “I always forget that developmentally average toddlers can complete these tests so quickly.”
As she said it, I watched the twins breezily finish the same tasks that my son couldn’t. Tears unexpectedly flooded my eyes. I jumped up and muttered, “Sorry, they’re probably in your way.” Hiding my face, I picked the girls up and placed them in the opposite corner of the room.
Once the twins were distracted with book reading—or in their case, ripping the book in half and calling it educational enlightenment—I returned my focus to Ethan. Now that those words had been spoken by an outside observer, I felt the reality sink in a little deeper that we were in for a very demanding journey.
Ethan started out developmentally exceptional. He was army crawling by four months. He said his first words by five months. He was walking by ten months. But by twelve months, we started to notice something was not quite right with his development.
After six months of working closely with his doctors and therapists, we finally received a diagnosis. I felt myself going into a spiral with all of the unknowns ahead of us. After, I was handed developmental checklists to fill out at every appointment. With my other kids, I had proudly filled them out like certificates of accomplishment. Now it just seemed like these forms were throwing Ethan’s lack of growth in my face.
The next year was a whirlwind. I questioned everything. Every time Ethan was frustrated, I became frustrated, because I felt like my responses to his issues were always inadequate. Everything I did to try to understand him or prevent a tantrum appeared to cause him to take a step back from the next developmental milestone.
I began to feel like a failure in every way as a parent. The more work I put into helping him, the worse the situation got. It wasn’t until I had reached my lowest level of parenting confidence that I had my own unexpected growth. It was prompted by such a simple thing—a glass of juice.
Ethan hadn’t slept in days, and therefore I hadn’t slept in days. Nothing had gone right all morning, but he was always good for a glass of juice, so I decided to give it a try. As I handed it to him, I accidentally touched the rim of the cup. That, unfortunately, was enough to send him into a tailspin. The glass flew into the air, crashed mercilessly down to the ground, and splattered juice all over me.
My usual impulse would have been to try to prevent further disaster by jumping into action. I would try to force “what’s wrong” answers out of him, or I’d panic and start cleaning up the mess. But in this moment, feeling so hopeless, I just reached over for Ethan, who was screaming on the ground. I rested my face on the top of his head, hugged him, and said, “I love you, Ethan. You are special and you are perfect.”
I felt such a sense of peace and relief. Choosing to love more instead of defaulting to fix-it mode was exactly what we both needed at that moment. Ethan reached up his little arms and, for once, hugged me back.
With those words, I finally realized that a large part of my daily stress was coming not from Ethan’s slow development, but from my obsession with his development.
With my other kids, I spent so much time rejoicing in their speech accomplishments or recently developed good table manners that I began to evaluate my parental performance by my ability to check off their developmental boxes. Well, Ethan doesn’t follow the list. In fact, we’ve been staring at the same developmental milestones paper for over a year.
Ethan has taught me that, try as I may, who my child is and how he develops is mostly out of my hands. As Ethan has so clearly demonstrated, children are born with their own little roadmaps. At the end of the day, when our little ones stumble, we have two options: to feel frustrated, like we didn’t do enough, or just to love more. When I choose the more loving response, I find that my children show more love in return.
So, thank you, Ethan, for reminding me of the most important lesson of all: that our first step should always be one of love, especially when the answer seems unclear and we feel powerless to make a change.
As St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “It is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the doing. It is not how much we give, but how much love we put in the giving.” This kind of loving action will help us on our journey to becoming great parents.