No one has ever used the term optimist to describe me. It’s just not in my nature. I find it less stressful to be surprised when something good happens, than devastated by the alternative. It suits me to anticipate and rehearse for disaster...because then it’s increasingly blue skies from there. I’ve tried to change my ways over the years, reading books on positive thinking and attitudes of gratitude. Either I’m really bad at it, or it just doesn’t work—for me at least. However, it’s a subject I keep exploring, because I want to be optimistic. I want to be one of those “glass half full” kinds of people.
Having a child with severe disabilities has really nurtured my pessimistic side, feeding its commodious jaws with no’s and can’t’s and never’s. Sure, good things have happened, too. Perhaps the most obvious good thing is that despite my daughter’s intense and extensive challenges, she is happy.....most of the time. She weathers the limitations and challenges in her life with a grace and dignity that I don’t think many people could muster.
Another good thing is that we’ve been able to access some form of services since Lauren was small, although making those necessary connections was not, nor currently is, easy. As Lauren has aged and her needs have increased, obtaining and navigating necessary supports has become an additional challenge, overshadowed by dashed expectations of the altruism of the world around us. But acknowledging that these good things have softened the sharp edges of years past is insufficient to change this pessimist into an optimist about the future.
My lack of optimism is nurtured by the inadequacies of the current support systems and resources which are so vital to Lauren’s survival. It is sustained by the ever-present threats to the viability and stability of those systems and resources in the future. My resistance to pessimism has been depleted by the many days in the past that have held problems, warnings of probable problems, and advisories of potential problems. Those days have been so numerous that they represent the norm rather than the exception. And, while I’m dealing with a problem or struggling to find a way to protect Lauren from the next impending menace, I’m hearing from other parents, with their own issues, with their own continuing dilemmas and obstacles in trying to care for their children.
This week, a mother called looking for help in understanding changes in the adult service system and how they will help with, or hurt, the supports her son needs. The inadequate case manager has not been able to provide answers to those questions or even explain the changes to her. The dad told me he comes home to his wife in frustrated tears almost every night as they struggle to meet their son’s significant care needs. On Facebook, I read an imploring post from a mother who cannot find nurses to provide the care her severely disabled, medically fragile daughter needs. In desperation, she was reaching out to a network of other parents. She shared, “After 21, EVERYTHING is a fight.” Another mom, whose son has been living successfully in a carefully crafted community living arrangement for over seven years, told me that the funding for her son’s housing had suddenly been cancelled without measures to assure his well being or the development of an acceptable alternative to maintain his hard won stability. A few years ago, the state used her son’s arrangement as a model for other families to consider. Now they are changing the rules.
These are parents on the edge. These are parents in their sixties and seventies, still struggling to assure that their children get the care they need while dealing with the various and sundry other issues that everyday life has thrown at them. These are often parents who have left behind all vestiges of their own dreams to cling to the remnants of an alternate dream of simply assuring safety and stability in their child’s adult life. These are parents who see the dark unknown of the end of their own lives looming ahead without the security that they have done enough, enough to pave the way ahead for their vulnerable children.
Can parents wearily stagger into the adult years with our children with severe disabilities and actually be capable of looking to tomorrow with optimism? Apprehension and frustration, sadness and constant vigilance accompany our parenting uninterrupted from childhood into the years when most other parents have evolved into a far different parenting role. Can the lifelong companions of worry and strife, and the additional dread of what threat each new day may lay at your child’s feet, allow for any sense of optimism that tomorrow will be different? Perhaps.... if the memories of anguish and obstacles were not so very memorable, so firmly entrenched, and so frequently reinforced. As I shared in Special Needs, “Like a blackboard washed free of not only the words scrawled on its surface but even the dusty remains of past phrases, I wish I could wash away the remnants of struggles and failures, leaving open a space for a future uninformed by the weighty history of things painful to remember.”
I don’t want to presume that everyone thinks like I do or is having a parallel experience of raising their child. But I talk to a lot of parents of children with severe disabilities, and it is very rare to find a parent—I can’t even think of one right now—who doesn’t suffer from the post-traumatic stress of raising their child to the present day magnified by abject fear for their future.
In addition, our journey is taking place in a hard world to be optimistic in right now. So many of the individuals who have sought the role of public servant, with assurances of wise and dutiful stewardship of our trust, have seemingly forgotten their promises in the quest for power and in self-interest. Each day we open our morning newspapers to find headlines revealing hate, intolerance, and greed. Stories of good people doing good things are relegated to back pages and smaller print. The whole world seems bent on preserving the “us versus them” mentality within which individuals with developmental disabilities have for so long been counted among the “them” and persistently undervalued.
Yet within this dark cloud of pessimism, truly remarkable parents endure and persevere despite their experiences. Many have shared with me the expectation that the things that threaten our children’s well being will probably not improve in time for our children to reap the benefits, but they unfailingly also believe that things could change.....an important and unexpectedly optimistic distinction. This faith in the possible is reflected in a quote about optimism by filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro , “Optimism is our instinct to inhale while suffocating. Our need to declare what needs to be in the face of what is.”
Perhaps it really does come down to the decision to take the next breath, because sometimes, the involuntary nature of our breathing is not enough. And, I like the second phrase “Our need to declare what needs to be in the face of what is.” Possibly it is all of those optimistic people that have come before us, who have been able to “declare what needs to be”, who have left room for some optimism that there could be a way where there seems to be no way. Those optimists - the parents, the policymakers, the advocates, the individuals - have cleared the path from isolation and institutionalization to the wisps of community inclusiveness and opportunity that show promise, but have yet to coalesce into guaranteed reality.
So, maybe, despite my pessimistic nature, the question I should ask is not--Are we parents of children with severe developmental disabilities capable of looking to the future with optimism?— but rather--Can we dare not? We simply don’t have the choice of giving in to the exhaustion and the often battle-laden experience of caring for our adult children. I know that for Lauren’s sake, yes and for my own sanity, I must marshal the faith that she will have who and what she needs in her life tomorrow and each day after that. I cannot bear to envision Lauren without the care and compassion she requires, unable to ask for even the extraordinarily simple things that makes her life livable—her favorite music, her food prepared the way she likes it, to sit outside on a sunny day and feel the breeze on her face. So it’s imperative that I find a way to look to the future hopeful for what could be and to continue working on being the optimist I find it so hard to be.
is the author of Special Needs: A Daughter's Disability, A Mother's Mission. Gail is an accomplished advocate and writer in the field of developmental disabilities and Mom to Lauren, a young woman endeavoring to lead her best life despite severe challenges.