With January just beginning, my thoughts turn to the clean canvas of a new year and ways I can make 2015 even better than the year that has just passed.
My resolutions, especially when it comes to being the mother of a child with autism, usually stem from a place of regret. I think about ways I could have worked harder to provide my son with what he needs, how I could have been a better advocate, and more useful ways I could be interacting with him.
It can feel exhausting, like nothing I do will ever be enough.
But there is something important that I tend to forget. And that is the perspective of gratitude, taking time to focus on and appreciate all the things that are working well.
It is all too easy to overlook accomplishments, something I had wanted for my son and worked toward, especially when they have already come to pass.
For example, the sheer pleasure of hearing my son’s voice.
When my son was about a year old, he had about three words in his vocabulary: “up,” “cookie,” and “more.” And then, as other worrisome symptoms became apparent, Noah’s words vanished. By the time he was eighteen months old he didn’t speak at all. We were fortunate enough to find an extremely talented behavior therapist, and a team of trainers, who worked with my son to develop his ability to imitate and learn. About a year later, I had a singularly amazing moment when we were standing in line at the post office. Noah looked at me and said “Mommy” for the first time ever.
Fast-forward four years, and my son was driving me crazy saying the same quotes from Winnie the Pooh videos over and over again. I complained to the same behavior therapist and she sympathized. And then she said, “Remember when you were afraid he would never talk again?”
I had forgotten! Her words helped me to connect with the sweet feeling of gratitude. My son’s repetitive talking was still annoying, but I could also acknowledge how far he had come from the time of his diagnosis.
Gratitude takes effort to cultivate. My mind so easily moves to pressing concerns and worries about the future. But I risk missing the many gifts surrounding me. Like the beautiful sight of my son’s incredible and ever-present smile. If I really take the time to think about that smile, I can feel the gratitude entering my body. There is a wonderful physical quality about it, a warmth that fills up my heart. From that place, I am better able to face whatever comes up in the day.
Just to be clear, the focus on gratitude isn’t about candy-coating difficulties. There are daily frustrations of raising my son, and I often feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or resentful. Accepting these difficult emotions, and getting validation from someone who understands, continues to be very valuable.
But giving gratitude equal time can turn merely surviving into thriving. Gratitude helps me remember that I am not alone, that I am supported by so many people, known and unknown, from talented therapists, academicians and teachers to other parents of children on the spectrum.
And gratitude helps me remember how far my son has come.
The truth is, just in this past year, amazing things came to pass. My son actually has a friend, a kid in his school! Their relationship is a bit of a mystery to me but they really seem to enjoy each other’s company. We also found a music teacher who is able to connect with my son as few people have, and I’ve been watching Noah’s gleeful voice emerge through his drumming.
So my big resolution this year, as Noah’s parent, and in all things, is to set aside more time for gratitude. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, perhaps five minutes. Focusing in on one specific thing I’m grateful for—like a kind word that a friend has said, or the fact that Noah didn’t need any prompts today to put on his shirt the correct way—creates a sense of lightness and ease. Gratitude helps me remember that I am supported, and that the possibilities for growth, my son’s and especially mine, are endless.