I am a huge planner. My life is organized around lists, schedules and calendars, and I don’t like surprises. Just one year ago, in January 2013, I was told, “Your child has autism.” My beautiful 3-year-old little boy had what I thought was a horrible, scary disorder. My life could never be the same. For the next few months, I felt an incredible sense of shock, anger and grief. How could this be happening to me? I was a good mother. I stayed away from chemicals and non-organic spinach. I planned everything. But I had not planned for this.
Talmud Kiddushin 29a teaches us: “Parents have the following obligations toward their children: to circumcise them (boys only, of course!), to teach them Torah, to find them a husband or wife, and to teach them a craft or trade. And there are some that say a parent must also teach them how to swim.” In essence, Judaism asks us to educate and introduce our children to Jewish tradition and help them build the skills they will need to create meaningful lives. The addition of swimming is also significant. At first, when a child learns to swim, we promise to hold tight! But slowly, over time, we loosen our grip and lean back. Finally, we actually let go.
Letting go is especially hard for parents of children with disabilities. In some ways, we feel our children are more vulnerable, more in need of our protection and care. However, at the same time, very quickly, parents of special needs children must let go of certain expectations and preconceived ideas. We must let other people with a variety of expertise help, as they tell us what our children need and how we should be parenting. Of course, each of us wants our children to learn how to swim and to be independent, but we also fear that moment of opening our arms and watching them move through the water without us. Can they actually do it? Will they ever swim independently (as some won’t or can’t)? Will our community protect and cherish our children as much as we have?
In my case, what followed my son’s diagnosis was a year of doctors, ABA (applied behavior analysis), new schools, new people and new communities. We struggled with which opinions to trust and which to discard. I stopped speaking to a long-time “friend” who did not invite my child to her child’s birthday party under the caring excuse that it wouldn’t be a “good” environment for him. Out of all of them, that incident truly caused me pain.
I am always working on that delicate balancing act of holding tight and letting go. This year, I let go of the idea that life would be perfect and of what I had envisioned when my child was born. However, I hold close the incredible joy and pride I take in every achievement and every new skill. I let go of my original vision for my son’s Jewish education. I hold close the many Jewish professionals who with care and compassion helped me create meaningful Jewish connections without Jewish preschool. This year, I let go, and for the first time ever, stopped worrying so much about the “big things.” Instead, I hold the little things close. And these little things truly bring me joy: new friends, a great support system, eating non-organic spinach and, yes, teaching my son (not too quickly!) how to swim.
Rabbi Allison Berry is the associate rabbi and director of congregational learning at Temple Shalom in Newton. She is passionate about working with interfaith families and creating meaningful Jewish community and learning for families with young children. When not at Temple Shalom, Allison can be found escorting her two favorite little boys, Micah and Zachary, to swimming lessons.