Maria Cunningham

Today was a big day at our house. Our oldest daughter Catie, was hired for her dream job … working in a bakery. For two long years she has been training and searching for this opportunity and it became real today! She will be working at a well-known, established bakery in our community, making cookies, cakes, pastries, breads, and more. I am so thrilled for her! The smile I got today, after the interview, was worth a million bucks.

Without knowing Catie, you might wonder, “What’s the big deal?”  A bakery job is nice, certainly, but not exactly spectacular. But for Catie it is. Catie is our twenty-two year old special needs child. For the past four years she bussed tables at our local grocery store’s café. At first, the thrill of her first job and first paycheck satisfied her. It didn’t take long, though, for the job to become dull and boring. Yes, she may be special needs, but she is very capable. And she loves a challenge. Challenge her, and Catie is happy.

Back up twenty years or so. Raising a child with special needs is like an unplanned adventure. It means traveling through a life’s worth of stages in a few short years– discovery, diagnosis, research, acceptance, IEPs, maneuvering the “system”, managing everyday life for your child, peer interaction. You name it. We’ve been there. I thought those early years were tough.

Little did I know, however, that years later I would wish them back. I longed for the days when Catie was a little girl, when her world was pretty much contained within our loving family. And she was content with that.

As she got older, her desire to venture out and navigate the world on her own became greater.  She watched her next sibling in line, her brother, get his driver’s license, head to college, have a girl friend, and see the world as a midshipman at the Naval Academy.  Then her younger sisters started creeping ahead of her in social skills, peer relationships, social engagements, and teenage fun. Intentional or not, their successes intimidated Catie. No longer were my reassurances--about how special and capable she was--enough. She craved independence.

Yes, we want all of our kids to be independent. But with a special needs child, independence can be a very scary thing (for the parent as well as the child). Independence opens up a Pandora’s box of new challenges and worries. The fears are big ones! We know how vulnerable, naïve, and innocent our children are. We know how dangerous the world can be for a person who trusts everyone. Like Catie.  If you smile at Catie, you are her friend.  Her heart is that big! 

So how, then, how do we allow them to navigate the world - to aspire to independence? Books on the subject are scarce. And it’s hard to find parents who can relate to the same situation. The resources for support are very limited.

The short answer: we have to let them try. We have to let them stumble and fall. Holding them back because of our fears is not right.

Letting Catie go out into the world means that my ability to “control” her world is no longer there. It means that she rides public transportation, interacts with strangers and goes to the movies without me. It means that she handles her own money, without me counting the change or second-guessing the purchases. It means attending overnight Special Olympic trips on her own and going to work alone. It means letting Catie go on her first date with her Special Olympics riding buddy (his dad chaperoned … another great story!). But again, without me. It even means letting Catie handle the jokes and nasty comments that come her way, without me there to protect her. It means letting go and letting Catie test her independence. And above all, it means placing all my trust in the good Lord to protect my daughter.

I will never forget the day she was accepted into a chef’s training program for the handicapped at the Crystal City Regency Hyatt, near Washington, D.C. Of course I was excited for her. But really all I could think about was her need to use public transportation to get there. My husband and I rode the Metro with her numerous times for practice. I can still feel the fear I had the first day she did it on her own. Watching her board the subway and seeing the doors shut behind her was gut wrenching. It was up to her guardian angel now! Waiting for her promised phone call, to tell me she had made it okay, seemed like an eternity. But it came! She made it to work alone!

And next week she will walk into her new job, confident and with a smile on her face. I have no doubt she will exceed their expectations! It’s clear that letting go has meant letting Catie grow. She truly is becoming independent, but in her own time. I am so proud of her!

Topics: Family , Motherhood , Personal Growth , Special Needs

Maria Cunningham lives in Fairfax, Virginia with her husband Chuck, and their ten children.   Maria provides a look into her life as a "mom-of-many" at her blog Home Sweet Heart.

View all articles by Maria Cunningham

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January 29, 2015

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