Not long after my son Will was diagnosed with autism just shy of his second birthday, someone sent me this little bit of prose called “Welcome to Holland.” It basically equates having a special-needs child to having your travel plans messed up. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait.
(Insert favorite muzak here.)
Done? Ok. So, when I first read “Welcome to Holland,” our whole household was in crisis. About to have Baby #2 (aka: Julia), we were grasping at straws, looking for any kind of comfort or hope or promise that there was some light at the end of this tunnel. No, not even that. I was just looking for someone to tell me we were truly in a tunnel and not, as I feared, in an inescapable abyss. In that desperate state, “Welcome to Holland” seemed like a really nice little anecdote. I thought it had been written by a parent of a child with autism (I was wrong), and I took her words to mean that things do get better with time and acceptance (I was right).
So, time passed, and my feelings on this changed. And by “time,” I mean about three weeks. And by “changed,” I mean that when I reread the Holland story, I thought something along the lines of, “Screw Holland. This story is a complete load of minimalizing crap.” From then on, whenever anybody started recommending I read this very lovely bit of Pollyanna-style, all-things-happen-for-a-reason, the-world-is-made-of-marshmallows, illogical bullshit, I simply declined. Pressed for my opinion on the essay, I said it reminded me of a religious answer to a scientific question: it sounds really nice and makes sense…if you don’t really think about it too hard.
Will is six now, and the other day, “Welcome to Holland” was making yet another of its periodic rounds in my social media circle. Many of the respondents were citing a preference for yet another essay, one I hadn’t read, called “Holland Schmolland.” So I looked it up, wondering what the popular counter-argument was to the insulin-requiring, yet well-intentioned, schmaltz of the first piece.
(This is the part where you go read the second essay and I facetiously joke that I’ll wait while you do so.)
Now, see, I like that one a lot more, and I’ll tell you why: I actually live in Schmolland. I have a kid who occasionally licks restaurant windows and won’t eat a bite if any food drips on his pants and doesn’t really speak but somehow manages to sing along with his iPod and parrot movie lines by heart. I have a kid who might just strip naked in the middle of therapy and who shreds so much newspaper that I’ve started cleaning his bedroom floor with a rake. I have a kid who eats a half-dozen foods, will only drink out of specific cups, and has a remarkable ability to synchronize his favorite movies on two iPods at once. This is what it’s like in Schmolland.
For those of you who ignored the links and didn’t read either essay (slackers!), here’s the deal: The premise in the Holland story is that although you’ve essentially spent your life planning to go to Italy (being a parent), you wind up in Holland (being a special-needs parent). Other people come and go, visiting Italy and telling you all about their Italian adventures (kids), but you absolutely cannot go to Italy (or anywhere else for that matter). You live forever among the Dutch and slowly realize that Holland is actually a really nice place with pretty windmills and funky shoes. It’s not better or worse than Italy, just different and not what you’d planned. A happy accident, if you will.
Now, if I’d written it, I’d have added a bit about their Sinterklaas story a la David Sedaris, but that’s just me. But I wouldn’t have written it, because there’s one gigantic, inherent flaw in the otherwise still really lame analogy: if going to Holland meant having a child with autism, no one would voluntarily go there. And frankly, anyone who accidentally landed there would hijack the plane to get to Italy because no matter how pretty parts of Holland can be, no one, absolutely no one, wants their child to be Dutch.
The Schmolland story is more on target. Yes, being a special-needs parent is a bit like living in a strange country, but only in the sense that you are a bit of an unwelcome foreigner who, for some reason, cannot assimilate no matter what and thus must bear the scorn and ridicule of the natives who, never having met a foreigner before, simply cannot understand why you don’t speak the language. Schmolland isn’t a horrible place, but it’s not Italy. In fact, it’s kind of nice sometimes, but it’s tempered enjoyment, kind of like enjoying the sun on a secluded beach and forgetting for a moment that you’re stranded on a desert island.
Ultimately, neither analogy really works. There is no metaphor for being a parent whose child has autism because we celebrate toddler milestones at six, go it alone where others seem to have a village, and take our joy where we can find it. It’s as nonsensical as constantly trying to learn a language that doesn’t exist. But that’s love, and we love our kids with our broken hearts every moment of every day.