Since becoming a parent over five years ago, I have received lots of asked-for and unsolicited advice on just about any child-rearing topic you can imagine.
Every parent experiences this at one point or another. When you have a child with special needs – my daughter Amelia is deaf and has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – there are unlimited opportunities for people to weigh in and give it their best shot.
Many observations are like little gems; I hold them between my hands, turning them over to feel their warmth and absorb the good vibes within. These ones are keepers for sure.
Others, however well-intentioned, delivered by experts or drawn from experience, miss their mark, creating only harsh notes as they glance my shoulder and crash to the ground.
However surplus to requirements these opinions are, I still find myself carefully turning a few of them over in my often stressed-out brain.
This isn’t always a negative or masochistic process. It can be incredibly empowering to drag up some old advice handed to you about your life and see with increasing clarity just how misplaced it was and remains still.
One special example of this springs to mind, and it seems to grow in meaning to me the more I think about it.
The gap between my experience and this particular (I guess well-meant) remark has stretched so far apart you could fit the Pacific Ocean between the places we’re coming from.
It happened during a conversation I had with someone soon after Amelia’s ASD diagnosis was formally confirmed. We had spent many weekends going back and forth to a clinical psychologist and the results, which surprised no-one, were in.
Mostly what I hoped for from people was a simple acknowledgement of the news, and perhaps in that a sort of agreement would be forged among those closely connected to Amelia that we shared the same aims. To help her. To make things better.
That’s my personal definition of support. We confront a problem, give it a name and then we portion it out, dissect it and work out the best way to move forward.
But not everyone approaches life this way. I’d begun saying to this person that I was feeling sad for Amelia about her diagnosis but that I thought we could now help her through treatment, but they stopped me and said, “oh you don’t need all of these LABELS, you just need to LOVE HER. That’s all she needs”.
Just love her. That’s all. As though love could ever be enough.
I was a bit shocked at the flippancy of it, at how far the words missed the point, but in that moment I didn’t really know what to say. I was trying to stifle tears and I knew that my thoughts wouldn’t come out clearly or kindly. So I gulped and pushed my response down until I was in a position to consider the comment properly.
There’s something so misguided about saying to a person who has recently received (more) tough news about her child in a family already dealing with so much that she only needs to love her and essentially everything will be fine.
Because everything is not fine. It wasn’t fine at the time and it’s not fine today. And just saying it’s fine doesn’t make things better. It just makes me angry, like molten lava could spew out of my eye sockets at the mere mention of the words ‘just love’.
If love was enough then I would not have discovered fertility issues in my late twenties and that we needed to undergo IVF in order to conceive a child.
If love was enough, I wouldn’t have had to be injected with hormones every morning by my husband for months and months until I was bruised inside and out.
If love was enough, I wouldn’t have had to endure the desperate weeks of waiting to discover if the two fertilised eggs placed inside me would make it. One did. That wasn’t a miracle of love – it was a victory of science.
If love was enough, I would have been able to have more children instead of finding out that my ovaries had withered on the vine by my 36th birthday. Early menopause is not a gift of love nor is the wall you have to build between yourself and the endless questions about why you haven’t had more children.
If love was enough, I would have known instinctively that my cherished only daughter was in fact deaf when I first held her, instead of two long, costly years later. That’s not something that can be undone, no matter how hard we might wish for it.
If love was enough, Amelia would not have also been born with what the doctors call a ‘complex array of developmental issues’, including ASD. We don’t yet know all of the problems we are dealing with so we just attack them one at a time.
I don’t list this roll-call of personal setbacks to suggest I’ve had it harder than anyone else, or that I sit around every day feeling sorry for myself. Compared to Amelia, who am I to complain?
What I’m saying is that it has been my experience at the sharper end of life that love really isn’t enough. Interventions, by science and technology, by expert outsiders like audiologists, specialists, psychologists and so on have been unavoidable and necessary realities in the short story of my family.
Love is a fine anchor, a base from which to spring, a strong foundation, an incredible motivator, but on its own I’m afraid it’s pointless.
Over the last few years I have learned the hard way that work is the thing that, well, works. IVF works when your body can’t do the job on its own. Hormone replacement therapy works when you can’t sleep because you’re sweating six times a night like Albert Brooks in that scene from Broadcast News.
Rigorous and frequent exercise works when your mind can’t take the strain of the things happening to you. Regular tests, therapies and lots of practice work to help Amelia to speak, to be calm, to be well.
Without a doubt, I love Amelia more than I ever thought it possible to love another person. And this never stops, even on the most demanding days when she seems to hate me and the world for dragging her into it without asking.
Love (and Amelia’s early-bird body clock) gets us up in the morning for appointment after appointment with speech pathologists, our occupational therapist, a clinical psychologist, paediatrician, GP, even genetics specialists, but it’s sheer stamina that keeps us going, ever on to the next thing.
If you know all of these things about me, my life, my child and you can still look me in the eye and say, ‘don’t worry about all of that stuff, just hug it out when things get tough’ then you have failed to really see us and understand what we need.
To me, love is acknowledging our pain and our struggles as well as celebrating the amazing progress and milestones that follow. Anything less is a massive negation of that struggle, of the reality of our daily lives in the trenches.
I need more than whatever love is supposed to do for me. Along with hugs (which are great) I also need time, space, exercise, information, silence, solidarity, respite, contact, friendship, conversation, laughter, truth and action, to name a few key things.
If I ‘just’ love Amelia, then what else does she miss? It feels like a code for denial to me and I’m not playing that game. No way.
I wake up every day with a limitless base of love for her, but it’s the hard work and resolve that’s gonna get us over the line. We’ll keep our fairy tales for the night-time, when our toil is done and Amelia is happy, safe and well in the strongest arms designed to hold her. Mine.