My love/hate relationship with Mamma Bear

Whenever I have an aversion to use a word or phrase that everyone else seems to love, I’ve started to realize it’s worth exploring.

This week, a phrase that seems to be beloved in our special needs community has been caused me to wince several times. And that phrase is: Mamma Bear.

I know that probably makes me different from many parents of children with special needs. What could possibly be wrong with the image of a Mamma Bear when it comes to parenting our vulnerable kids? I know plenty of moms I respect and admire who fiercely protect and defend her children at the risk of her own safety, popularity, and mental health. In the special needs community (if I can generalize for a moment here), saying we’re a Mamma Bear is like wearing a badge of honor, and typically something we strive to become. Because the opposite–abandoning or neglecting our children–is simply so against our nature as mammals (human, bear or otherwise) that it is repulsive.

But here’s my problem with the concept of Mamma Bear:  

By nature, I am not a confrontational person. If I’m honest with myself, I’m almost dysfunctionally conflict averse. Getting over my need for everyone to like me all of the time is something I’m working on. And so in the past, the equation proposed by the special needs community (or maybe it’s just the message that I have internalized) that “advocating = fighting” has been really unproductive for me.

I’m so not comfortable being the Mamma Bear that it caused me to check out and run away from some really intense fears about needing to put on my armor and fight. And I don’t deny that sometimes, you may have to fight. I’m not trying to change those Mamma Bears who are getting things done out their on their childrens’ behalf. I’m simply saying that for me, that approach doesn’t work.

Recently though, it has occured to me that there must be another way for me to relate to the experience of advocating for my child, one that doesn’t trigger all sorts of negative emotions that shut me down. What if the opposite of abandon and neglect doesn’t have to be conflict? What if, instead of seeing the special ed administrators, the ignorant teachers, the “system” as the opposing side to be dealt with shock and awe, I could bring something else?

I still haven’t found the full answer to what that option could be.  I’m experimenting with using honest compassion as my tool–trying to see the people I’m relying on to care for me child as people first. People who had dreams of making a difference at one time, people who do deep down still want that. When I can see that person, and connect with that person, something happens in our dynamic that is really hard to put my finger on, but it is powerful. Maybe when I see them with compassion, my own fear is not triggered, and I can talk to them in a way that is more present. I’m not sure. But it seems to be working well enough that I’m going to continue to explore it.

To all you conflict averse parents of special needs children out there, do you have a mindset that works for you?


The difference between pain and suffering

Like “peanut butter and jelly” or”cookies and milk,” the concepts of “pain and suffering” just sort of go together in my vocabulary and in my mind. As a parent of a child with special needs, I have found great relief in exploring the difference between the two.

During a talk at my local meditation center a couple of years ago, a teacher offered a different perspective. She asked us to imagine having a broken arm. The physical sensation, the actual messages the nerves sent to our brain–that is the pain. Then she asked us to imagine what might race through our minds when we realized our arm was broken–the frustration at being inconvenienced (“How will I carry my groceries, drive my car, get dressed, shower?), the fear of not being able to meet my own or others’ expectations (“How will I pay my bills if I can’t do my job?” or “Who’s going to help me with the kids?”) or the anger at being injured (“How could I be so stupid to climb on that ladder?”) Those emotions that I experience because I assume that life should be free of broken arms, that is the suffering.

In her essay “Welcome to Holland,” Emily Perl Kingsley captures the way I can sometimes add suffering to my pain in my experience of parents of children with special needs. To be sure, my pain is real. But most of my frustration, anger, sadness and fear doesn’t come from my pain; it comes from the suffering that I add to that pain.

This suffering that I add to the pain nearly always stems from my attachment to my “story:” the narrative that I created many years ago for what my life would be like–one free of doctors, diagnoses, labels, lawyers, therapists, IEPs, and TEAM meetings.

Something very interesting happens when I let go of that story. When I let myself simply just be here now with things exactly as they exist, without judgement, without comparing, without labeling–when I let go of the suffering. When I discern the difference between my pain and my suffering, I can be fully present for the pain, and I find myself realizing that it’s not as painful as I thought. It’s not unbearable. It’s actually sometimes not even painful.

In the moment that I write this, my child is at a school he loves, there’s a hot cup of coffee near my hand, and the sun is shining for the first time in a week. I can allow myself to see that, or I can focus on the stacks of insurance paperwork to be completed, the six doctor referrals I need to renew, and the education evaluator who hasn’t called back.

Letting go of the story and the suffering doesn’t mean denying the pain. For me, letting go of the suffering simply allows me to be more present to the moments of joy and beauty that do exist if I let myself see them.