Celebrating the Love and Strength of Women in Our Lives
“Mothers and their children are in a category all their own. There’s no bond so strong in the entire world. No love so instantaneous and forgiving.” — Gail Tsukiyama
For all of us, there are times in our lives when the spinning wheel of fortune lands on “bad things.” We face tragedy, heartbreak, loss, rejection, disappointment—challenges the likes of which we never faced before. But somehow, we not only survive these challenges, we usually come out stronger and wiser than before.
Then, when we’re in the clear, and breathing a sigh of relief, we asked ourselves where we found the courage and perseverance to get through our troubles. But deep down we already know that answer. If we take a moment to reflect, we know that everything we are—all the love, strength and resilience that we have inside—we got from our mothers.
That’s not to say we don’t have many teachers throughout our lives—and for many of us our fathers are pillars of strength and stability, loving men who teach us what it means to take on responsibility. But it is we, as mothers, who first hold our children in our arms. We are there in their first moments of life—nurturing and teaching them—leaving an indelible imprint on their lives. As mothers, we teach our children what it is to love unconditionally because they know we always have their backs.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a mother who molds and teaches them through the formative years of life. That was the case in my own life, but I was nonetheless blessed as a small child growing up in the projects of St. Louis, because I had two strong women in my life who filled the void when my own mother couldn’t be there for me.
My godmother, Ethel, wasn’t highly educated or overly sophisticated. And yet she not only served as the matriarch of my family, but was someone the entire neighborhood looked up to for help and advice. Ethel worked as a janitor, and to support herself she cleaned houses in the daytime and then pulled double duty and cleaned offices at night. In the evening, I would tag along with her as she traveled to the wealthy suburbs outside of St. Louis. We would go inside big law firms, and big accounting firms, and I would help her sweep floors, empty trashcans and vacuum carpets. From up close, I saw her work with pride and humility.
My grandmother, Doveanne, influenced my life in a different way. Unlike my Godmother Ethel, who worked from sunup to sundown and had a very pragmatic view of life, Doveanne was more of a dreamer. She was a high school graduate, and at one point worked as a medical clerk assistant until a tragic incident left her a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair. But that didn’t stop her from imagining a different life for me, one outside of that housing project.
They sacrificed and saved enough money so that I could attend an elite private girls’ school. And with the lessons they taught me about perseverance and hard work, I was able to earn a scholarship to the University of Chicago, which in turn led to me being accepted to Harvard Law School.
As I was growing up, I wasn’t always aware of the lessons I was learning from Dovanne and Ethel, but these two incredible women—even if they didn’t know it—were preparing me for the biggest challenge of my life: my third child, Marty’s autism diagnosis. It absolutely devastated me. Like most parents, I’d dreamed of a life of endless possibilities for my son. Maybe he’d become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or a distinguished archeology professor, galivanting around the globe like Indiana Jones; or perhaps he’d even become President of the United States. But with an autism diagnosis, I had to reexamine the dreams I had for my son. His life was going to be very different from the one I had imagined. The same was now true about my own life.
Marty was not only going to require specialized care, but seeing to his care was going to require a huge commitment of time and require specialized knowledge that even as a lawyer, I didn’t have. Overnight, the life I’d carefully planned for my son and me had been turned upside down.
And I was not alone in my dilemma. A survey by the Center for Disease Control shows that autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States, with 1 in 68 children born in America diagnosed with the disorder.
This means that like me, tens of thousands of families each year suddenly find themselves thrown into a whole new world of specialized medical and therapy appointments, special schools and curriculum; it all can be so overwhelming that many parents struggle to keep their jobs while managing their child’s health and educational needs.
Many dads try their best to help out, but from my personal experience, it’s the mom who becomes the de facto chauffer, case manager and therapist. As mothers, most of us understand that forgoing comforts and indulgences for the sake of our children is part of the bargain, but having a special needs child can require extreme sacrifices. I’ve known moms who’ve quit their jobs, forgone self-care, friendships, romantic relationship—all of which can take an enormous physical and emotional toll.
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Mothers who try to keep their careers going are often judged harshly by family members and peers, some of whom think a woman should give up everything for the sake of her child. This often leads to feelings of guilt and depression, which in turn can result in weight gain, hair loss and anxiety disorder.
In my own life, I constantly worried about Marty’s future and whether I was doing enough, and doing it fast enough. The pressure I was feeling to do it all was enormous and crushing, and being a lawyer and having a supportive husband and family, I was in a much better position to handle the situation than most. And yet, I was still struggling to handle Marty’s diagnosis and care.
In the end, the thing that saved me—the thing that got me through—were the life lessons I learned from Ethel and Doveanne. I still had that work ethic, and I still had the perseverance and determination they instilled in me.
I resolved to make the best life possible for my son no matter what! I educated myself on all there was to know about autism, and I went on a quest to find Marty the best medical and health care possible. I also found him the best specialists and teachers in Los Angeles. It wasn’t easy and there were setbacks along the way, but eventually I mastered Los Angeles’ nightmarish healthcare and educational maze.
I started a nonprofit, Special Needs Network, Inc. which has provided resources to over 40,000 parents, I wrote a book on advocacy and use my platform as a TV commentator and host to raise awareness of autism.
Today, my son Marty is a handsome teen who is leading a full and productive life. I couldn’t love him more or be prouder of the person he has become.
They say that experience is the best teacher. And if there’s anything that I’ve learned from my experience with my son Marty, if there’s anything I would say to a woman who now finds herself in my shoes, it would be don’t be too hard on yourself. Don’t expect to have all the answers right away, and don’t feel guilty about still living your own life and striving to achieve your goals.
Pursuing your own dreams—taking time for yourself—doesn’t make you less caring or a bad mother. It makes you a healthy, happy normal human being.
Happy Mother’s Day!
This article was featured in Issue 62 – Motherhood: An Enduring Love