A question loomed over those early years, through the waves of panic and exhaustion that comprised my life as the primary caregiver of a toddler with autism... Was I a bad parent?
My son was suffering. His inner turmoil bubbled over into meltdowns that shattered my nerves. I felt anxious and powerless. The barrier between us as parent and child was so permeable, that we were emotionally entangled. Our tentacles wrapped until you couldn’t tell whose limb was whose.
Wasn’t love for a child supposed to be this way? My bliss derived from my relationship with him, and so did my anguish. I rode every wave of his meltdowns along with him, and was unmoored. We clung to each other and crashed through it together. We would both be physically, emotionally, and mentally drained when the storm was over, as if we had survived a tempest.
Many years before my son was born, I knew the transformative power of yoga. It gave me the courage to leave an unfulfilling career and move across the world. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, yoga called me to become a teacher because I felt I needed to contribute to relieving some of the suffering of the world.
The summer of 2007 I lived in a tent and volunteered at the Omega Institute, a holistic retreat center in Rhinebeck, NY. That’s where I first met Seane Corn. I had never heard of her when I signed up for a yoga weekend for women.
I had studied with many amazing teachers. Seane was different. She was the first teacher I had who spoke of her brokenness in class. She did this consciously as a teaching tool. It wasn’t a lack of boundaries. Her boundaries were solid, and she knew just what she could share without crossing them.
Seane talked about her struggles, her imperfection, and her unfinished emotional healing. She did this in front of hundreds of women. We all gathered around close to her, in a huddle by the stage. She told us stories and listened to some of ours, and then she invited us to go back to our mats and move. At the end we meditated in a circle. She invited the pregnant women to sit in the center of the circle. We sent them our love. Then she encouraged all those who longed to be parents to enter the circle. Hesitantly, I joined her and a few others there. My longing to be a parent was visceral. I allowed myself to receive the love of all those around the circle, and to hope. The pain I had carried from my life into the retreat spilled out through my tears. I felt cleansed and purposeful.
I trained further with Seane. Then I returned to Brooklyn. I met my husband. It took us years to conceive. I continued to study with Seane every chance I had. I was there after her dad died, and then her cat. She was able to stay in her truth while holding her center as she taught. She held space for all of us without breaking down. The way she did this was by being authentically herself and respecting herself. I learned from her that vulnerability is not weakness, it is courage.
When my son was born, I wasn’t afforded the false sense of security in my parenting that an easy baby gives other parents. From the start, we were on amber alert. He was born intense and high needs. Our sleep and feeding issues were not challenging, they were agony. I was befuddled and could take nothing for granted. I stopped trusting myself and sought answers from everyone and everything externally.
The Sanskrit term avidya means ignorance — as in not knowing what we don’t know. It is seen as one of the main sources of suffering. Realizing that we don’t know everything, admitting that we are confused, is the beginning of spiritual awakening.
“The recognition of confusion is a form of clarity.”
I read parenting books. They talked of developmental benchmarks that only helped to solidify my confusion and shame. The stories didn’t sound like our family. A question loomed over those early years…Was I a bad parent?
I was isolated, overwhelmed, and denying myself basic needs like sleep, movement, and nutrition. I still expected myself to function calmly and kindly under extreme pressure without any fuel at all.
Yes, I taught yoga and meditation, but that was in a box marked “work.” I couldn’t see how to use it to meet my parenting needs, beyond the recommendations of some of my teachers to meditate more. We were in crisis and I just didn’t have the time.
This was peak enmeshment. Of course I sought help. Yes, my son eventually had therapists. Still, I’m the one who was there all the time, and I’m the one he broke down with. The waves of panic and exhaustion that comprised my life as the primary caregiver of a toddler with autism, and the yogic concept of detachment (vairāgya) didn’t coexist in my mind. It wasn’t until I reframed vairāgya as being “lovingly with him in his feelings, but not enmeshed” that I could begin to explore the concept.
My parenting journey was unexpected. My son was on the path to getting Early Intervention services. One doctor we consulted said, “Your son is complicated.” In that year I hadn’t had three consecutive hours of sleep. It was beyond complicated.
I went to see Seane Corn at a Yoga Journal Conference around that time of peak sleep deprivation. I actually got to do something for myself and my career and be away from my son. It had been a traumatic year, and I was dissociated. In my distress, I stood up in the big group to ask for help in my struggles. Seane was empathetic, but she said, “I’m not a parent, I don’t know what you should do.”
I remembered that she had been sitting in that circle with me, years earlier. I was the lucky one. I knew I should be grateful. Being a parent was my dream fulfilled.
Another yoga teacher who is also a parent approached me afterwards with some gentle support and guidance. She gave me a practical suggestion. Today, in my “right mind,” it seems so logical and intuitive. It was delivered at the right time with compassion, by someone who has been there…
She shared a variation of the lesson I’ve had to learn over and over again: Your kid can have their experience and feelings, and you can have yours, and they are all understandable, and all allowed. In the moment of stress, be present in your body. If you can feel your feet on the ground, something might shift you slightly away from panic mode, just enough to take a slightly deeper breath and realize that neither of you is dying in this moment. You can trust that your kid can learn how to overcome their struggle in their own time.
That night, I remembered to ground my feet. I stood just outside my son’s door, and sang him “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” while feeling the soles of my feet sink evenly into the floor. I’m not saying this was a miracle cure for his sleeplessness. My own tension did ease, and my breath lengthened as I softly sang. Feel your feet. It was the reminder I needed at the time. It is simple, and I invite you to try it.
A few years later my son was diagnosed with autism. The confusion lifted. I found my community, and my son started to get the help he needed. I embraced his diagnosis, because it helped me understand and support him better.
He also welcomes his diagnosis, because he sees nothing wrong with having a different brain, and he has friends who understand him. Still, our culture is ableist, and he will experience bias in his life, even as a middle class, cis-gender, white male. He already has.
That is why I’m so passionate about what I do: I write about empathy, inclusivity, mindfulness and the imperative of self-care for parents.
Once parents are out of distress, we can advocate together for equity and inclusion. By speaking my truth, I can pry open the vault of silence and secrecy that has been allowing shame to infect atypical families.
Sharing my own vulnerability may make it less intimidating for the next family who finds themselves in distress. They will feel empowered to seek out support.
Our family’s challenges are not in the past. They are evolving, and we must continue to relearn and revise. My ten-year-old had a meltdown tonight.
I’m still the one he turns to when he’s overflowing with stress. He screamed a lot, and now he knows bad words. He got a little violent. Of course, I never want him to suffer, but I saw it coming and didn’t panic. I knew that if I stood firm he would be upset, but it was best for him in the long run for me to say no. I refuse to walk on eggshells, no matter how explosive he is. Of course it still hurts to see him unhappy.
While he was in the thick of it, I felt both irritation and compassion. The crucial thing is, those were my emotions, not his. I was able to feel my feet, breathe, and stay steady for him. I was able to check in with myself, modulate my voice, and wait him out. I was available to calmly respond to him, rather than reflexively react.
I was “lovingly with him in his feelings, but not enmeshed” —vairāgya. I held space for him without falling apart. We were both able to recover easily after his storm passed. We even laughed together.
I learned a powerful lesson from my yoga teacher Seane Corn — that I could teach my values by telling my story. Working with my own vulnerability and courage within our family’s struggles, I found my calling as a teacher — I empower anxious parents of atypical kids to feel calm, connected, and joyful so their families can thrive.
Focusing on your own self-care will bring your whole family more harmony and joy and move us all closer to this vision.
I’m grateful to my kid for being someone complicated, who caused me to question myself and my ideas about parenting. He came into my life and turned it on its head. The insight I’ve gained is owed to him.
How do we want our children to care for themselves and their loved ones as adults? That is what we must model for them, by caring for ourselves.
How do we want to treat each other as a society in the future? That is how we must relate to our children. In one generation we can eradicate shame. Our atypical kids can grow up thriving in an inclusive, equitable, and empathetic world. Focusing on your own self-care will bring your whole family more harmony and joy.
It took a while to find my footing, but with help I found a courageous, grounded, and values-based parenting path.
Mindfully parenting my atypical kid isn’t easy, but it has been the most transformative journey of my life. I’m committed to changing the world with this work.
This story was originally published on the Accessible Yoga Blog.
I’ve taught these tools to parents for almost 20 years, and yet when my son was younger I often felt completely lost, forgetting to tend to myself. I didn’t have the luxury of hours to myself, so I distilled the most grounding and effective practices into a set of simple tools that I always have handy. These are the tools that help me stay calm and find joy while parenting an intense, atypical kid. I want to share them with you, so you don’t feel as overwhelmed and isolated as I did in those early years.
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