Ten years ago, my life changed drastically. I became a mother. Not only that, I was a young mother fresh out of college with no mommy friends or knowledge of motherhood. All my friends were working towards their dream career and meeting cute boys while I was trying to figure out how to change diapers, soothe a crying baby and breastfeed in the dark at 2 a.m.. I was utterly alone and lost, but I was a mother, and I was determined to be the best mother I know how.
Less than a year later, I was thrown into a world of early intervention, therapists and developmental delays.
My daughter Elise is a special needs child. A very special special needs child. Tomorrow, she is turning 10 years old. What follows is a list of 10 things I learned from her in honor of her 10th birthday.
1. Be thankful for every little thing
There are so many things to be thankful for in life, even ordinary things we take for granted like talking, walking and writing. There are millions of people in the world whose muscle tone is so weak that they have trouble holding a pencil or use scissors. Next time you talk to your child about his messy penmanship or not getting straight A's on her report card, think about that for a moment.
There are people who can't see, who can't hear and who can't talk. There are people who lack limbs, fingers and toes. There are people who can't function without taking medication everyday for the rest of their lives. There are people who can't read, who can't process thoughts and emotions, who are exceptionally sensitive to sounds and lights that are so normal for us.
So what do we have to complain about today? Be thankful for every little thing, even our breathing is a gift from God.
2. Statistics are irrelevant to fate
One in every 691 babies in the U.S. are born with down syndrome. About one out of every 88 children in the U.S. have autism. One in 500 babies is diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. One in three of them cannot talk, one in five cannot walk. Approximately 6.5 million people in the United States have an intellectual disability and 48 for every 100,000 people have epilepsy.
Today, none of these statistics and diagnoses matter. My daughter is who she is because she is meant to be who she is. It's fate. It's a part of who she is in the Universe. It's how God created her. It's that simple.
3. Growing pains are real
Growing up is hard. Growing pains are real. Being a mother, wife and adult means pushing ourselves to new limits and dealing with problems responsibly and wisely. I don't know if life will ever get easier, but what I do know is that every obstacle challenges us to new awakenings, encounters and experiences. Sometimes, though, I wonder why we were so eager to grow up when childhood is one of the best gifts that life has to offer.
I guess life is designed that way. We realize it only after it's gone.
4. Perfection is elusive
Growing up as the first child of a strict Asian family, there was a lot of pressure to be perfect -- to aim for straight A's, to never cause trouble and to only make good friends and not make mistakes. Its long-term effects didn't quite settle in until after I became a mother and today, I aim not for perfection, but for imperfection.
Perfection is elusive, a fallacy, an urban myth. Through my daughter, I learned early in motherhood how detrimental the struggle for perfection can be to ourselves as well as our children. We are not designed to excel at everything, just that one thing that strikes our fancy is most likely our God-given talent. Discovering our innate talents and passions is road to true success.
5. True happiness is simplicity
True happiness doesn't come from wealth, fame or an Ivy League education. We chase these things because we complicate the meaning of happiness for ourselves. We forget what simplicity means, because the world is full of greed, desires and longings.
True happiness comes from simple things in life. It comes from being present in each moment free from worry and fear. It comes from saying thank you, I'm sorry, I love you often and laughing a ton. I know this because I have yet to meet a person who is happier than my daughter.
6. True love is earned, not given
True love takes courage, strength and perseverance. It takes time and pain. The love we feel towards our significant other on our wedding day and the love we feel for our child the day he/she is born mark only the beginning of a life-long journey. True love is earned, not given.
True love exists for everyone; we just must be willing to work for it.
7. Rainbow is more beautiful than a clear sky
I used to pray for a clear sky, where I experience no sorrow, pain or loss. I viewed these as negative, unnecessary and avoidable. Now that I've seen the magnificence and beauty of the rainbow, however, I handle rainy days with more strength and hope. Pain is a natural part of life. As long as we keep our eyes and hearts on the rainbow, rainy days are no longer unbearable.
8. Pay attention to your surrounding
When we have it all -- a home, a car, a family and healthy children -- it's difficult to remember those who don't have these things and it becomes too easy to take things for granted. I too, am guilty of this. But raising a special needs child serve as a blessing in this way, as it is a frequent reminder not to take things for granted and to always be mindful of my surrounding.
It helps me to forgive more easily, to give back more generously and to count daily blessings, no matter how difficult the situation.
9. God really only gives you what you can handle
I heard this a lot, that God only gives us what we can handle. There were moments when I wished He didn't trust me so much, and wondered how I can get out of the situation alive. What lessons can I learn, when everything hurts so much? I asked. Why are you letting these things happen to me and my child? I cried. Now looking back, I realize I've grown tremendously. I no longer think, why me?, because now I know.
God gave me my daughter because He knew I would be the best mother for her and she the best daughter for me. He couldn't have been more right.
10. God is in your child
God does not reside "out there." He lives in us and especially in our children. I see God in her eyes all the time. Sometimes she looks at me tenderly because she is frustrated that she can't communicate as freely as her sister. I feel her frustration and pain. And I see God during that vulnerable and aching moment.
Sometimes she throws a tantrum, kicking, throwing and screaming, unable to process her surrounding or control her emotions like a typical child. If we're in a public setting I panic and if we're in a car I feel anxiety as I have to focus on driving, yell at her to put on her seat belt AND calm her down all at the same time. Even during these high stress moments -- which happens at least once a day -- I know God is present.
Ten minutes later, my sweet angel daughter comes back as if nothing happened. She hugs me and tells me she is sorry. And we move on.
In that moment too, God is there, smiling, nodding and reassuring us that we are doing a great job as mother and daughter. We were meant to be together in this world, I just needed a little time to learn and grow.