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Abandoning My Expectations Let Me Become The Mom My Kids Really Needed

When our younger kids came along, it was time to redefine "good parenting."

Just as the youngest of my six kids turned 13, I felt like I was giving up on parenting. At first I blamed it on “pandemic fatigue,” but the truth is, it had been bubbling inside me for over a year.

I was done with baking brownies. I was done with planning family outings. I was done with dragging reluctant kids on holiday. I’d started joking with friends that I no longer wanted to be called a mom, but instead a “spiritual advisor.” I used to be a Type-A parent, so never would I have imagined it coming to this.

My first two sons came along when I was in my twenties. They were what you’d call easy kids. They wrote thank you cards, aced tests, and were quiet on car rides. They made me feel like I was good at this whole parenting thing.

When those two were at an age of being able to make their own dinners, my husband and I started getting broody again. Emboldened by how well our sons were turning out, we went big and adopted a sibling group of four.

Ranging in ages from three to nine, they drew us to them, from the moment we laid eyes on their photo, with their optimistic smiles. And when we met them in person, they were so endearing ― children who loved to cuddle or follow us around the farm, immediately referring to us as “Mom” and “Dad.” We learned from their worker they’d been through a tumult of trauma, but I figured, as a seasoned parent with some knowledge of child psychology, I could help them reach their potential.

“Radical acceptance meant not expecting my developmentally delayed son to constantly try harder and do better.”

Ours was the sixth family our new son and three daughters had lived with, so for the entire first first year they tested us over and over to see if we were committed to sticking around forever. On the worst days, they lashed out ― punching me, smashing furniture, running to the main road near our farmhouse, determined to be kicked out before they got attached to me and my husband.

All of it challenged my confidence in myself as a mom ― a role that I invested so much in. A child of the 70s, I was raised by hippie parents, who had me sign my own permission forms as a way of sticking it to the Man. They’d say things like, “Come home when the streetlights are on … or whenever.” So when it was my turn to have kids, as a somewhat ironic act of rebellion, I went the opposite way and became a bit of a helicopter parent.

I’d decided to be the kind of mom who diligently made sure there was enough lined paper for homework, enough cupcakes for every classmate, enough clean socks for the entire week. I was OK with the joyful chaos of family life at home with two boys, but I’d taught them to be on their best behaviour out in the world.

Then along came their younger siblings, who put a whole new spin on chaos. Everything I thought I knew about parenting no longer seemed to apply.

Even though the intensity of their initial testing period eventually waned, and their love and trust grew, there were still so many incidents that had me bewildered and beaten down. One child would have epic meltdowns in stores; another would bolt out of school. All four struggled to remember what seemed to be the simplest tasks, like closing the front door when you enter or leave the house. It was overwhelming.

Within a few years of joining our family, two of our younger kids were diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). We learned that all four had been impacted by substance abuse in utero, to varying degrees.

“I recall the moment that it dawned on me that the minutiae of Type-A mothering was meaningless.”

Health Canada defines FASD as “a brain injury that can occur when an unborn baby is exposed to alcohol” and “a lifelong disorder with effects that include physical, mental, behavioural and learning disabilities.” We were blindsided, but it helped us make sense of so many things that had been so puzzling.

At first, I went to war with this disability, thinking if I gave enough consequences and reminders, then the sneaking out at nights, the compulsive stealing, and telling far-fetched lies would eventually stop. The cause-and-effect relationship between undesirable behaviours and undesirable consequences had worked for my first two after all.

But the older ones hadn’t gone through childhood with a brain injury and early trauma. What I quickly discovered, when I doubled down on my efforts to fix problems created by FASD was that the last thing my younger children needed was ongoing chastising and disapproval. I discovered that for them, scolding words didn’t feel like loving redirection, they felt like deep rejection.

As I got to know my younger kids over the next few years, my old way of parenting gradually started morphing into something else. I recall the moment that it dawned on me that the minutiae of Type-A mothering was meaningless. I was in the basement, digging through a mildew-laden box of decorations that I’d planned to put up for a lesser holiday. I was tired. Not the kind of tired a weekend off could fix. All I could think to myself was, what is the point? So I came back upstairs, made myself a cup of tea and read a book instead. Nobody seemed to notice those decorations never did make it out of the basement.

And a few days after that, when my son came home with markers stolen from school for the hundredth time, instead of doling out consequences, I just returned them to the teacher. I didn’t put up a fight; it would happen again whether I disciplined him or not. Instead, that evening, I praised my son when he put his plate in the dishwasher, then I watched him swell with pride.

I once heard the term “Buddish,” used in reference to someone who hadn’t committed to Buddhism, but who still leaned towards some of the teachings. Being a bit Buddish myself ― perhaps a perk of being raised by hippies ― I’d learned that suffering occurs when we want things to be different than they are. The antidote to suffering? Radical acceptance.

Radical acceptance meant not expecting my developmentally delayed son to constantly try harder and do better, just loving him for the wonderful person he is — a kid who gives his dimes to homeless people and lovingly tends to his pet chicken.

It also means dropping my own impossibly high standards for myself as a mom of kids with complex needs. I don’t have to control everything, nor can I. I don’t have to make things look perfect — and I certainly don’t have to ‘fix’ my kids — I have to be available to them, when they need me there to listen and support them. I have to be willing to go with the flow of our messy life with a big and beautiful family.

“Loving my kids was never the hard part. Wanting everyone else to see how wonderful they were, and yet allowing them to get sad or mad in a world that wasn’t always kind with them ― that was my biggest challenge.”

And so when one of my daughters, who has sensory sensitivities and anxiety told me she couldn’t handle our whole family cheering for her at her Grade 8 graduation ceremony, I didn’t force the issue. It was her grad, not mine.

We played it the way she preferred, with only me attending ― and ducking out immediately after she received her diploma. There were no group photos, even though I would have loved one for the wall, because that stressed her out too. But hopefully her memory of that day will be that her boundaries and wishes were respected.

A few days ago, I got a call from the high school because that same daughter, now in Grade 9, swore at a teacher. When she got home I did meet her at the door with a stern look, but not to read the riot act ― just to make sure she knew the next part was not optional. I handed her a travel mug of hot chocolate and told her we were going to hit the walking trails together.

In the quiet woods we talked, reflecting on her motivations for being rude to a teacher and where that might lead if she made it a habit. “I don’t want you trying to look cool in front of your friends in Grade 9, then bottoming out and running off in Grade 10 with a guy named Snake,” I told her at the end, once she’d processed the events of the day, to lighten the mood. “You worry too much,” she informed me. “I was really stressed out today. I won’t do it again.”

As parents, it’s our job to fight for things like proper diagnoses and learning supports for our kids, to keep tabs on what they are doing, and to remind them to take a shower, for everyone’s sake. Bringing homemade cupcakes to class parties is a nice thing to do ― if you have the time, energy and desire ― but it’s not evidence of being a good parent.

Loving my kids was never the hard part. Letting them show just how sad or mad they sometimes felt in a world that wasn’t always kind with them ― that was my biggest challenge.

After 26 years of parenting, I’m finally loosening my white-knuckled grip. It doesn’t mean giving up; it’s about cutting myself and my kids some slack and re-evaluating what matters. And it’s about embracing each child just as they are and letting the future unfurl. Somehow hope bubbles up from that.

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