Guest blogger: Julie Hornok
There are many rights of passage as a mom. Holding your baby for the first time, seeing your baby’s first toothless grin, and watching your baby take his first steps. But nothing can compare to the first time you hear the four most beautiful words coming from your child: “I love you, mommy!” Somehow those four words validate every sleepless night, every dirty diaper changed, every missed social event, and every pound of baby weight that tightly grips your hips, no matter how hard you try to lose it.
I don’t remember when my oldest, Andrew, said those meaningful four words to me. I would assume he said them when he was between two and three years old. When he did, I took it for granted. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it. I just never thought about it much because it happened without any effort on my part. It was an expectation that comes from the natural progression in a child’s life, and it never even occurred to me that there might be a possibility he wouldn’t say it.
But autism sometimes takes that ability away. Some moms have never heard those beautiful words. They have waited year after year to be validated for the physical, mental and emotional strain that consumes the life of a mom, but the words still have not been heard. They could be given the Mother-of-the-Year Award and be praised by hundreds, but it doesn’t matter. The only person a mom wants to acknowledge her love is her own child. She yearns to hear with her own ears that her child really does love her.
When our daughter with autism, Lizzie, was two years old, she walked aimlessly around the house, waving her fingers in front of her face while saying something that sounded like, “diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle,” over and over all day long. Lizzie had no functional language or communication with others. When I realized she may never be able to tell me she loves me, it stung.
Every night when I tucked Lizzie in, I would sing to her “I Will” by the Beatles. I did not realize it at the time, but these words so perfectly described the longing in my heart to find my little girl that was present in body, but absent of emotional connection. I would sing:
Who knows how long I’ve loved you
You know I love you still
Will I wait a lonely lifetime
If you want me to, I will.
For if I ever saw you
I didn’t catch your name
But it never really mattered
I will always feel the same.
Love you forever and forever
Love you with all my heart
Love you whenever we’re together
Love you when we’re apart.
And when at last I find you
Your song will fill the air
Sing it loud so I can hear you
Make it easy to be near you
For the things you do endear you to me
Oh, you know, I will
Then I would kiss her forehead and just as I started to close the door, I would say, “I love you, Lizzie.” Pause. Silence.
Some nights it would really depress me that she didn’t respond. I would shove those feelings down and try to not let my thoughts wander down that dangerous road, because I needed to save my energy for whatever challenges tomorrow would bring. Other times, I would just go on with my evening because I had become numb to the silence from that dark room.
For some moms, it takes years and years of therapy and for others, they will never physically hear their child’s voice say, “I love you, mommy.” But, those moms will find other ways to know they are loved back. Just like they have found other ways to understand and respond to their children’s everyday wants and needs.
An autism mom knows voice is not the only form of communication, and she knows this because she studies and learns the meaning of her child’s every movement. She knows that a gesture is not just a gesture and a noise is not just a noise. When there are no words, every action is communicating something. And if she looks close enough, she will find something that he does just for her. Maybe the way he crawls in her lap, will only let her do something for him or the way he flaps his arms harder when he sees her. This is how he tells her that he loves her.
As for Lizzie, when she was five-years old, I tucked her in one night and sang our song as I always did. I kissed her forehead and was just about to close the door, when I heard a little voice from deep in that dark room quietly say, “Love eew.”
Tears streamed down my face because it was so beautiful, so intentional, so fought for. But, it changed nothing. I already knew she loved me because she had told me a hundred times in a hundred different ways that only an autism mom would understand. I was already the one she needed most in the world and that was more satisfying than any words ever could be.
Julie Hornok is an author, speaker, event planner and advocate for autism. Her writing has appeared in Parenting Special Needs Magazine, Autism Parenting Magazine, AutismSpot, Thrive Magazine, Literary Mama, Chicken Soup for the Soul series and many more. Her first book, United in Autism: Finding Strength Inside the Spectrum, will be released in October 2018.