In honor of Women’s History Month, we present 31 Days of Revolutionary Women; a series of daily essays by local authors documenting, honoring and celebrating powerful women who inspire us in South Seattle and beyond.
This week’s articles come from organizers of the Celebration of International Women’s Day* event, a day-long free event designed to rejoice in the strength, resilience and creativity of women in the Seattle area. See the event page for information about attending.
by Rachel Nemhauser
To Teresa, the other woman who loves my child,
There is no specific day that stands out when I finally understood that Nate was different.
You’ve always known him as the quirky and stubborn kid with a developmental disability that he is but, to me, it was more of a slow dawning. A gnawing rumble in my middle that made me shaky and irritable. A gradual awakening.
You hadn’t met him yet but I’m sure you can imagine what it was like. He was late hitting all his milestones. He was overly hyperactive, even for a preschooler. He screeched loudly and hit other toddlers at playgroups. By the time he was three I understood what you probably knew as soon as you met us: we had a formidable road ahead, and my heart was broken in pieces.
I’m not sure I can explain to you what it’s like to learn your child has a disability. The feeling of your entire world shattering and rearranging itself right before your eyes. Your plans, your expectations, your dreams, gone and only replaced with unanswerable questions and shadowy fears. What if I’m not up for this? Will I be the only person to ever love him? Will I be taking care of him for the rest of my life? I don’t have to tell you that some days it felt endless.
You may not know this but by the time Nate started Kindergarten I had gained a hundred pounds, lost many friends, and was living with anxiety that almost paralyzed me. He was falling further and further behind and his behavior was getting worse. With his first year of full-day school winding down and the long months of summer lurking dangerously around the corner, I frantically searched for someone to help.
You know, Teresa, that this is where you come in.
Someone at Nate’s school mentioned they had a co-worker who had experience with special needs kids and might be looking for some summer work. I didn’t know you at all but I was desperate so I called. We planned a time to meet at your home and I drove to our appointment that day shaking with cautious optimism. You were outside working in your garden, planting wildflowers, and we quickly started getting to know each other.
You and I live in the same town, but that day, in so many ways, we couldn’t have been more different. I’m a Jewish woman, a proud native New Yorker, and a married mother of two young children. You are younger than me, a transplant from California who had no children, and you were sharing your home with your then-boyfriend (now-husband) and mother. Your Mexican heritage showed itself in the décor you displayed proudly, and in the smell of your famous homemade tamales wafting out of your small, crowded, immaculate kitchen. I was only 10 minutes from my house but it didn’t feel that way.
You showed me your home, perfectly cluttered with family photos and a large kitchen table, while you told me about yourself, your past experiences, and your love of working with children with disabilities. Your specialty was supporting children with significant behavior challenges, and you smiled genuinely as you shared stories of other kids you had worked with in your career. I was touched by how heartfelt your stories were. You were warm, friendly and open, and, as your family took turns bragging about your success and dedication, my worries dissipated. I eagerly offered you the job, you readily accepted it, and the rest, I guess, is history.
That was 7 years ago and both of our lives have changed since then. You live in the same house but you’re married now with a young child of your own. Your long hair went from shimmering black to blue and back to black again. Your mother passed away a few years ago, you no longer work for the schools, and you are a loving caregiver to your sister as she battles cancer. You throw incredible birthday parties, own the best holiday decorations in the neighborhood, and have a house full of animals you dote upon.
My life is also hardly recognizable. I lost the hundred pounds. I got my anxiety under control. I found my passion as a disability advocate and have a career supporting other parents raising children with disabilities. I’ve regained my equilibrium after struggling with grief, cynicism and anger, and now proudly embrace my role as Nate’s mom. I have new dreams and plans, and life is good.
But here’s the thing I want you to know. I am certain – 100% positive – that I couldn’t have done those things without you. I couldn’t have taken the time I needed to grieve and regroup. I couldn’t have attended the classes and trainings my new career required. I couldn’t have taken up jogging to focus on my health. You may not have known you were helping with any of those things but you were. Every step of the way.
You are an excellent childcare provider and a behavior support expert, and when Nate is with you I know he’s in capable hands. That alone would be enough, but there’s something more, and I see it as clearly as if you were wearing it on a gold chain around your neck.
As if in answer to my darkest fears, I see you love Nate. The son I once worried might be unlovable. The son I once feared could only ever be cared for by me.
You have spent years with him and you haven’t given up. In fact, you insist he’s the easiest child in the world to look after! You’re firm and no-nonsense, but I can see it in how you look at him and hear it in how you talk about him. You love him, you care about him, and you like having him around. There is nothing else that is more important to me than that and I am profoundly grateful.
I know you’ll dismiss these compliments and minimize your contribution, but I know the truth. You and I come from different backgrounds, have different lives and different stories, but we love Nate together. He’s better because of it, and I am too. Thank you, Teresa, for all of it.
Rachel Nemhauser is a parent, disability advocate, long-distance runner and occasional blog writer. She comes from New York state but is proud to call Washington home for the past 20 years. Rachel works for the Arc of King County, supporting parents who are raising children with disabilities, and is a member of the Washington State Developmental Disabilities Council, working to improve the lives of people with disabilities on a state-level. She loves working one-on-one with parents and is passionate about using her writing to help make the community more accepting of all kinds of families.
Featured image courtesy of Rachel Nemhauser