Why Our Kindergarten Picture is Really Bittersweet

Tarra McSorley

Today is a day that every parent marvels over. The first school picture has arrived! Time to hang it with pride and brag to everyone we know that our boy is a genius and is doing so well, making friends, and exceeding expectations in public school. We hung our photo the same as every other parent and we did it with pride, but it is a silent pride. One we aren’t bragging about or sending out en masse.

Don’t get me wrong, we are intensely proud of him. We celebrate every time he gets through his stutter and tries to make a friend. When he makes it through a session of vacuuming without losing his cool and trying his hardest to count to 20. Why is 13 such a difficult number? Seriously, it is our nemesis. Even zipping up our coat is a celebration as he masters his fine motor skills and looks at me with the biggest grin, searching for my approval. I never thought that zipping a coat would bring me to tears, but it has. So many of those moments bring tears.  

If I am being honest, not all of those are tears of joy.  I have also cried when a child at daycare called my son a freak. When my son goes to say hello and gets the “side eye” from other kids who can see that he doesn’t react normally to standard interactions. Tears flowed when I was asked if my son has alopecia because he had an outburst that led to self harm and hair pulling and when I sat in the principal's office every day, picking my son up after he was suspended for yet another outburst that could not be stopped or handled.

Tears are a normal part of life, and some were shed in moments of joy, some in sadness, and others out of anger. Anger at not having an IEP honored or amended. Anger over being told by several school faculty that I need to “medically intervene” and provide my child with medication that I did not agree with. Anger and being told, “this is a boy thing” by our principal. Being told, “he will never qualify for extra services”.

Before kindergarten, these tears were frequently on display by yours truly but they were mainly out of joy. I bragged about every moment. Before kindergarten I cried with pride at all of the little moments that we shared and the tasks we accomplished. Before kindergarten, my son was not diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, or attention deficit hyperactive disorder. My son didn’t say hateful things about himself or draw angry self-portraits. My son was happy and secure. He was protected. So what happened? Surely it wasn’t the support of our doctor. Our diagnosis didn’t change his circumstances. So what changed?

What I didn’t realize is how I was able to shield my son from these opinions during his early years. What I didn’t understand is how bombarded HE would become with the opinions of the world and how this would lead to a shattered self-esteem. These were things I was able to shield him from over the last five years. For us, that time has come to a close as we navigate through childhood. As I look at his eager smile hanging on my wall, there is a bittersweet moment when I understand that he is acutely aware of how the world sees him and I am unable to prevent that any longer.

For the last 2 years, I have been bombarded with the burden of public opinion. Everything ranging between the dangers of vaccines to the miracle anecdotes of using CBD oil. Have you tried spanking? Have you removed gluten? You HAVE to get rid of red and yellow dyes! What about signing up for my miracle (insert product here)? I have heard it all. The hardest part of having a child with special needs isn’t our day to day routine, or our need for things to be just so. The hardest part, for us, is dealing with the court of public opinion.

If you feel compelled to enlighten a mom of the “miracle fix” that will save her child, please don’t. I am willing to wager that this mom will smile and awkwardly listen but she has heard it all before. She goes to therapy sessions, has read countless books and listened to podcasts. She has worried and cried as I have. What she really craves is the acceptance of her child, unfettered with advice. What she absolutely doesn’t need to hear is, “I’m sorry.” That phrase lets her know that her child will never be included as “normal.” That inclusion will now come with exceptions and more side eye stares.

So as I stare at my living room wall, at my son’s beautiful smile, the bittersweet thoughts do not come from our struggle. They come from the advice of well-meaning individuals who provide moms like me a hefty dose of public opinion.