When my son Elijah was born, my mother established a 529 College Savings Account for him and told me that she intended to make modest contributions every year on his birthday. I was very touched by her gesture and thought it was a lovely expression of the good values she passed on to me about the importance of education.
Six and a half years later, my mother continues those annual contributions. But my feelings about them have become much more complicated. You see, Elijah is autistic and his communication difficulties and other developmental delays are significant. He will probably never be able to live independently. Although much is still unclear about what his future holds, attending college seems increasingly unlikely.
I’ve thought about investigating whether 529 accounts can be used for other purposes (camp tuition? therapy dog?) but I haven’t been able to bring myself to do the research. I also haven’t talked to my mom about it. Does she continue to build a college fund because she is in denial? Are the contributions a sham she keeps up to avoid hurting my feelings? I’m not sure.
It feels so odd to have grown up in a strongly achievement-focused family and to now be walking down a totally unexpected path with my son. I try to accept and embrace Elijah exactly as he is but I also wrestle with feelings of shame and embarrassment. Jewish women like me are supposed to give their parents gifted grandchildren, right?
My mother told me all throughout my childhood how important and powerful it was to be smart. Her intention was feminist empowerment and never felt like a burden at the time. In retrospect, I see how lucky she was that she happened to have children who met her high expectations.
Like mother, like daughter–before I became a parent, I dreamed of having a child who would share all of my best traits and imagined all the fun we would have together reenacting my favorite childhood memories (family Scrabble night, anyone?) and living out my unfulfilled desires (a math wiz and a star athlete–how wonderful!) There is a striking contrast between who I expected Elijah to be and who he actually is. And it’s not just me.
It seems everyone in our lives has assumptions. Several years ago, an acquaintance asked me just after Passover if Elijah recited the Four Questions at our seder. He was 2 years old at the time! When he was 4 and we were starting to tackle potty training, someone remarked that I did not need to worry because “no child goes to college in diapers.” Of course they meant no harm, but casual comments like those betray assumptions about whom and how our children are supposed to be, making moms like me feel invisible or like failures. I now think a lot about those initial assumptions I had and realize how many of the blessings in my life–academic success, good health, social skills–have been just that, blessings. Not givens.
I don’t think it is only children with special needs who are harmed by the assumptions we place upon them. All of us have experienced feeling like we aren’t good enough in one way or another, and it feels lousy. When we notice ourselves having fantasies about who our children will become, maybe we can stop ourselves and try instead to enjoy the process of letting their mysterious little selves unfold.
My son may never win the science fair but he’s an adorable, happy boy and he makes me proud every day as he works hard to accomplish tasks that other kids would find easy. Really, who can ask for more?