Every so often we parents who had kids later on in life have experiences that leave us feeling the weight of our years when compared to our younger, springier counterparts. My family’s recent jaunt to a water resort drove that feeling home quite emphatically as I stood guard over my nearly nine-year-old, autistic son in the wave pool, gritting my teeth as I got splashed by screaming children all around me. While he bobbed and giggled in the undulating water, seeming to draw energy from the entropy around him, I kept having to remind myself to get a grip and not snap at the nearest offender, because that’s how these little miscreants are supposed to act at places like this. You’re just old.
As my husband and I herded our son from activity to activity, I looked with amazement upon younger women who maneuvered several children at once, sometimes with the weight of one well on the way hindering their movements. How do they do it? I marveled, eyeing their bulbous bellies. You deal with the hand you are dealt, I guessed, taking one day, one moment at a time.
Alas, my husband and I never had the opportunity to find out about having more than one child. Once we learned that our first had autism, we made the choice not to have a second. Mainly to focus on our firstborn’s needs, but also to avoid the overwhelming scenario of having another child similarly diagnosed. And as I have moved through the rigors of pursuing developmental therapy, educational services, and medical treatment for my son (not to mention homegrown love and parenting), I know we made the right choice for our family. There is only so much of me, the primary caregiver, to go around in my son’s life.
And although I might complain about being a creakier, crankier mom, I secretly appreciate the wisdom of it. Because I recognize who I was in my twenties and thirties, how steeped I was in the pain of a traumatic childhood. I can look back and see how long it would take for my soul to heal, really heal, at its roots. I had an ultra-religious father who abused me in a religious context—so confusing me about the nature of my heavenly Father that I came to deeply distrust the One I needed most to survive. Only after years of psychological, pastoral, and medical treatment would I be whole enough to bring a child into the world and let his childhood be about him, not me. Growing up is hard enough without having a parent taking out their unresolved issues on you.
Back to the water resort. Besides tolerating all the horseplay with some level of self-control, there was the bedding, or lack thereof. My son was in heaven with his cool bunk bed setup. Supplied with a few vital items from home, he slept beautifully all three nights. I, on the other hand, did miserably on the first night, fighting with the lumpy pillows and thin sheets. The extra blanket provided in the room obviously hadn’t been washed in a long time and induced sneezing. In fact, the air in the whole room felt dusty and closed.
This was not the kind of place my husband and I used to stay during the 17 years we were married before our son was born. We vacationed in quaint B&B’s, hotels with room service, places with accommodations for allergy sufferers. Moreover, this was our first time venturing out after being on covid lockdown, and it was obvious that the resort was too short-staffed to provide the usual amenities, let alone extras.
Having kids changes you. Having them late changes you when you feel you are least able to bend into the adjustments they demand (like trips to crazy theme parks). God bless my husband, who located a superstore the next day, so that we could buy some extra bedding and an air purifier to make our temporary home more comfortable. Left to his own devices, he probably would have put up with things as they were. Knowing how provoked I was on so many levels, he did what he could to soothe and calm me. And I was mature enough to let him take care of me, aware of how big a difference these details would make. I also asked a few close friends to pray into our situation, which I know they faithfully did.
Together, all things worked together so that our boy had a blast over three days, and my husband and I did more than just survive. We were actually able to savor several treasures that our trip offered. Twice my husband went down a super-slide with my son, a feat which seemed to both terrify and thrill him. He also saw my son hit the jackpot in the hotel arcade, tickets spilling out of a game into his hands. I noted how my son waited patiently in line, making sure other children were well out of the way before taking his turn. I also enjoyed people-watching, hearing many languages spoken around me as we parents from many places tried to provide our children with a good time. My husband and I ordered Indian, Korean, and Puerto Rican takeout. And the three of us just spent a lot of down time hanging out in our room together, doing whatever made us happy, be it reading or watching something on a tablet.
When it came time to leave, we packed up and loaded the car. My husband and son had already vacated the room when I did one final sweep, quite confident that we had left nothing behind. As I turned off the light to leave, however, something showed itself to me: our nightlight, which automatically turns on in the dark and off in the light. Reaching my hand into shadow, I retrieved it from the outlet, grateful not to have lost our little way-revealer. No joke—I have actually broken bones by smacking my feet in the darkness. Taking preventive measures on trips— also part of being an older parent.
For some reason, I could not get the nightlight—nor the method of its discovery—out of my head in the days that followed, even as I slogged through the onerous, days-long task of unpacking. (How did we end up with so much MORE than what we started with?) I thought about it as my son started his first week of special needs summer camp—his first experience ever with this type of activity. I went with him his first day, acting as his “para”—one dedicated to following him around exclusively to ensure his safety. After that first day, I was grateful that there would be two young women taking my place for the remainder of the summer, as the needs of the campers were quite demanding in comparison to available staff.
Then it happened. One of my son’s paras came home and reported that my son had had a near miss with another child eating a peanut butter sandwich. (My son is life-threateningly allergic to peanuts). Unfortunately, the situation was not handled optimally as the proper staff had not been present to oversee it. Immediately, I could feel my blood begin to boil as I went into mama-bear attack mode. I knew I had to contact the camp director to address the problem. I knew I had to do it immediately, if my son was going to attend camp safely. The question was how. My brain spun with possibilities.
Mama bear: Decapitation. Verbal equivalent = Harsh words. Intimidation. Veiled threats.
Fifty-year-old, more-healed me: Remember the nightlight. In the shadow. How you were given the chance to save what might have been lost at the very last minute.
This time, being an older parent paid off, because I was able to take a breath, put myself in the director’s shoes, and draft an email that outlined the seriousness of the issue while expressing my hope that we might solve it together as allies, not enemies.
Soon enough, the camp director called me to discuss the acuteness of my son’s condition as well as strategies that might be employed in response. Before hanging up, she surprised me by saying, “Thank you for the manner in which you have expressed your concerns. A lot of parents would have just yelled at me.”
Mama bear me tried to hide behind the skirts of 50 year old me, hoping no one would notice how close she had come to doing just that. I simply hung up, so thankful that God had tempered my anger by allowing me to glimpse a light shining in the darkness before I proceeded. For over a decade this woman, a special needs mom herself, has worked hard to provide a summer camp experience for kids who can’t attend other programs because of their foibles and deficits. She deserves a ton of credit for that, for serving those Jesus would have called the “least of these.” I’m certain Jesus really appreciates the lawn games, pool time, and even the warm greetings he receives as those campers come off the buses that bring them to space all their own.
And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Making room for God to show up and do something far greater than whatever objective (however reasonable or necessary) we may try to attain on our own in an outraged, self-driven state.
Joseph, favored son of Jacob, comes to mind whenever I think about trying to tame one’s speech to include more God and less self to bring about the best outcome. If you know the story, one of the main reasons Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery is the way he repeatedly recounts dreams in which they appear to take a subservient role to him (Gen 37:7-10). Although we don’t know the spirit in which young Joseph reports his dreams, they certainly prove inflammatory, burning up the cushy life he lived in Canaan and banishing him to Egypt.
Years later, after a period of unjust imprisonment, Joseph once again finds himself involved with dreams—only this time as an interpreter rather than their source. Having predicted the imminent release of a fellow prisoner (Pharaoh’s cupbearer), Joseph asks:
14 Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house.
15 For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit.” (Gen. 40:14-15 ESV)
On the surface, Joseph’s request seems perfectly sound—savvy, even, considering the fact that he may not have another opportunity to plead his case again. What leaps out at me, however, is how many times Joseph refers to himself in these two verses—7 times in both the English and the Hebrew.
Now the text does not condemn Joseph for doing so, but after studying Joseph’s speech very carefully, I noticed an important trend: the more Joseph explicitly refers to himself in the story, the worse things go for him. The more he recedes, however, favoring God as the subject of his speech over himself, the better things go. For instance, the result of Joseph’s self-saturated speech above is carefully recounted by the narrator:
[Pharaoh] restored the chief cupbearer to his position and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand…Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.”
(Gen 40:21, 23 ESV)
Joseph molders in prison two more years before another opportunity arises for release, and this time he gets it right. When Pharaoh has troubling dreams featuring skinny cows devouring fat ones, and healthy ears of corn swallowing spoiled ones, the cupbearer recommends Joseph to his sovereign as an interpreter. When Pharaoh explains that Joseph may be his last hope of finding meaning in his dreams—his own sages have failed—the son of Jacob’s first words are a total deflection of attention away from himself: “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (Gen 41:16 ESV, emphasis mine).
After hearing the dream, Joseph delivers a lengthy, 11 verse oration that includes not only interpretation but also instruction. The land of Egypt will experience 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine, the latter of which can be endured by careful storage of food. Interestingly, Joseph construes the dreams as a private communiqué between the God of Israel and Egypt’s king in which vital information is conveyed. Twice he says: “God has revealed/said to Pharaoh what He is about to do” (Gen 41:25, 28). He also emphasizes that “the thing is fixed by God and God will shortly bring it about.” (Gen 41:32). The only time he refers to himself in this 165-word (in the Hebrew) speech is to underscore early on the absolute truth of Pharaoh’s dreams—the doubled symbols do not lie: “It is as I told Pharaoh; God has shown to Pharaoh what He is about to do. There will come seven years…” (Gen 41:28:29, ESV).
Surprisingly, when Pharaoh decides to follow Joseph’s directives to the letter, he bestows all of his attention (not to mention his power) on Joseph, not on himself, as Joseph was so careful to do.
“Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?…Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” (Gen 41:37,39:40 ESV)
By hanging back and letting God take center stage, Joseph not only breaks free from jail, but becomes a great emancipator himself, eventually saving all Egypt and the nation of Israel—his own family—from destruction. When he steps back and lets God shine in his speech, things move mightily in the right direction. And God is glorified.
Maybe you’re feeling creaky and cranky. Provoked by the general chaos around you or by a specific situation that irks you. You may be tempted to fire some choice words into that situation like darts or try to directly control the outcome with your bare, adrenaline-driven hands.
My advice? Breathe. Take advantage of the years that are in you, the times you were on the receiving end of someone’s patience, understanding, and kindness. When you speak, hang back on the “me” and “I” language. Don’t rush in so quickly to plead your case. Let another plead theirs first. Focus on the larger picture in play and see if God has anything to say about it. If there is a role for you to fulfill, He will hold that spot open for you. That may be the hardest part to believe: that someone—even a very unlikely someone—will see the Spirit in you and plug you in where you belong. In a shadowy corner that needs light.
In the meantime, let others love on you so you can endure the inordinate splashing with grace. For this, too, shall pass. And the memories will all be worth it in the end.