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When I first came into the special needs field in the mid-1970s I attended a conference for parents held at a local hospital. A very experienced community pediatrician gave a talk in which she referred to the irrational commitment of parents to their children, and she emphasized how much we professionals rely on that irrational commitment in our work with children with significant health and developmental difficulties. She tried to express her gratitude for this to all the parents in the hall that day, but a father who was present thought she was insulting parents, took very strong objection to being called ‘irrational’, and began to protest and disrupt the session. The doctor tried to keep things going and to explain that she was actually supporting and thanking parents, but in the end the talk was never finished, and there were tears in the room, not least from the pediatrician herself.
This was a galvanizing and embarrassing experience for me, one that has obviously remained vivid in my memory for forty years. From that event I learned, first of all, that whenever I was intending to say anything remotely controversial during a presentation it would be a good idea to do it with all the charm and humor I could summon! I also very quickly learned that what the pediatrician was attempting to share with us that day had a profound truth to it. Accepting and remembering that truth has helped me to work with, and work through, many complex situations, it has helped me to understand when parents make decisions which surprise me, and it really helps me to notice and appreciate the heroic deeds that parents carry out routinely in their day to day lives with their child.
Though I observe this irrational commitment all the time, I rarely talk to parents about it using those exact words, probably because of this powerful early memory of how badly the term can be misunderstood. I never hear other professionals using the term when they talk about parents, although they quite often allude to it in my conversations with them. Sadly, when the topic is brought up it is often given a negative connotation, the level of the parent’s commitment being perceived as a problem because it seems, in the professional’s opinion, to make the parent overly demanding, overly ambitious in their expectations, and overly emotional. This has always struck me as strange because I can appreciate where this passion is coming from, and I can also see that if it doesn’t come from the parent it is very unlikely to come from anybody else in the child’s world, and it is an essential part of a successful childhood for all children. As much as I enjoy and am fascinated by the children with whom I work, and as much as they inspire and lift and teach me, I never forget that it is the commitment of their parents that enables my work, that facilitates any success that I have, and that really keeps me going. I wonder why so many professionals feel this negative attitude, and close themselves off from what should be a significant source of energy and inspiration for their ongoing work.
In December the boy who taught me more than any other child I have ever known passed away from renal failure. He was 30 when he died and I had known him since he was 2 years old. I think of him and talk about the lessons he taught me all the time, but then his mother always comes into my mind. By her own account she was poorly educated and full of silly ideas, yet during the 13 years that I worked with her son she was the person who always set the scene perfectly for my involvement, who brought laughter to everyone she met, who never failed to make me feel good about myself and the things that I was doing, who kept going and loving and supporting through separation & divorce, financial problems, breast cancer and other health issues, housing issues, and many complex behavior issues with her extraordinary son. I once asked her how she did keep going with such dogged determination in the face of so many barriers and she looked surprised at the question. She really, genuinely, felt that everything was okay because it was all for her three children. That’s irrational commitment at work. Why is it so undervalued and so little talked about in the professional field?