1. You learn that with support, anyone can be a great parent.
It’s hard to raise kids even when you have normal abilities, and we all know things can go wrong even with the best of parents. When other people learn that my mother is intellectually disabled, they sometimes think I was allowed to eat anything I want or do what I pleased at all times. One guy I briefly dated joked that it must have been fun eating ice cream for every meal. Nothing can be further from the truth—not with the tag team that was my mom and grandmother.
Like any working-class single mother, my mom had help from extended family to accomplish all her parenting goals. My grandmother babysat me a lot after school when my mom was at work, and she helped my mom be a better parent by being her backup. She attended all of my parent/teacher conferences and doctor’s appointments to make sure my mom didn’t miss anything.
My mom was concerned about my education, diet, and appearance. She poured everything that she could into me, as she was haunted by the ridicule she suffered in school for being different. More than anything, my mother wanted me to be smart. My mom doesn’t have an official label or diagnosis other than the tests that show she is of lower IQ, has difficulty making decisions, and suffers from memory problems. So logically she feared that I could have the same difficulties she does. To try to prevent any of this, my mother had a daily mission of prevention that stays with me to this day. To inoculate me from a poor vocabulary, we had a word of the day taken from the dictionary randomly and used in at least several sentences over the course of the day. My mother also decided it was important I know geography, so she bought a globe, had me spin it, and then learn about whatever country my finger landed on. She read to me when she could, although my reading level outpaced hers rather quickly. My mom didn’t even let me have sweets and refused to let me eat sugary cereals, fatty snacks, or processed foods. She once got angry that I ate SpaghettiOs at a sleepover and instead of letting me have candy, she bought me flavored lip balm.
To finally fully answer that asshole that I dated—no, I never had ice cream as a meal.
2. You grow a thick skin.
Years ago when I was in middle school a girl on my basketball team made fun of the weird lady in the stands wearing bright make-up, rainbow toe socks, and roses in her hair. Her exact words were, “Oh my gawd look at her socks,” coupled with a pointed index finger and grin on her face that said, “Come ridicule this person with me.” It was in that moment I learned not to be ashamed of my mom. I straightened my back, looked the girl in the eye, and said, “That’s my mother.”
Lucky for me I was captain of the team, so my words had more weight, and that girl shut the fuck up. It was a liberating moment after years of not wanting my mom to drop me off at school or meet any of my friends, as I knew she looked strange in her flamboyant clothes compared to the rest of the small-town moms. Now that I look back, I’m glad she wasn’t like them. My mom fostered my creativity and championed any way that I wanted to dress. Later that same year she helped me dye part of my head electric blue.
3. Once you know you can outsmart your parent, you can become a monster.
The only pop-culture reference I know about that relates to this phenomenon is the movie I Am Sam, which I never liked and don’t recommend you see. However, the movie perfectly illustrates how I felt and acted when I realized I could get away with things around my mom so long as I was not brazen in my rule-breaking. And even then I might be able to talk my way out of it or talk my way into a preferred punishment. The daughter in the movie realizes her dad can also be very easily tricked and takes full advantage. I did a full body cringe when I watched it; I was guilty of the same sins. The daughter wants more out of her father and will never get it. This frustrates her and she takes it out on him. I wish it wasn’t true, though as I grew older I became crueler to the woman who only wanted me to be better than her. By ten years old I was making jokes and sarcastic remarks at my mother’s expense often; on the outside she took the teasing well, yet I’m certain that it hurt. My grandmother had to step in and point out what a jackass I was being.
4. Overestimation and underestimation are constant struggles.
My mother is a talented woman who has many skills. She can sew and design clothing with her own patterns; she’s a great painter, sculptor, and hairstylist. She knows how to save money. On a minimum-wage job my mom managed to save a good deal of money and pay a mortgage. I can barely put away any of my paychecks or manage my student loans.
Still, her disability put a tarnish on these skills. My grandparents didn’t want to risk sending her to art school because they didn’t think she’d make it through art history. Her beauty-school training never took off because she couldn’t pass the state exam that involved the identification of skin rashes and other health concerns. And most devastatingly, when I was eleven my mother was taken in by a con man that said he loved her and would make her a real fashion designer. He took her entire life’s savings and caused her to lose custody of me.
It’s hard to figure out what my mom can handle and what she can’t. Ever since the con man, my grandmother and I have taken the road of underestimation, yet I still hold out hope for my mom making her way out of the fog in her mind that slows her down. I know it’s an irrational hope, but people of normal intelligence are taken in by con men every day. Why should my mother be considered different?
I taught her recently how to use a computer with my old laptop, and she was a way better student than my dad, who did not pay attention at all and expected me to do everything. Still, I had to be very patient. Certain family members said she couldn’t use a computer, and I was motivated to prove them wrong. (Although after the fifth phone call about how to use a browser later, I wasn’t so patient.) Yet we succeeded—she can surf the Web like most people now, watching cat videos on YouTube.
My greatest sin of overestimation was last Christmas, when I gave her an autographed copy of the book that became one of her favorite movies. The professor who taught my literature course was the author, and when I found out I thought it would be the perfect gift. I lied to my professor when I asked her to sign it. I told her my mother loved the book, not the movie. The inscription was sweet and it meant a lot having a published author and mentor tell my mom that I was talented. I wrapped it up with pride thinking it was a well thought-out gift. My mom liked it or at least pretended to for my sake. I should have known that the gift appealed more to my vanity than to what she would enjoy and use. I called her a week later to see if she had cracked it and she hadn’t. It bummed me out; I really wanted her to like it. I wanted her to tell me it was better than the movie. A short story my mom can handle; a whole novel is a challenge when you have memory problems that force you to re-read sections often. It was a thoughtless gift.
5. There is never a resolution.
In the classic Oscar-bait movies about the intellectually disabled, they are folksy heroes who right wrongs (Sling Blade), give inspiration (Radio), or are incredibly talented though just a bit slow (Forrest Gump and Rain Man). At the end of the movie every character’s life is better for having been touched by theirs and they are grateful for the moments they spent with them. I’ve been waiting for this resolution ever since I watched Forrest Gump as a kid. I know it sounds stupid and it is, but Hollywood was the first and only other exposure I had to the intellectually handicapped. In those movies everyone realizes the potential of the characters in spite of their disabilities; in the real world that almost never happens. If I could write a script for my life, my mother’s art would have been discovered and I’d help her navigate the gallery scene in New York while she dispenses simple wisdom at every turn. Instead, every attempt she’s made at selling her work has failed. The one piece that she was very proud of having on display at her high school for 20 years was just taken down and is now in her attic.
Living with and caring for someone who is intellectually handicapped—no matter how much you love him or her—will always be a challenge. And being the person close enough to them to see their talents and potential unappreciated is heartbreaking. After the con man incident, my mom was declared disabled. She was no longer able to get her job back as a florist; instead, the store offered her a job picking up trash in the parking lot. She did it because “a job is a job”—that’s an actual quote from her. My mom now lives off disability and I know she would like to go back to work. It’s just that once you have the label, everyone treats you differently, and if your coworkers find out they can be just as cruel as schoolchildren.
In life we don’t get grand resolutions and I now accept that my relationship with my mom will never be what I want it to be. The silver lining of this statement is that I know it’s how a lot of people feel about their parents. In the end we’re normal; I know that she loves me and I love her. She likes to call me her greatest creation; I used to hate it as a kid, but now I get it.