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Two Sons – One Typical, One Disabled – Helped Me Discover My Potential as a Father

August 2, 2017 | by Eliya Stromberg

My journey to uncover the real truth a father has to give.

Two sons call me their father. My first born is himself a father of a breathtakingly beautiful and incredibly smart little girl who has the distinction of being my first grandchild. Number two son will likely never have children.

My number one son learns in a highly respected institution of higher learning. My second son can read words in isolation, but never picks up a book to read on his own. My first born sought his independence from me in his early teen years. My second son is 22, has never slept away from home and may be dependent on me all his life.

My first born sought his independence from me in his early teen years. My second son may be dependent on me all his life.

My first born has developed in typical expected fashion. My second son was born with Down syndrome, with chromosomal anomalies that resulted in atypical physical and intellectual development.

I felt less capable of meeting the challenges of my special needs son than those of my first born. But with all the unknowns, doubts, and pain that accompany raising a child with special needs, were I to grade myself on being the kind of father I thought I should be with each boy, I’d get an “A” with my second son but just a “C” with my first.

Don’t get me wrong. Number one son has grown into a devoted husband, competent father, a scholar, and an all-around good human being. I earned a “C” because as I raised him I was not fully “myself”. I had expectations which influenced how I related to him. But since my number two son was not typical, I did not know what to expect so I did not allow myself any expectations. As a result, with him I was just me. And who I was with each son resulted in two very different experiences as a father.

My firstborn son on his bicycle

With my first born I began reading to him when he was a newborn. I’d prop him on my lap with a picture book in front of us and read him stories. Outside I’d hold him up to trees and rub his delicate hands on the rough bark, “explaining” to him how plants grow. I challenged all his senses. The world was marvelous to him. And how he absorbed it all was marvelous to me. We bonded by engaging intellectually with one another. That hasn’t happened yet with son number two.

I started out fathering son number two in the only way I knew how: the way I had been successfully relating to son number one. I read books to him and showed him pictures. I took him outside to see the many shapes and colors nature comes in. We smelled the flowers and put our hands in the earth. I demonstrated the attraction and repulsion of magnets. We did all the things that had always fascinated me and my first born. But our “learning experiences” never resulted in the deep intellectual connection that I so cherished while introducing the world to my first born.

It was several years of not feeling deeply connected to my son before I discovered what it was I had to give to him. It was not my “words of wisdom” nor methods of scientific inquiry. It wasn’t until my son was old enough for us to kick and throw a ball to each other on a playing field that I discovered what I had to give to him.

Out at play we had a great time together. It didn’t matter to him if he caught the ball or not. Or if he always had to chase after the ball when I kicked it to him and he couldn’t stop it. We laughed together when the ball bounced off his chest as he tried to catch it or I wasn’t looking when he threw it to me. This little boy whom the physical therapist once called a “dish rag” because his muscle tone was so floppy never tired when we played.

The author

During breaks that I needed he’d lean against me even if I was sweaty in the heat. All we talked about was playing ball. Or I would tell him silly jokes that my grandfather always told me. My son didn’t seek anything deeper than being with me in that moment.

On that playing field I discovered what I had to give to this son. He just wanted me: my attention, my validation, my silly humor, my being free with him. He didn’t want the teacher, the wise man, or the superstar that I tried to be with my first born. Son number two wanted just me.

He didn’t want the teacher, the wise man, or the superstar that I tried to be with my first born.

As my son grew into adulthood (now in his mid-20’s) I have never stopped just being me with him. I’m still silly, I repeat the corny jokes, I push off hugs when I don’t feel like having them. No pretenses, no expectations, just me. Since I never knew what to expect of him I stopped having expectations of myself. That was much safer for me emotionally than being continually disappointed that my son couldn’t do what I thought he should do. It is an amazing, liberating blessing being able to just be me.

This is not say I have no expectations of number two son. I certainly do. But I have learned to tailor my expectations to what meets my son’s needs, not mine. This was liberating. Once I stopped having expectations of myself, the danger of failing disappeared. As long as I was just me, I couldn’t fail.

Learning to Ride

The proof of this truth came to me when my second son, at age nine, wanted to ride a bicycle. I was all for it. Riding a bike would allow him to interact more with his peers, would encourage him to be less home-bound, and would build his self-confidence and independence.

So I started to teach him.

Nearly four weeks of daily effort did not result in my son riding off into the sunset on his own two wheels as I had hoped. (My first born learned how to ride a bike without my help. He just got on his bike, started to pedal, fell down a few times, and in less than a week could ride without holding the handlebars.) Somehow I could not get the message across to number two son: “just keep pedaling.”

I did not feel like a failure and give up. Instead, I looked for another teacher. I enlisted my “Tour de France”-to-be superstar first born but he, too, was not successful. Eventually, I found a local sports teacher and after two months, my finally son got it. He just kept pedaling and soon enough he began to ride off into the sunset. He’s been riding ever since. He has won four gold medals in bicycling in national-level Special Olympics competition.

The medal winner

My son’s accomplishment learning to ride his bike was also my accomplishment. I felt as though “we” had succeeded. “We” included both my sons, the sports teacher, and me. My son’s accomplishment was a team effort and because I was able to accept my limitations as a riding instructor without self-criticism, I could function as a seasoned coach to find the resources and encourage the players to win the game.

Snare of the Ego

I was not so wise with son number one. While I started out just being me, at a certain point I tried to perform a role which wasn’t mine. Our bonding suffered, and required years to repair.

When my first son was almost two years old my wife and I relocated from New York City to Jerusalem, Israel. From the time we arrived, I read to my son every night from the weekly portion of the Torah. He would sit on my lap as I showed him pictures and told him stories.

In time he began to ask questions which allowed me to tell him more and more about the world as I viewed it. We learned together like this each night for over seven years. Our exchanges were sometimes deep and expansive. I was so proud of how much knowledge my son was acquiring and how perceptive and penetrating his questions had become. I felt like his teacher, his guide, which is what I imagined I would be to my children.

I marveled at seeing how my life had evolved. I was an impressionable university student in the turbulent 1960’s. Political agitation, countercultural adventurism, revolutionary social relations, mixed with radical music and art forms was the backdrop of my education. And now I was sitting with my son in Jerusalem, learning the ancient teachings of my ancestral heritage.

I thought that if I wanted my son to achieve greatness in scholarship it was up to me to prepare him.

I had a wonderful wife with whom to share my life and a son to teach wisdom. With my son’s talents and enthusiasm for learning I dreamt of him becoming no less than a scholar in our tradition of giants in wisdom and knowledge. And as I developed expectations for my son I developed expectations of myself.

I thought that if I wanted my son to achieve greatness in scholarship it was up to me to prepare him. Whom else could I depend on to guide and encourage if not me? All around me I saw fathers sitting each night with their sons learning together the ancient texts. Of course that is what I had to do.

But I lost sight of the big picture and got entangled in the snare of my ego. Having grown up in Israel since he was about two years old, my son was fluent in speaking, reading, and writing in Hebrew. But I was not.

In school, my nine-year-old was reading the ancient texts and commentaries in the original. From his teachers in school he was delving deeper than I could possibly take him given my limited facility in Hebrew. It did not take long for my son to surpass me in knowledge of our tradition as learned from the texts.

Atop Table Mountain in Johannesburg, South Africa

Our nightly learning program began to lose its luster because I became intimidated by my son’s knowledge and his opportunities to learn from his teachers in school. I felt that I could not compete with them. Even worse, I felt I couldn’t compete with my son.

Rather than reframing my perceptions and accepting myself for who I was, I felt so inadequate that I shut down and stopped learning with my son altogether.

With the hindsight of many years, I see how unrealistic expectations of myself and comparing myself to his teachers robbed me of the deep relationship with my son that I was successfully building. I became blinded to the fact that our relationship, our sitting together every night sharing myself openly and honestly with him, that was the truth that I had to give him.

For my son to believe my truths, I had to be me.

Every child wants to know that his father loves him and thinks he is important. The undivided attention I gave my son spoke that truth. Every child wants to believe that his father is smart and wise. By sharing my unique life experiences I was giving my son some wisdom I had to offer.

Though I did not have all the textual knowledge of his teachers, I did have truths to give my son. But for my son to believe my truths, I had to be me.

There will likely always be someone with more knowledge or skill in a subject who can teach your child, or who is more cool than you. And there will be times in your child’s life when your child appears uninterested in what you have to tell him or her, but will run to mimic someone without much experience in life. This is to be expected.

But your child has only one father and that is YOU. There is only one man whom your child knows he can trust, who will always be there for him no matter what, who will try to do anything for him that is for his good. That is the truth which is totally in a father’s control to transmit.

And that is what a child really wants from his father.

In Chosen Fathers, thirteen fathers speak honestly about accepting the reality of having a child who is disabled, a situation they never expected and certainly never wanted.

From these fathers, from his professional experience as an educator, and from raising a son who is disabled, Dr. Eliya Stromberg identifies four life lessons which every father can use to raise his child to meet its full potential.

Click here to purchase Chosen Fathers

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