Crying in the church basement: On parenting children who don’t fit the box

by | Oct 10, 2023 | Complexity, Family, Holding Space for Others, Holding Space for Yourself

Listen to Heather read the post here:


I was crying in the church basement while my toddler ran circles around the room. I was certain I must be doing something wrong as a parent. My brother’s two sons were upstairs, sitting in cherubic silence on the hard wooden pew, while all the grownups around them listened to their grandpa (my dad) deliver a sermon. But not my child – my child would never sit still in church, no matter how I bribed her with candy or colouring books, no matter how much I pleaded.

As most new parents do, I was blaming myself, comparing my parenting skills with my brother’s and his wife’s and coming up short. Did I discipline my children enough? Did I pamper them too much? Was I consistent enough? Should I be bringing them to more places where they were required to sit still so that they’d become more accustomed to it?

Of course, that wasn’t the last time I based the measure of my own worth on my children’s behaviour, and it wasn’t even the first. I think the first time it happened was probably before I’d brought my first baby home from the hospital. I’m sure I judged myself for how much she cried or whether she latched onto my breast properly. And if a nurse looked at me with some concern about my baby, I’m sure I took it personally and thought I needed to do better.

It’s what we do, isn’t it parents? We worry and stress about our children’s behaviour and then we worry and stress about how other people are judging that behaviour. Too often, we see our children as extensions of ourselves, and we entangle our sense of self-worth in how well they perform. We layer our own insecurities and perfectionism onto them, and when they don’t meet the expectations we’ve projected onto them, we see it as our own failure.

It’s not just an inside job, rooted in our own insecurity – it’s also the case that parents, and especially mothers, get blamed for their children’s behaviour ALL THE TIME. We start feeling the pressure the moment these tiny people enter our lives and we try to do everything we can to get it right. We read the parenting books and listen to the experts on breastfeeding, sleep training, and potty training, and if our children don’t perform well according to what those experts say is the “right” way, we assume we must be doing something wrong. When our children scream in grocery stores or libraries, we see the eyes of judgement turned our way and we take on the weight of that blame.

Years after I cried in that church basement, we discovered that the daughter who was running in circles was neurodivergent. She probably wasn’t feeling safe in the structure of that church environment, so it’s not surprising that she needed to construct a way to be removed from it. I just didn’t understand the messages she was trying to send me – they’d been blocked by my own self-doubt.

Seasoned as I now am, as a parent to three twenty-something adults, I often grieve the ways that I tried to put my children into boxes that didn’t fit them. More than anything, I grieve the ways that I projected my own insecurities onto them and made them carry the weight of my fears. I wish I could have been more aware of my own baggage, back then, and more aware of the things I was passing down to them inadvertently. And I wish I could have seen the ways that I was performing acceptability in a patriarchal, capitalist world and could have protected them from some of the harm of those systems instead of passing it down to them. I wish I’d broken a few more cultural “rules” in defence of my children, who all turned out to be both queer and neurodivergent and therefore didn’t fit many of the boxes, instead of forcing my children to follow those rules alongside me. Fortunately, we are now having lots of openhearted conversations about this and I continue to be stretched by them as we work to unravel this together.

Having queer, neurodivergent children (and one with a disability), and learning late in life that I, too, am queer and neurodivergent, has opened my eyes to the many ways that our systems are designed to support and celebrate what is “normal” and marginalize what is “abnormal”. As parents, we want our children to fit into the boxes not just because of our own insecurities, but because we know they’ll be safer and more well-cared for by the systems and societies we’re part of. A neurotypical child will make their way through the school system with far fewer barriers. A straight child will likely not face as much bullying and they’ll be seen as far more culturally acceptable. An able-bodied child will get to freely participate in activities and not sit on the sidelines. It can be extremely anxiety-inducing when we realize all of the bumps and bruises our children will face if they refuse to perform acceptability in the ways that we have learned to perform it (or ways we failed to do so).

What is particularly troublesome is that, out of our own fear of being marginalized for being different (and watching our children be marginalized), many of us pathologize what we see as “abnormal” in our children and inadvertently compound the harm being done to them. Naomi Klein, who’s raising an autistic son, was looking for parenting support and resources and was shocked to discover just how many parents of autistic children treat it as something they have to “fix”. Even more disturbing was the number of parents who wanted to blame someone else for their child’s “abnormality” and started to rally around the false claims that autism was caused by vaccines. In her new book, Doppelganger, Klein lays out how this pathologizing of autism contributed significantly to the anti-vax movement during the pandemic.

In this fascinating and disturbing book, Klein ties parents’ fear of having “abnormal” children together with the performative culture of social media where so many influencers use their children as click-bait. Online, we are tempted to live curated lives and we want our well-behaved and attractive little children to perform well so that we can show the world how much worth we have. “This, I think, is a corollary of all the shame and pathologizing of kids who are different in our culture – an outsize pride taken in kids who seem to check all the boxes, meet all the social standards, are perfect little children.”

It’s similar when it comes to trans kids. Parents who have not healed their own fear of being othered are afraid to have children who don’t fit the acceptable mold, and so they push back against the rights and acceptability of trans kids. The result is a wave of people fighting for “parents’ rights”, arguing that there should be policies in place that force teachers to tell parents if their children ask to switch their pronouns in schools. The safety and care of children seems less important than maintaining enough parental control to try to mold their children into what is acceptable (i.e. “normal”).

It’s true about disabled kids too. As a parent of a disabled and immune-compromised child who had to have multiple critical surgeries during the course of the pandemic, I was dismayed at the dismissal of disabled and chronically ill people during that time. Stopped at a red light once, while the Freedom Convoy streamed past with signs demanding an end to pandemic restrictions, my disabled daughter turned to me and said, “Does my life matter at all to these people?” Many of the people in the convoy were parents, with their children in tow, and I couldn’t help but wonder if those children would feel like they had worth in their parents’ eyes if they were disabled as my daughter was. (I wondered similarly about the children who might be closeted trans kids at recent parents’ rights marches.)

What it all comes down to, Klein says, is that we, as parents, often become over-identified with our children and so we attempt to control the uncontrollable in order to shape them into who we think they should be. “It has to do with a more pervasive kind of doppelganging – the doubling that can occur between parents and their children. Procreation has long been viewed, particularly by those who come from wealth, as a form of temporal doubling, with the child sometimes given the same name as the father or mother, extending the parent’s legacy and fortune into the future. In our time of personal branding and optimized selves, you don’t need inherited wealth or a title to do something similar. You can simply treat your child as a spin-off or brand extension – you and your little mini-me can dress up in matching outfits for Instagram or share adorable dances on TikTok.”

But our children are not ours to control or shape. They are not ours to mold into miniature versions of us. They do not exist to make us look or feel better about ourselves. They are separate, complicated, unique, messy, beautiful individuals who just happen to have landed in our lives but do not belong to us. Yes, we are responsible for guiding them into adulthood, as best we can, but they do not owe us anything and they shouldn’t be required to carry the burden of our expectations, our shame, or our perfectionism.

How, then, do we disentangle our identity from that of our children so that they have the autonomy to figure out who they are? How do we provide sufficient guidance, support and guardrails so that they don’t get lost in the world, without trying to control who they turn out to be?

I don’t pretend to be a parenting expert. I have muddled through as much as any parent. But what I DO have some expertise in is The Art of Holding Space, and, in my opinion, holding space is one of the most critical (and also most challenging) skills in parenting.

Holding space is about supporting someone without controlling the outcome. It’s about standing alongside someone and helping them find ways of meeting their needs during challenging times without projecting our own narratives, shame, judgement, and expectations onto them. It’s about allowing them the autonomy to write their own stories, and make their own mistakes, while bearing witness in a way that makes them feel seen.

Holding space is HARD when you’re a parent, sometimes even EXCRUCIATING. When we have so much invested and there is so much at risk, letting go of the outcome seems nearly impossible. It becomes increasingly more complicated as they become older, because we were so responsible for their safety and comfort in their early years that it’s hard to let go and trust that they’ll be okay.

Here’s one thing I know for sure and that I say again and again when I teach… to truly hold space for other people, to open our hearts and our hands and release control of the outcome, we need to do our own work and learn to hold space for ourselves first. This is especially the case when we’re trying to hold space for our growing children. The more we take responsibility for our own baggage, the less we project it onto them. The more we heal our trauma, the less the trauma gets passed down through the generations. The more we face our own insecurities and wrestle with our tendencies toward perfectionism and performance, the less we expect our children to perform acceptability in order to validate us.  The more we hold our own shame with tenderness and examine the ways we’ve inherited that shame from the systems we’re embedded in, the less our children have to live in the shadow of that shame.

It takes a lot of courage to parent our children in a way that genuinely respects their autonomy and unique identities, especially if those children don’t fit the boxes of acceptability imposed by our culture. Sometimes we need to stand up to bullies, sometimes we need to advocate on their behalf, and sometimes we need to intentionally remove them from, or create barriers to protect them from, systems that cause harm. We also need to support them through the heartbreaks that they’ll inevitably feel when they get marginalized and/or mistreated. AND we need to celebrate their uniqueness and love them into the fullest expressions of themselves.

None of this is easy work, and we will inevitably make mistakes. If we’re lucky, and we continue to take responsibility for those mistakes when they are revealed to us, we get to make repairs and perhaps receive forgiveness from our children. And then we get to continue to grow alongside them, and that, from my vantage point, can be a beautiful thing.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.