Worth the Risk: Writing Poetry about Children with Special Needs

by Laura Wendorff

I had not written poetry in thirty years. Then I had late-in-life children whose presence and complexity blew me to pieces. All children cause trauma in their parents’ lives, but my children are special/challenged/differently-abled/disabled.  (Even I can’t settle on the best descriptor—none seems completely accurate).  Only through poetry could I put myself back together again.

My husband and I are both smart and talented—I’m good at art and music; he was a champion athlete. We come from families of smart, talented achievers, and I expected my children to inherit some of these qualities. At the very least, I expected a level of normalcy for my life—that my children would gradually become self-sufficient, find things they enjoy and that give them joy, and ultimately leave home and have families of their own.  Some of this may still happen.  However, the cost of getting my children to that point, and the fear that, because of their disabilities, they may never get to that point, is what compels me to write.
About twenty years ago, sometime before the birth of my first child, I read a column by the novelist Jacqueline Mitchard that has stuck with me.  Mitchard was working as a freelancer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and just about every column she wrote was about her family and children.  In the particular column that I remember, Mitchard argued that, given a choice, she would want her children to inherit beauty rather than intelligence. You can always teach a child, Mitchard reasoned, but you can’t change a child’s basic looks.  I loved this idea; I held it tight, like a mantra. Anything was possible.  Anything can be taught.  Hard work and the right environment are all that is needed.

I often think about Mitchard’s column when I sit for hours with my beautiful, high-school-aged daughter and try, over and over again, to teach her how to find the area of a regular polygon or interpret a scientific drawing.  I think about Mitchard’s column when I help my tall, tweener son try to remember the steps of multiplication and long division.  And I think about Mitchard’s column when I have three or four meetings a week at my children’s schools so as to ensure they are getting the accommodations they need.  Or when I send several long e-mails a day to my children’s case workers. And I wonder exactly how much additional parenting time Mitchard would have been willing to sacrifice for this hypothetically unintelligent, but beautiful child.  Five hours a week?  Twenty hours a week?  And where would she have found that time?  Would she have quit her job as a columnist or stropped writing her novels?  Or would she, like me, have put all of that pain into the creative process and written some things she would not want her children to read?

And so I write about my children and my experience as a parent, but it’s usually not about them—not really. In one of her early short stories Linda K. Hogan, a Chickasaw writer, has a character who comments that Native people “make art out of [their] loss,” and while I’m not a Native American, this fits my experience. I have a compelling need to create something out of the losses I have experienced, and continue to experience, by having two children with disabilities. Every day my children are not able to do something a “normal” child can do is a day when there’s loss. When they’re not invited to parties or can’t ride a bike or can’t wash their own hair, it’s a loss.  Where are such losses to go, if not into art?  Into alcohol, activism, or exercise? Into my body?  Having lost a breast to cancer, perhaps my loss already has gone into my body.  Could there possibly be a more perfect physical manifestation of my internal losses than the lopping off of a breast that nourished and comforted my two sweet infants?

In poems such as “go away” and “The Bad Mother” I write mostly for myself, for my own selfish needs, and I tell my story.  I flagrantly use my special children as subject matter in an attempt to exorcize the stress and pain from my life. Like a global superpower, I colonize them, mining their lives for resources to use in my poetry.  I maintain almost no taboos, and the result is that some poems, like “go away,” are raw and ugly and would hurt my children deeply if they ever read them. Would it be fair to my children, who already have to deal with so much, to have to read poems their mother wrote about the pain she sometimes suffers because of who they are and what they need?  Where do I draw the line between my needs and their needs? 

I must write—that much is clear. Sorrow is my near neighbor, and I can’t always make her clean up the junk in her yard or turn down her loud music.  Yet writing poetry, more than anything else, gives me the semblance of control. Perhaps this is because poetry contains beauty, even at its ugliest.  To find the right image, metaphor, or rhythm can make a pleasing result out of a sometimes repulsive reality.  Writing puts the pieces back together for me.  I must take the risk of potential discovery.  But writing is private, and theoretically it could remain so.  Why must I publish, and risk much more? 

I publish because music is wasted without an audience.  Ideas dissipate without validation.  Truths become true only when anchored to a page.  Several years ago I wrote a poem called “To My Daughter’s Eighth Grade Teachers,” which was about the ways my daughter was misunderstood at school.  It began with this question— “Where does the anger go when it cannot be expressed?”  And part of the answer was that anger “goes into the permanent record,/this page imprinted on my readers’ minds.”  The permanence of publication and the way it allows a poet to reach out across space and time and into a reader’s head is why I publish.  Having an audience allows me to create empathy and understanding.  Not all women are perfect mothers. Women who have children with disabilities are often broken in ways that women with physically and neurologically typical children are not.  If my audience can understand that and empathize with me, then I’m not just venting; I’m making a difference.  I’m creating understanding.  This, to me, is worth risking the possibility that my children might read a poem before I think they are ready to.  

But how likely is that scenario?  It is unlikely, especially if the poems are published in print journals and especially if my children do not know I’ve used their lives in poems that have been published.  Publishing poems about my children in an online venue, like Verse Wisconsin, is a bit more risky, especially since one of my kids is good at finding things on the internet.  If he decided to Google my name, he might come across something I’d written that I’d rather he not see.  Still, I’m willing to risk it.  When my children are older and have separated more from me, when they have developed more of their own identities, when they have experienced enough of life so that they can look at me objectively, only then will I let them read these poems that will surely cause some pain. With explanation—for example, Mom was feeling quite hopeless when she wrote this—or Mom’s depression and stress is her own; her bad behavior was not your fault—or even Mom is a whacked-out crazy lady who should be locked in the attic; you’re lucky you survived—that pain might be minimalized.

There’s another reason I publish poems about my children, however: I want my audience to understand that children with disabilities are completely human. Does this sound odd and obvious?  Unfortunately, most people—consciously or not—view the disabled as less than human.  Children with disabilities are stared at, isolated, assumed to be stupid, stereotyped, called ugly names, and bullied.  The majority of the population could never envision electing a President with spina bifida, autism-spectrum disorder, or mental illness. And because the general public cannot envision it, children with disabilities cannot dream it.  Because they are seen as less than human, they see themselves as less than human.  When I write poems about the challenges my kids face at school from peers and teachers, I want to smack people in the face with them.  These poems are like bricks to the head; they are meant to cause reorientation and, ultimately, create justice.  I have published several poems about my daughter’s challenges and the ways that some educators, because of their stereotypes, have made her life even more difficult.  These poems are meant to cause change.  For many people, however, “causing change” is not the job of poetry.  In order to cause change, a poem has to have an explicit meaning, and many critics and poets believe that poetry should not “mean” anything.  Billy Collins, for example, repudiates the idea of meaning in his “Introduction to Poetry.”  Collins writes that poems should only be “[held] up to the light/like a color slide.”  While there are many fine poems where the reader needs only “waterski across the surface,” as Collins puts it, waterskiing will not create justice for my children. 

Validation, empathy, justice.  These are the reasons I use my children in my poetry.  These reasons are worth the risk.