Patty Chang Anker and her immigrant family knew one path to success — the academic one. So when she discovered her adopted daughter had special needs, she learned to step back, let go and just breathe.
ISSUE: Summer 2011
DEPT: My Story
STORY: Patty Chang Anker
“I’m not going to college,” G de- clares. She is 9 years old.
“What?” My voice sounds calm, but I’ve stopped breathing. “Why?”
“I’m not going, and I don’t want to talk about it.” She walks away.
“Oh, yes you are!” I want to shout after her. But I don’t. Instead, I let the flood of questions, worries and heartache come.
What is my daughter thinking? Our family collects advanced degrees. My parents came to America from Taiwan on student scholarships. My father earned his Ph.D. in a foreign culture and a second language. My measly bachelor’s was pretty much a prerequisite for life in their opinion; my husband’s Ivy League law degree more like it.
We adopted G as a baby from China’s Anhui province, “a land of many scholars” to my mom’s delight, and we promised to care for her, educate her and give her every opportunity to succeed. College was definitely part of that plan. Even as G grew and showed signs of being different, when at age 5 she developed the symptoms of Tourette Syndrome (tics, impulsivity, a restlessness that could not be quelled), the neurologists assured us “it will not impact her cognitively.” We held on to that. She could still go to college. She could still have a “normal” life.
Academic excellence was expected in my house growing up. As the first- born child, I felt duty-bound to uphold the Chang family name. What was all my parents’ sacrifice for, if I didn’t take the next generation to higher heights? It was pressure, sure. But simple. Study hard. Get along. Be the best.
For G, it is much more complicated. Doctors said to look out for many conditions associated with TS — ADHD, OCD, PDD, anxiety — an alphabet soup seemingly cruelly designed to make life harder for a child, to make the world more difficult to navigate. Mainstream public school became too challenging; the future, uncertain.
I attended a Tourette Syndrome Association support group, where parents told stories of adult children with TS who are married, working, excelling, in music or computers. Others spoke of grown kids crippled by OCD or depression, unable to work, living at home, unable to finish a college degree. I went home and cried.
G doesn’t want to go to college. Can I blame her? Elementary school is already so hard. Should we be setting such high expectations? What if she doesn’t achieve them? Would we love her any less? Of course not. But if we don’t set some expectations, what will she work toward? How can she have confidence in herself if we don’t prepare her to try?
Yes, there were many times we asked her to try things that ended up being too hard. And then there were times she would surprise us all, trans- forming into a drummer onstage, a karate contender, a mini-Albert Einstein reciting her school report clad in a wild, white wig. And I realized the answer lies in between: in setting realistic goals and helping her get there, and in giving up our own attachment to a particular outcome. It is not about lowering expectations, but adjusting them, and putting our own egos aside.
For me, my husband and my parents, it is a significant shift, away from defining success in narrow terms of degrees earned, promotions given. But a welcome one.
Perhaps the greatest lesson we have learned through adoption is to release expectations. “You should be good in math because your father was good in math” is logic that no longer applies (it never really held true for me, either). G and her sister R (adopted from Wuhan) are mysterious caverns where jewels are waiting to be discovered. Their innate gifts emerge like found treasure, to be marveled at and mined.
My parents, who withstood extraordinary pressure on national exams to enter into precious few university spots, who were apoplectic when my SAT scores didn’t improve markedly after Princeton Review, today couldn’t care less how the rest of the world measures performance. They look at each grandchild individually. G is so empathetic, my mother will say. She thinks like a scientist, says my dad, clearing up the glass and powders from their latest experiments on the dining room table. And R — so musical, so mischievous! Every day, a surprise.
And that’s the pleasure of raising children with special needs. Freed from constant comparison and competition, we can appreciate each moment. We don’t know what the future will bring. But the truth is, no one knows how their kids will turn out. Right now, G is thriving in her special needs school, building confidence every day. Her trajectory may not be like others’, but that doesn’t mean she’s not succeeding. She is 9. She is just a child. A child who needs … wait a minute.
“G!” I find her. “You know, you can go to college without moving out.”
“Really?” She brightens.
“Really! You could live at home and commute. I mean, you’ll probably want to move out by then. But you don’t have to.”
“Oh!” Visible relief registers on her face. “OK. I’ll go to college then.” Confidence restored.
We hug. And we both start breathing again.
Patty Chang Anker is a writer whose work has appeared in Good Housekeeping Magazine, The Huffington Post and her popular blog, Facing Forty Upside Down (upside-down- patty.blogspot.com). She is also a yoga teacher and at-home mother to two daughters with special needs. She earned her bachelor’s from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992 and has no other advanced degrees. Her parents are proud of her anyway.
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