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When we’re exhausted and completely emptied by the demands of motherhood, the connection we feel with our little ones is our lifeline. They nestle in for a cuddle, murmur an “I love you,” and a divine transfer seems to occur, giving us the strength to go to bed, wake up, and do it all over again.

But what happens when connecting isn’t effortless, the way we may have expected?

We found out that our son is autistic just after his second birthday. In those early days, I often described him as being “in his own little world.” As long as he had a full tummy and a clean diaper, he was content to play with his favorite toys for hours on end, without any interaction from me. In the months that followed, we grew so much in our understanding of him. At the time, though, I felt like he didn’t need me, and my heart sunk at the thought.

Of course, when our kids have run us ragged and we’ve heard “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” more times than we can count, not being needed sounds heavenly. But when you long to hear your name called, it aches. While my fellow toddler moms were scouring the internet for the secret to independent play so they could get a moment of peace, I had the opposite problem.

I silently wished for an invitation into my son’s world.

One day, I read a powerful statement that gave me pause. On Instagram, @nigh.functioning.autism wrote, “One of the toughest parts about being Autistic is realizing that how I exist in the world makes people I love feel lonely even when I’m around them.”

I was taken aback. Until that moment, I had never looked at my own sense of disconnection through my son’s eyes. Yes, feeling a sense of distance from someone you love is difficult. But so is bearing the burden of your loved one’s unmet expectationsones you simply can’t fulfill.

RELATED: Life With Nonverbal Autism is Often a Guessing Game

Something would have to shift. I would need to learn his language instead of expecting him to speak mine. And that would require me to approach our relationship from a place of wholeness, recognizing that it’s not my child’s job to fill my love tank.

Rather, as his mom, it’s my job to learn who he is and how he expresses himself . . .

To receive the love that he gives his way and connect with him on his terms.

This is sometimes easier said than done.

Recently, I stumbled upon an old video of my daughter at his age. “I wanna go to beach,” she declared in her sweet toddler voice. “I essited!” 

I felt my stomach knot up, a mix of frustration and grief. What if my son is remembering that new park we visited last month, wishing we could go again? How would I even know? What if he’s in the mood for a special treat but can’t ask me if we can stop at the donut shop while we’re out? How can we connect if I don’t know what’s on his mind?

That very day, he gave me an answer.

He took my hand and led me into the kitchensomething he does a dozen times a day. But this time, instead of leading me to the fridge and gesturing toward his desired snack, he brought me to the middle of the kitchen and, still holding my hand, began to tug it as he ran in a circle around me. And I remembered. We had done this fun spinning game for the first time maybe a week before, in this exact spot. He’d circled around me like a merry-go-round, his face beaming with joy.

He remembered. He wanted to do it again. And he “told” me.

Connection.

Another day, he led me to the back door, clearly wanting to go outside. I had no clue what his plan was, but I followed him outside. My daughter followed, too, and started a game of tag. He didn’t fully grasp the concept, but he laughed and squealed as we chased each other around.

Connection.

Most recently, I spent my first full day away from the kids in a long time. When I got home after 9 p.m., my little night owl was (predictably) still awake in the crib. He looked up at me, blinking his eyes repeatedly as if to figure out if he was dreaming or if it was really me. Then, he stood up, grabbed my hands, and placed them on his sideshis way of asking me to pick him up.

I scooped him up into my arms and his body seemed to melt onto mine, every muscle in his little body relaxing against my torso. I stood and swayed with him, our hearts pressed together. If he sensed me even thinking about putting him back in the crib, my arms shifting slightly, he immediately grabbed my arms and pressed them back down. So I relented and lay in the bottom bunk with him while his sister dozed above us for a while.

Connection.

My son is only three; so much life awaits him. One day, whether through sign language or spoken words or an AAC device, there’s a good chance my sweet boy will be able to request a trip to the park or the donut shop.

But either way, I don’t have to remain stuck in grief over what he can’t yet communicate.

I’m learning to see through his eyes, to not only behold his beautiful and unique way of experiencing the world but to join him in it. As we grow in the intricate dance of understanding one another, I can feel the warmth of his expressions of love just as deeply and purely as any spoken I love you.

RELATED: To My Child With Autism: There’s Nothing Wrong With You

I longed to enter my son’s world, but the distance only felt so far because I hadn’t yet stepped out of mine. My world, where I somehow expected parenting to cater to my own sense of comfort and ease. Where I wouldn’t have to walk an unexpected path or be stretched beyond what I thought was my capacity.

Each of us has experienced moments when reality shatters the rose-colored vision of parenting we had dreamed up. But honestly, I don’t want that vision anymore. It was never real.

I want my children, exactly as they were created, perfectly themselves.

I want to be a safe space where they are treasured and delighted in, where their self-expression is embraced unconditionally. I refuse to let my preconceived notions steal the joy of that connection.

At the end of the day, I’d choose an unpredictable journey with my kids over a hundred easy, comfortable lifetimes without them.

So I receive the unexpected with open arms and every ounce of love and laughter and life that comes with it.

I love this world we’re creating together.

Ellie Hunja

Ellie is a mother of two (ages 7 & 3) who is passionate about her faith, racial justice, autism acceptance, and mental health. She believes that empathy and vulnerability can change the world, and that there is ALWAYS room for dessert. She shares about her journey to cultivate a life of purpose, authenticity, and joy on Facebook at @EllieHunjaWriter and Instagram at @elliehunja

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