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The Work of Belonging

Where do we belong… We belong to families, to school groups, church groups, sports teams, book clubs, work places, for many of us this list is long and the experiences that come from those connections are rich. Belonging is really about being part of something, connected, feeling valued and important.

Brene Brown described belonging as:
A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.

This description of belonging is a pointed reminder of the role it plays in our lives. Belonging is central to our identity, the groups we belong to often are where we meet our friends, have developed the intimate relationships, and engage in our passions. Despite belonging being so critical to our well-being, many people with disabilities do not experience belonging.

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For my children, I ache for them to feel the love I have for them and know that will always belong with me. But as a parent of a children with disabilities I am also far too aware that I will not always be here for them. I know that the connection they have with others is what will insure they are happy, cared for and safe. That connection needs to be to more than paid services or others with disabilities, it needs to be to neighbors, friends without disabilities and community. The challenge is know how to build that belonging. How do I help them find the connections to others that see the same wonderful gifts that I see in them, who are patient and generous with their praise, and most importantly are in their life, not because they are paid, but because they understand and value the distinctive and delightful gifts my children bring to their lives.

I have had the privilege of being connected to many families of children with disabilities. These families have forged path of inclusion and belonging for their children, always working to foster rich connections along the way. If you ask them how they have created those unique opportunities for their child they often respond, “Oh we are so lucky…”, but upon closer observation it is easy to see the work they are quietly doing behind the scenes to make sure that opportunities for connection are always present.

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While I have two son’s with Autism, I have one child who is for the most part is typical. I see the way he creates connections with his peers, quite simply, belonging comes easy for him. In so many ways he creates his own belonging. The ease in which he finds places for himself amazes me, it sits in contrast to my children with disabilities. For my boys, like many children with disabilities belonging does not just happen. In fact our children can often be their own biggest barrier to their belonging. Their rigid need to have things a certain way, their inability to communicate with words, their failure to moderate their own emotional responses. It can take time to find and create that place of belonging. Sometimes the unique and wonderfulness of children with disabilities can sometimes be lost on others. As parents it can take a persistent and patient effort to find the group of people that see that special gifts are children have to offer.

As I move forward I know that while I will invest many hours in building a good life for my children, the most valuable work I will do will be in the work around fostering their place of belonging. It does not just happen, and it is not easy, my child may be rejected and not appreciated, others may not see the beauty I see. I must be prepared for the possibility that there will be failures, that there will be times where I feel the pain of my child not being included.   But I can use those experiences to fuel my movement forward. This is work, and work is by its definition rarely easy. I know that the road to belonging is long. Through other families journeys I know it has pitfalls, failures and set backs, but I also know that the destination is worth the effort and I am not prepared to let my children settle for less. I want a future that is full of belonging, I want my children to be surrounded by others that see what I see. So bring on the work … I am ready, I know it is worth it.

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