On Learning to Be Free (Even if You Have a Lot to Do)

This “Learning to Be Free” post is inspired by Julie, the randomly-selected winner of our survey-based contest! Julie writes:

“Funny you suggest a few lines about where I am in my life – I’m not sure! I am 60 yrs. old and have been a mother for 40 yrs. In addition to giving birth to 3 sons, my husband and I became foster parents. After 24 years and 39 placements, we finished off our family with 6 adopted kiddos, bringing our total to 9!

My youngest child turned 12 today. He and his 13 yr. old brother are both on ‘the spectrum’ although it looks very different on the 2 brothers. I am facing the biggest challenge of my life to parent them, everything I thought I knew about parenting no longer applies. My friends have gone back to work, or have even retired. Where do I belong? I used to know where my heart was, and what I was good at.

Your recent post about church was very thought provoking as I try to muddle through this new part, and these new expectations, that, yes, I am probably putting on myself! As you can tell, I love to write, as well as to read – keep up your truly inspiring posts.”

forest, learning to be free

Image courtesy of moggara12 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Learning to Be Free: A Letter

My dear Julie,

I love that you began with, “I’m not sure.” That made me smile, made me think that maybe we’re kindred spirits. The more we grow, I think, the less sure of anything we are.

That said, just because we don’t know where we are in life doesn’t mean that we’re on the wrong road. On the contrary, that sense of displacement we struggle with may mean that we’re on the right road.

But since the going is hard and heartbreaking, sometimes we can’t see straight, and then we panic. It’s terrifying to feel so vulnerable. There are times when the path takes a sudden turn, and we can’t see how far we’ve come or what lies ahead.

At times like these, I recall the words of Rainer Maria Rilke:

“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. / Just keep going. No feeling is final. / Don’t let yourself lose me.”

So that’s where we begin: with letting the beauty and terror of not knowing where we are happen.

Admittedly, I keep looking at the numbers in your email to make sure I’ve read them right. 24 years and 39 placements … what does that say?

It says that you’ve invested in relationships, that you’ve chosen to care when it would have been much easier not to. You’ve stepped right into the mess and beauty of motherhood not just once, but over and over again.

Truths You Already Know

Given that, you probably know a lot more about parenting your boys on the spectrum than you think you do.

True, there’s much to learn. As a sister to a young man with autism, I understand. From behavioral strategies to physical sensitivities to potential therapies … it’s overwhelming.

But just as you have two sons with autism, you also have two sons who need a loving parent. Your patience, your tenacity, your strength … those were forged by fire, and those are exactly what your boys need.

So yes, be open to learning how to parent these particular boys, but trust that the biggest thing, the thing you already know … that does apply. Love always applies.

How to Fill Yourself Up

In your words, I hear a person who’s so good at caring for others, someone who knows how to pour herself out. But do you know how to fill yourself up? From where I sit, as a recovering perfectionist and chronic people-pleaser, that’s the hard part.

So many of us know how to give, but not how to receive. We’re good at knowing how to do, but not so good at knowing how to be. How to just sit with someone; how to just sit with ourselves. How to accept the nourishment life offers.

It takes practice, and maybe that’s why this season of life feels uncomfortable. Maybe you’re confident with the ‘pouring out’ part of the equation, but less so with the ‘filling up’ part.

I see myself in that, I really do. And that question you ask, those four small words that carry such weight: Where do I belong?

You Belong Somewhere You Feel Free

When I was dating the man who would become my husband, he learned to play Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” because it spoke to me. And if I could give you anything right now, I’d give you this lyric: You belong somewhere you feel free.

You don’t belong in a place of constriction and stressed-out fear; none of us do. You belong in a spacious place, somewhere you can take flight.

As you’re learning to be free, keep an eye out for situations and people that help you relax and laugh at yourself; watch for those shimmering, fleeting moments when linear time falls away.

You can trust those moments. You can use that sense of expansion as a reliable compass.

learning to be free

“I used to know where my heart was, and what I was good at.” Me too, Julie, me too. I think we all did. Back when we were children – before we started taking other people’s expectations and criticisms too much to heart – we knew.

We knew ourselves in simple ways: in the reading of a book, the striking of a note, the embrace of a friend. And so maybe that’s where you can start now. I’m starting with writing to you. Where will you start?

It’s not about having lost someone you once knew. It feels that way, I know, but she’s not lost. She’s just covered up. It’s an excavation process you’re undertaking; you are always your own discovery.

So here’s to you, Julie, to what you seek and what you find.

Love, Caroline


Can you relate to Julie’s words? How are you learning to be free? Join the conversation in the comments below!


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9 thoughts on “On Learning to Be Free (Even if You Have a Lot to Do)

  1. Julie says:

    Wow, Caroline, you have such a gift of insight and understanding! As usual, you give me much to ponder and take in – even though this blog was about me!

    • Julie, I’m so glad to hear that the piece resonated with you! I can’t thank you enough for being brave and sharing a small part of your story with me. Hope you have a wonderful week ahead!

  2. Eric says:

    Wow! I hear you. “My youngest child turned 12 today. He and his 13 yr. old brother are both on ‘the spectrum’ although it looks very different on the 2 brothers. I am facing the biggest challenge of my life to parent them, everything I thought I knew about parenting no longer applies.”
    Amazing how almost no one understands this, at least in my family. I have friends even without kids can clearly see that this statement is true. At least Julie has a husband, someone to be with. Could be worse. I personally experience unanimous rejection once women find out I have a disabled child. Wait! wait just a sec! Before you think I need to meet more of them I can say I meet plenty. No shortage of them on social media, I often (more than 2 a month) get a hello beautiful in the opening lines of emails.
    I can relate to Julie as a whole, & it’s been “I don’t know what to do” for about a decade. As a single parent the idea of finding a space & people to help me feel free is pure fantasy. When you parent a disabled child most personal relationships evaporate, & after working both for $ & to run a household my 2 days 2 times a month are sometimes spent sleeping.
    Just an FYI I couldn’t care less about the expectations of others, lucky for me this part of my personality.
    Really all I want is to have a little time to do some things I love to do with some people I hardly ever see. God forbid I get a break. No for real after almost a decade without hardly any relief I’m sure that’s what is happening.

    • Eric, thank you for sharing from right where you’re at, for offering Julie affirmation about what rings true for you as well. The real challenge, I think, is to find small spaces of freedom even within what sounds like an extremely challenging situation. I really appreciate you taking the time to be with us here, amidst all that’s going on with you – honored by your presence.

  3. Well done, Caroline. I feel like regardless of our age, it always feels like a new beginning because we’ve NEVER been at that age, or stage before. We’re truly are constantly rediscovering ourselves.

  4. Eric says:

    Marcy is mostly right, I feel that rediscovery is an essential part of life, as an artist the metaphorical lesson of rediscovery taught me to be OK with those moments.

    I imagine that the scope of Julies concerns are greater than the summation of her few written paragraphs, nor can they be solved by some clever concepts or intelligent words measuring half as many. Sometimes there are no answers, even when there should be & we really want them for the people we know who are in need. Anyone one without experience with raising a child with special needs has zero credibility & no idea what they are talking about, making answers that are offered or available often frustrating & applicable.

    While I am happy to find places I feel are right for me to participate in, I have no answers either, but I think places to post like this are a step in the right direction. Most likely our society in the next few future generations will be where solutions are found, as the demand for attention grows from the collective.

    Julie has other people counting on her & disabled people have more needs than the able bodied. The world you knew after becoming a parent of a disabled child evaporates as your time for maintaining typical relationships with friends & family no longer is a thought as your mind is fixed on today. What would be an easy natural thing you do becomes an impossibility. Without this normal support, there are changes in the dynamic of self confidence. There is nothing behind you if you should fail in this moment. The extreme reality shaping Julies situation distracts from being able to see any other moment in time.

    Something that struck me in the early days of my sons diagnosis was the books & web sites I could find were mostly personal stories. These stories were so varied & unique to each child & family I quickly realized the answers for my son were not just waiting out there for me to find like I would have expected for almost any other condition.

    Can our previous posts be edited? I can see a coma or two would change the way an awkward sentence reads :). I would like to be clear as possible in how I present my thoughts. Being so emotionally involved in this issue I don’t always think as clearly as I’d like.

    • Eric, you said it well – sometimes there are no answers, even when there should be, and even when we really want them! Yet this conversation – your willingness to empathize with Julie – is a different kind of answer, just as the personal stories you read have offered a kind of answer for you (in the sense that they gave you the realization that maybe each person’s experience would be so varied that no single, uniform ‘answer’ would make sense).

      Your words remind me of one of my favorite poems, Mary Oliver’s “First Snow”. The final lines read: “and though the questions / that have assailed us all day / remain — not a single / answer has been found – / walking out now / into the silence and the light / under the trees, / and through the fields, / feels like one.”

      PS – I can edit prior comments from the site back-end if you like – just shoot an email to caroline[at]awishcomeclear[dot]com with any changes.

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