When the Best Place for Children Is Not With Their Mother

I can't stop thinking about the story of Anita Tedaldi, who, after eighteen months of mothering an adopted special needs son, decided that the best place for her son was with another family. Anita's story hits me in two of my tenderest spots -- as the mother of a son with special needs, and as a birth mother who placed her first son in his adoptive parents' hands almost twenty years ago.

It would be easy for me to condemn Anita based on her story's two pages of pixelated type. I would be several shades beyond horrified if my biological son's mother had given him to another family after she took a sacred and legal oath to be his parent. And how about women who parent adoptive children through special needs challenges much more intense than Anita's brief account makes her son's seem, and are still holding on? It is tempting to shriek about bad examples and demand to know why she didn't try harder!

So, I could judge Anita, that other mother inside the computer -- I've got the sanctimonious positions, and I've got the ammunition. But I won't. It's unfair. I do wish she'd been able to choose differently, but I also understand that not every one is cut out to parent a special needs child, even if they think they are, even if they've done all the adoptive parents' training and received their social workers' blessings.

I also have to wonder: was Anita's concession entirely her own doing, or could it have been prevented if she'd been given enough support and information to properly parent her son? She emphasized that her struggles were not with her son's special needs but with his attachment issues, but I'd be surprised if those two issues were separate in such a young child.

She didn't elaborate on his special needs, other than delays and coprophagia; she mentioned that when she told him he would be going to live with another family, he "didn't react to her words," but supplied few other details about his symptoms. She mentions attachment therapy, but nothing else, no speech, occupation, feeding, or behavioral therapies. If she was truly his full-time caregiver, if she had little professional therapeutic support for his needs, if she didn't even have diagnoses, then how was she supposed to feel like a capable mother to him? How much more pressure was she under from her five other children, while being a de facto single mom during her military spouse's frequent deployments?

I don't know where Anita lives, but I do know that special needs diagnoses, services, therapies, and supports are spotty in many parts of this fine country of ours, especially for special needs children of very young age and/or indeterminate diagnosis. Pediatricians may mean well, but unless they are specialists are not always aware of the resources or even diagnoses their patients need. The online and social media support networks that have transformed my special needs parenting perspectives for the better, that have dragged my sobbing, wrecked, defeated self back to competence and optimism so many times, aren't always on social services agencies' or pediatricians' radars. Parents often stumble upon social support networks on their own, and they don't always do so within eighteen months -- which is all the time Anita and her son had together.

Choosing to parent special needs kids isn't something we're all capable of, even if we are fully informed and supported. Some parents aren't cut out for it but try to struggle through anyhow, becoming disengaged, neglectful, abusive, or worse. While we need to keep encouraging each other to carry on, be our best, love our children, and rally through, we also need to be aware of situations in which parents have reached the breaking point -- and do what we can to protect their children, even if this means supporting decisions for those children to be placed elsewhere.

It hurts, but it's true. Sometimes the best place for a child is not with their parents -- or even with another set of parents. My friend Rachel recently moved her son with autism into a residential home, because he needed a more structured environment than his parents could provide. It was the right decision. He's doing better all the time. But how many of you reading this paragraph are thinking, "I could NEVER put my child in a home"? And how many of you are thinking that not because it's how you honestly feel, but because of social pressure not to feel or say such things? We need to hear more stories like Rachel's, to promote acceptance of similar decisions made for the right reasons.

We need to stop assuming that putting a child into another's care equals giving up on that child. We need to stop declaring that when people relinquish their children, wholly or partially, through adoption or through residential placement, it is because the parents are selfish. We should consider that these parents may be giving away the part of their soul that will always envelop that child for the child's sake, not to make the parents' lives easier.

Parenting isn't supposed to be about us, the adults. It's about being responsible for the children who depend on us, wholly. Anita is speaking out on behalf of all parents who have had to make decisions that broke their hearts, knowing their children's lives would improve as a result. As I did when I gave up my birth son. As do parents who work in foreign countries so they can support their children back home. As do parents who put their children in residential care. Anita Teldadi was putting her once and former son's needs above her own, in realizing that she was not the parent he needed.

To be clear: I am not arguing for more residential placements for our children with special needs, but rather for us to be the best parents we can be for them, however this manifests for each family. My friend Kristina's son's school has repeatedly asked her to consider a residential placement for him. But her lovely boy thrives at home, with his parents. A residential placement doesn't make sense for him -- what his school needs to do is work towards proper academic accommodations.

I wish Anita had had Kristina's ability and resources to provide an ideal home environment for her son. But Anita wasn't able to, and she not only admitted that but acted upon it, for the betterment of her son's life. She wrote about her decision openly, even though she knew -- how could she not? -- that an avalanche of judgment would be waiting to engulf her. I think she is brave to share her complicated story. I hope it helps other parents at crossroads. And I hope both she and her son find peace and healing.