Milestones: Children with Disabilities

By Crystal Ladwig, Ph. D.
Little girl in a wheelchair at the park with her mother.

Many of us who love children with disabilities have heard the famous poem, “Welcome to Holland,” by Emily Kingsley. It tells the story of a parent who embarks on a journey to Italy. She plans for Italy, packs for Italy and dreams of what she’ll do in Italy. However, when her plane lands, she learns that she isn’t in Italy. She’s in Holland. Even though she didn’t plan for Holland, pack for Holland or dream of Holland, she is nonetheless in Holland. The poem is an analogy of learning that your child has a disability and learning to handle with missing milestones. At the end of the poem, the parent comes to realize that Holland is a beautiful place with new dreams and new experiences.

Learning a Child Has a Disability

Like Kingsley, many of us embarked on our journeys expecting a different parenting experience than what we see in reality. Learning that your child has a disability comes with a host of emotions: love, anger, fear, guilt and more. With time, acceptance often comes. We learn to appreciate Holland and all it has to offer. But then we get on yet another plane.

Missing Milestones

As Kingsley’s poem continues, the parent notices that everyone around her is bragging about their trip to Italy and the wonderful time they had there. It’s hard to watch others living the parenting life you expected to have for yourself. When special milestones are missed, that pain is especially difficult. It’s like getting off yet another plane in yet another different destination.

A Cycle of Grief

You see, each time our children miss a milestone, it brings us back into a cycle of grief. We’re reminded of these missed milestones every time we look at social media and talk with other parents (both friends and family) who don’t have a child with a disability. You want to celebrate achievements with them, yet it’s hard. It’s a cycle of grief, of getting on and off planes, of loving and cherishing the child in front of you while grieving for the dreams that were once held so dearly.

A Pattern of Healing

The good news is that we heal as we grieve. Each time that plane lands in a new place, we’re more equipped and better able to adjust quickly. Sure, we may lament not landing where we wanted to, but we soon remember the beauty of the voyage we’re on. We meet new people, share new experiences and take pride in and celebrate accomplishments with our children and with each other. Over time, that pattern of healing doesn’t take away our lost dreams, but it does give us new ones.

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