Please Stop Sharing That Erma Bombeck Essay About Special Needs Moms

Mothers of special needs children are not “saints.” They are human beings like you and me.

If you are a mother of a special needs child, you have probably seen that Erma Bombeck essay. It always pops up on Facebook groups and online support sites for parents with ASD children or children with developmental difficulties. It’s a short essay so I will reproduce it in its entirety here.

“The Special Mother” by Erma Bombeck

Did you ever wonder how mothers of disabled children were chosen?

Somehow I visualize God hovering over the earth selecting his instruments of propagation with great care and deliberation. As He observes, He instructs His angels to make notes in a giant ledger.

“This one gets a daughter. The Patron saint will be Cecelia”

“This one gets twins. The Patron saint will be Matthew”

“This one gets a son. The Patron saint… give her Gerard.

He’s used to profanity” Finally He passes a name to an angel and smiles.

“Give her a disabled child”. The angel is curious. “Why this one God? She’s so happy”

“Exactly,” smiles God. “Could I give a disabled child to a mother who does not know laughter? That would be cruel!”

“But has she patience?” asks the angel.

“I don’t want her to have too much patience or she will drown in a sea of sorrow and despair. Once the shock and resentment wears off, she’ll handle it. I watched her today, she has that feeling of self and independence that is so necessary in a mother. You see, the child I’m going to give her has her own world. She has to make her live in her world and that’s not going to be easy.”

“But Lord, I don’t think she even believes in you”

God smiles, “No matter, I can fix that. This one is perfect — she has just enough selfishness”

The angel gasps — “Selfishness? is that a virtue?”

God nods. “If she can’t separate herself from the child occasionally, she’ll never survive. Yes here is a woman whom I will bless with a child less than perfect. She doesn’t realize it yet, but she is to be envied. She will never take for granted a ‘spoken word’. She will never consider any ‘step’ ordinary. When her child says “Momma” for the first time she will be present at a miracle and will know it. I will permit her to see clearly the things I see… ignorance, cruelty and prejudice…and allow her to rise above them. She will never be alone. I will be at her side every minute of every day of her life because she is doing my work as surely as if she is here by my side”

“And what about her Patron saint?” asks the angel, his pen poised in midair.

God smiles… “A mirror will suffice.”

The essay was published in 1993. In fairness to Bombeck, parenting children with special needs was a topic that was given almost no exposure back in the early nineties. The fact she addressed this at all in her popular column was a relatively huge step. Nevertheless there is no better embodiment of the concept of “toxic positivity” than this Erma Bombeck essay. More perversely this essay is often shared around Facebook groups for mothers of special needs children as a form of comfort or reinforcement.

And I am here now to say, please, stop sharing that Erma Bombeck essay.

Please stop.

This essay is everything wrong with how society treats mothers of special needs children. It boosts stereotypes that seem complimentary on the surface but actually undermine the needs of mothers of special needs children. By portraying mothers of special needs children as saints, society relieves itself of any responsibility for providing support networks for these mothers.

And you cannot be a mother of a special needs child without a support network. That is simply not possible.

Let’s break down this essay to explain why sharing it actually hurts moms of special needs children more than helps them.

The essay starts off with God assigning children to mothers. He then chooses one woman who is “so happy” to have a special needs child. When an angel asks God why He would choose a happy woman to have a special needs child, God responds “Could I give a disabled child to a mother who does not know laughter? That would be cruel!”

Except, of course, many unhappy or depressed or mentally ill women have special needs children. Is it “cruel?” Yes. But it happens anyway and all the time. The implication that unhappy women or women with bad life situations don’t have special needs children is not only false but also rather dangerous. It implies that feeling unhappy or depressed or anxious is a character flaw. It shames women who have the temerity to feel depressed while they care for special needs children. Only BAD moms are unhappy and you don’t want to be a BAD mom, do you?

God’s statement in the essay about how He could not give a “disabled child to a mother who does not know laughter” echoes the old adage about how “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Indeed in the next paragraph God states explicitly “Once the shock and resentment wears off, she’ll handle it. I watched her today, she has that feeling of self and independence that is so necessary in a mother.”

“She’ll handle it” says God. He then applauds “independence that is so necessary in a mother.” That is also false, of course. Women are given situations that are far more than they can handle all the time. Saying “God never gives you more than you can handle” is a dangerous statement which, like Bombeck’s essay, implies that women who feel depressed or overwhelmed are manifesting character flaws. It nudges women away from asking for help, which can lead to very bad and unstable situations. Learning early that you are overwhelmed and need help is essential for a mom of a special needs child. Learning also that asking for help is not a bad thing but a good thing is also an important tool for mothers of special needs children. And it also saves a lot of vulnerable children who might otherwise be negatively affected by an exhausted and over-stressed mother.

To Bombeck’s credit, the essay does then turn to less problematic areas. God acknowledges that some selfishness is essential to a mother of a special needs child. “If she can’t separate herself from the child occasionally, she’ll never survive,” God says, which is exactly the right way to put it.

After that statement, unfortunately, the essay then ends on the worst note possible.

“And what about her Patron saint?” asks the angel, his pen poised in midair.

God smiles… “A mirror will suffice.”

No. No. No.

Hell no.

No.

Mothers of special needs children are NOT saints. Do not be the condescending ass who sits and says “You’re a SAINT dear” while a frazzled mom pulls a child having a meltdown away from a gathering. People often do not help a mother who is having a hard time and they have pricks of conscience about that. So they say “You’re a SAINT” to a mother of special needs children in order to salve their own consciences. Don’t call mothers of special needs children “saints.” It is not a good substitute for actual help. If you see a mom having a hard time, offer to help.

No, a mirror will NOT suffice. A mother of special needs children needs friends and relatives and babysitters and other people around her. She does not need a damn mirror. She does not need to hear from people that she’s a “saint.”

And she definitely does not need to read that damn Erma Bombeck essay again. Please stop sharing it.

I write, I draw, I have opinions

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store