How to Overcome the Guilt Special-Needs Parents Feel

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A few years ago James and I sat down at a potluck our church was having with another church. Potlucks aren’t easy for us, especially as the pastor’s family. Lee needs to be free to talk to everyone, which means I’m on my own with the boys. In line, James grabs at the foods he wants and I can’t balance our plates, dishing out the food, and keeping his hands out of the desserts. So by the time we sat down at a table, I was already a little on edge. The lady I across from gestured to James and asked, “Is he going to grow out of that?” I wasn’t sure what she meant. “His autism? Will he grow out of his autism?” “Yes,” she answered. Then followed up with, “What did you do when you were pregnant to make him that way?”

What did I do to make him that way? Well, there are lots of theories. Decades ago autism in child was blamed on the “refrigerator mother theory.” In 1943 when Leo Kanner first identified autism, he noted the lack of warmth among the parents of autistic children, especially their mothers. In a 1949 paper, he wrote autism may be related to a "genuine lack of maternal warmth," noted that fathers rarely stepped down to indulge in children's play, and observed that children were exposed from "the beginning to parental coldness, obsessiveness, and a mechanical type of attention to material needs only.... They were left neatly in refrigerators which did not defrost. Their withdrawal seems to be an act of turning away from such a situation to seek comfort in solitude." In a 1960 interview, Kanner bluntly described parents of autistic children as "just happening to defrost enough to produce a child."

Some theories still blame mothers for autism. In another conversation I had with a mom at my older son’s theater rehearsal I was asked “Did you eat a lot of tuna when you were pregnant? I hear that’s what causes those problems.” There’s vaccines, pollution, chemical causes (like getting your hair dyed while pregnant), and the list goes on and on. The questions doctors and therapists ask when doing intake forms don’t help ease the guilt we feel—What medicines did I take when pregnant? How long was I in labor? Did I have an epidural? How many ear infections did he have as a child? What antibiotics did he take? Each answer makes me question each decision I made from the moment I knew I was pregnant with him.

To be clear, we don’t fully understand what leads to autism, so the answers to every one of these questions may not matter at all. But when you’re vulnerable, when you’re scared, when everyone from you great aunt who read some article about autism in her magazine to your pediatrician seems to think you had something to do with it, you feel the heavy burden of guilt.
Guilt can be healthy. The conviction of the Holy Spirit can bring feelings of guilt or remorse over sin and lead you to repentance. But I’m talking about the guilt that causes you to always relive the past, to carry that remorse into your daily life. Let’s look at how Jesus reacted to a woman carrying the heavy burden of guilt and her reaction after meeting Him.

In John 4, Jesus and His disciples traveled through Samaria, a place usually avoided by Jews. Verse 9 tells us, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” But verse four tells us, “He had to pass through Samaria,” (emphasis mine) so there He was, sitting near a well, exhausted from His journey. With His disciples off buying food in the city, He was alone when a woman approached to draw water from the well. Most women came earlier in the day when it was cooler. He asked her to give Him a drink:

The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” (John 4:9-15)

But then the conversation takes a turn from focusing on Jesus to focusing on her:

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet."

She was likely racked with guilt at this moment, and tried to turn the conversation away from herself, to a topic she knew a Jew would have a strong opinion about:

Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

As the disciples came back and questioned what Jesus was doing, Scripture tells us, “So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?’” (John 9:28-29a). How did the town respond to this woman who carried so much guilt, she hid from them by drawing water when she wouldn’t have to see them?

Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony,

“He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”

One meeting with Christ, that’s all it took to free her from the guilt she carried. And once she was free, she didn’t live in the past anymore.

She could face the townspeople with her new confidence in what Christ had done. Even if she sat at a table across from someone who said, “Aren’t you that woman ...?” she could reply, “Let me tell you what I know now ...” And we can follow her example. What vaccines did you give him? How much tuna did you eat? Did you live in a city with high pollution? None of the answers to those questions matter as much as pointing people to the hope we have in Christ now.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:11-13).

Walk away from guilt and toward the future and hope Christ provides!