MAMA OF THE MONTH: ERIN GAYTON

What a thrill it is to live in the information age—we have access to knowledge in ways our predecessors would never have imagined. The downside is that on any given day, we receive invitations to events and requests for donations, and we’re told that we have to read articles because they are poignant/hilarious/life-changing, and in the end, it can be overwhelming and hard to decide what deserves our attention.

At Somebody’s Mama, we find ourselves competing for the attention of our supporters, and we want to strike the right balance. We know that we are all are pulled in a million different directions, and we are humbled each and every time that you choose to read, share, and like the things we post. We’re still blown away every single time someone volunteers to start a Love Club or donate online for one of our projects. We recognize that you could just as easily choose to spend your time and money somewhere else, so we want to THANK YOU again for being a part of what we’re doing.

Our new Mama of the Month, Erin from WA, is a perfect example of who Somebody’s Mama is. We’re highlighting Erin this month for several reasons: 1) As a former university professor, she values education, 2) She’s got a lot on her plate, and she still makes time to be an avid supporter of Somebody’s Mama, and 3) She’s what we want to be—a smart, conscientious lifelong learner and global citizen.

When we asked Erin to tell us her motherhood story, about what it looked like when her youngest son received a diagnosis on the autism spectrum followed by her older son’s ADHD and relatively mild autism disorder diagnosis, this is what she had to say: 

“I have two bright, hilarious, fabulous sons.  Finn is 10 and Nate is 8.  I've always wanted to be a mom, and in many ways I got exactly what I wanted: great kids and the opportunity to stay home with them. But the circumstances are not what I would have ever imagined…Nate was diagnosed with autism nearly 5 years ago, [and] our insurance did not cover behavioral therapy, so rather than pay a college student to be his therapy assistant, I reasoned that I was qualified and more invested than anyone I might hire. 

For six months I worked under the close supervision of Nate's psychologist, learning how to chart behavioral programs. I continued serving as Nate's home therapist for another two years, at which point some alarming experiences at school led us homeschool. Within a year I was homeschooling both boys and had hired two graduate students to implement Nate's home-based behavioral therapy.  I attended workshops and conferences about speech pathology, sensory integration therapy, and new research about autism.  I sat in on weekly speech and occupational therapy sessions and took notes.  I read books.  Lots of books.  I beat down panic with research.
 
There were times (honestly, still are times) when I felt angry—like being a mom shouldn't be this hard. It shouldn't involve so much fear—because, it turns out, we mamas don't get to live forever, and some of our kids won't stop needing us when they hit adulthood. Some kids aren't as resilient as others, and for them the world is an especially hostile place. Nate deserves more than my fear.  He deserves my faith in his future.  Which is not to say I should stop my advocacy, but that it should be enacted as a project of faith, of optimism, of my deep belief that Nate has so much to offer this world.  Because I do believe this.  Passionately.”

We asked Erin what valuable lessons she learned from her own mother. She had this to say:

“My mother taught me the value of research and the pleasure of being an autodidact. From her own experience, she has encouraged me to claim my expertise about autism and education, never mind that my degrees aren't directly related.  She showed me how to walk in a room and be taken seriously, because you expect to be taken seriously. Interestingly, she has also showed me that I can be many things at one time without having to let any one thing be my identity.  And even when I don't want to hear it, she nags me to take time to write, to do something that isn't about being a mama.”

Aside from her work as a homeschool mom, Erin serves on the board of the Autism Society of Washington, an organization that focuses on supporting individuals with autism throughout their lifetime, and she also started Helping Hounds, the first ever dog 4-H club for special needs kids and their service dogs in Olympia, WA. When we asked why she has pursued this type of work, Erin said,

“Raising a special needs kid requires a different kind of parenting—I used to think of it as 'extreme' parenting, but now I think of it as therapeutic parenting. I now know that there are so many mamas (and dads) out there who are just as panicked as I was (and still am, honestly) about our children's future. 

So somewhere along the way I decided that it wasn't enough to “work on” my own kids. I didn't decide to "change the world”—but if an opportunity didn't exist for my kids I realized that I'd have to make it happen myself.  Nobody in boy scouts knows how to handle kids with autism? Become a den leader. No special ed program at our homeschool co-op?  Find a teacher and lobby for a social skills class.

I didn't mean to be an activist—I meant to be a mom, and maybe a college professor or a writer.  But a funny thing happened—being a mom meant becoming active in the community, to make it a better community for my kids and for all the kids I've met who face similar challenges.  I didn't realize that being a mom could be a public (political?) experience as well as a private one.  And that's been surprisingly gratifying.  

Homeschooling my kids—especially Nate—is hard.  But it is the best kind of challenge—intellectually engaging, supremely gratifying (when it's not supremely frustrating), and vitally important.  Being a mama is important work.  I thought I knew that before having my kids, but I really didn't.  I didn't know it in the bones like I do now.”