3 Pieces of Advice for the Newbie Special Needs Mama

Mom Life

August 7, 2020

This post was written by guest contributor, Dr. Lisa Pena with Mocha Tribe Diaries

Loving Piece of Counsel #1: You Need Elephants!


It all started with a baby girl that would take me on a journey I could never have imagined, dreamed, wished for, and definitely not a journey I thought I was capable of surviving.


In the spring of 2017 I decided to write a book about this unbelievable journey and as I approached the ending I took time for deep self-reflection. I tried to identify what would have really helped me in those life-changing and sometimes staggering moments as I became labeled, a special needs mom.

The answer was obvious … elephants.


Once upon a time in my undergrad years, before love-handles and stretch marks became my most loyal companions, I can recall a professor discussing matriarchal animals in the wild. I remember that day as I sat listening I felt so empowered and was moved practically to tears but now years later I couldn’t quite remember the details of the story or what animal was being described. So I googled matriarchal animals and got a quick short list.


Honeybees: Female is the ruler, the largest, lives the shortest life span and specialty is reproduction.No, just no.


Lions: Female lions do the hunting while male lions stay home BUT the males get to eat the kill first.

Oh come on!


Mole rats: The mole rat queen is the leader and chooses the biggest and baddest males to mate with then delivers up to seven offspring every two months.I just can’t even.


Then after killer whales, bonobos, and meerkats was elephants. Yup. This is what I remembered from that biology lesson so many years ago. Elephants practice allomothering which means all of the females that comprise the herd help raise each little elephant baby.


There is a powerful phenomenon that occurs when one of the females is giving birth or when a female is injured. As the female elephant lies on the ground with labor pains or in pain from injury, all the other female elephants of the herd back up into her forming a circle that completely surrounds her. They stand shoulder to shoulder so close and so tight that sometimes you can’t even see the elephant lying in the middle. They stand together as a massive, strong protective wall, a fortress of females kicking up dust and grass so predators will not catch the scent of the blood being shed. As the new mother or recently injured stands to her feet, all of the female elephants raise their trunks high in the air and in victory and praise begin to trumpet. As the air flows forcefully through their trunks loud and strong the wild is filled with trumpeting females congratulating their sister, welcoming her baby, encouraging healing and confirming to the world they are not a tribe to be messed with.


Gosh, I needed elephants.


When I got the autism diagnosis for my daughter that January day it was terrifying. Isolating. I had never felt so helpless and vulnerable in my life. Yes, the internet was chock-full of resources, information, autism mommy blogs and studies but I lacked the human connection.


So as I began to passionately adopt the personal mantra, “when you don’t know what to do, do for others”, I created The M.o.C.h.A.™ Tribe [(M)om (o)f a (C)hild that (h)as (A)utism] a nonprofit organization that helps build a tribe of women that will stand together, shoulder to shoulder, with other M.o.C.h.A.s as they get a new diagnosis, face a major setback, or deal with the cruelty of the stigma.


Find your elephants and never let go.


Loving Piece of Counsel #2: Share Your Story


What started as a monthly blog featuring the stories of M.o.C.h.A.s in my area, evolved into a one-day retreat called The Ultimate M.o.C.h.A. Session that focused on the power of storytelling. I placed special needs moms in small groups based on the gender and age of their child with special needs and simply allowed them to share their story.


A room filled with women sharing their hearts, making themselves so vulnerable to complete strangers that have walked the same road and simultaneously lightening each other’s load, is shockingly impactful and leaves it seemingly dripping with beauty.


We use powerful storytelling to lean into feelings we are too embarrassed to feel most days and around most people while understanding that nothing we feel should be followed with waves of guilt or shame but only refreshing and potent validation.


A couple successful events and many more blog posts later, I teamed up with two more mommas and created the Labeled and Loved Weekend Retreat for special needs mommas. This will be the largest special needs mom-only retreat the nation has ever seen.


This is EXACTLY what I needed years ago.


It it what you need now.


Loving Piece of Counsel #3: Take it 6 Months at a Time

I get it. The beginning is hectic.

Specialist appointments, testing, exams, therapy, consultations, insurance mess, schedule changes, medications, and incessant googling. Then comes challenges to relationships all around you and this relentless nagging at your heart about the future. I get it.


When it comes to my daughter I only plan and research for what I can anticipate in the next 6 months to not overwhelm my tender heart and mind.

This is necessary because, my goodness, it’s almost impossible for one human being to manage all this already for any amount of time. But also because everything can change so fast and you never know when it will change.

As our special needs children grow and mature we can’t rely on guideline-based timeframes for milestones or expected monthly and yearly cognitive or physical advances. So just focus on what is necessary for your kiddo 6 months from now and then stop and enjoy your son, enjoy your daughter for all that they already are. All yours.


Nobody wants to qualify to be a member of this tribe, but if you do, I really hope you choose joy every day and join spaces that allow for belonging without explanation like your life depends on it.

Connect with Dr. Lisa!

Website: Mocha Tribe Diaries

Website: Labeled and Loved

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