What One Dad Learned From the ‘Welcome to Holland’ Poem

Guest blogger Keith Hammond is back! Keith is a manager at the adult day services program at Easterseals Serving Greater Cincinnati, and he’s the father of two children on the autism spectrum. He’s written a number of poignant posts for us before, and I’m delighted to have him back with another one.

by Keith Hammond

A father reading a child a book on a park benchMy wife and I have two children with autism. When you have children with a disability, this means many things. It almost certainly means you have friends, perhaps even family, who have children that are developing typically. The typically developing children are just what you expected to have, but don’t.

I meet many families who have a child who is just receiving an autism diagnosis. Having been new to the world of autism myself at one point, I know the natural tendency is to compare yourself and your children to your friends and their typically developing children. Sadness, depression and a deep feeling of loss are the natural results of these comparisons. You can sink into sorrow as if it were quicksand.

At some point, and maybe New Year’s is that starting point, you have to resolve not to compare yourself to others. Comparison is the thief of joy. Comparison steals the joy when your child accomplishes something positive, like a pickpocket grabs your wallet or purse. It only keeps you from fully appreciating the special things your child has to offer.

Let’s say your child with autism accomplishes something a decade after a typically developing child would have. Be proud and happy — your child worked that much harder for their achievement.

Obviously this is all very easy to say. Just as it’s easy to say your resolution is to lose weight, we all know people who say it and never lose a pound. I have no easy answers for anyone, but early on when my children were diagnosed, I remember someone sharing a poem with me written by Emily Perl Kingsley called Welcome to Holland. It’s a quick read, and a very poignant one, as well.

The poem compares having a typical child with having a child with a disability. The former is referred to as Italy, and the latter is Holland. You plan your whole life for a trip to Italy, and the plane lands and…you’re in Holland. And you live in Holland the rest of your life.

The learning of the poem is that if you just give Holland a chance, it’s a pretty neat place. They have tulips, they have windmills, and all sorts of fine and unique things that make Holland a special place. Likewise, your children have many unique characteristics and gifts that you can enjoy if you immerse yourself in them.

The poem acknowledges that losing Italy is still a loss. It’s the death of a dream, punctuated by your friends who constantly tell you how wonderful it is in Italy. I think at some point it helps to acknowledge you have suffered a loss, and some grief, even occasional grief, is to be expected. It helped me to know this is normal, and that this grief can be reactivated throughout your lifespan.

Right now on Facebook, I see friends of mine starting to have grandchildren. There is pain in the knowledge that grandparenting may not be my fate, though, hopefully, tinged with some joy for my friends. You don’t want to dwell excessively on these things, but some acknowledgement that it hurts a little isn’t such a bad thing, particularly if it helps you move on.

Another available comfort is that you’re not alone. Many families in your community face the same issues, perhaps worse than you do. Back in the day, the only time you’d run into these folks was at therapy appointments or support group meetings. Now, with social media and smart phones, you can stay in touch with kindred spirits as frequently as you like. There is strength in numbers and many times you can lift each other out of the pits of despair. That’s the cool part I’ve enjoyed about Holland: you meet a lot of nice people there, people you may have never met otherwise. Excuse me while I start up, “Heaven is a Place on Earth.”

More posts on disability and parenting from Keith:


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