In the early part of my adult life, if someone had asked me to define love, I may have spent an absurd amount of time thinking about cute dates, beautiful weddings, and my friends starting their married lives.

Then, the kids came along. My definition of love changed with each child we welcomed into our family.

Adding kids into the love equation is interesting enough. Then my two oldest were born with significant special needs, and I found that my definition of love transformed yet again.

Boy pushing wheelchairOur oldest daughter Claire was born, and doctors immediately suspected something was wrong. Our minds were instantly consumed with what life would be like for her from a medical standpoint. As doctors still struggle to put a name to her diagnosis, we constantly repeat the same history…the same statistics….the same list of meds…the same list of missed milestones.

Somewhere in the midst of those clinical hours, you build up an emotional wall from keeping those same grim lists from hurting each time you think about them. My husband said it perfectly one time: ‘Sometimes, I feel like we are her caregivers and not her parents.’

Behind that emotional wall is the reluctant acceptance that your child won’t have the same social experience that you grew up with. Looking back on our childhoods, many of our memories involve our friends. What would the memories look like for a child who can’t even speak or walk? Would anyone love her the way that we wanted her to be loved?

But this weekend changed my definition of love once again and proved that it is found in even the most unexpected ways and places. A single event proved that those disabilities do not have to dictate a different childhood.

What happened? Claire was invited to a classmate’s birthday party.

I will be honest – I cried when I opened the invitation. Then, I cried some more as I e-mailed the mom to explain that while Claire is in a wheelchair, but I wanted her to participate in the party at the park (in case she didn’t know Claire). Would it be OK if I stayed? And since it is hard to find a babysitter on a Saturday morning, I also needed to bring my other three kiddos.

She probably thought I was nuts. I cried even more when she instantly wrote back asking what she could do to help Claire feel more included.

Walking into the party, I was a wreck. As much as I wanted Claire to participate, I did not want to face the awkward moments of trying to explain why she couldn’t play on the equipment or say “Happy Birthday” or eat with everyone.

There were no awkward moments.

child's birthday partyEvery single child who was there from her class ran up to say hello. Some kids asked my son Luke to go play, and the grandparents instantly offered to take my younger kids so I could help Claire play. After I clumsily pulled Claire through the little-kid-sized opening into a jumpy castle, we were surrounded by her classmates. “Hey! Look! Claire gets to jump!” yelled one little girl. “Oh, you’re Claire’s mom – we play with her at school!” said another little boy.

For those few hours, I wasn’t Claire’s caregiver. I was the parent of a little girl at a birthday party having fun with her friends.

She was included. She was a friend. Claire was loved, just as I had hoped she would be.

So, thank you to those kids who love my daughter. Thank you to the parents who are supportive and understanding. Sometimes love is the simplest thing such as being a friend.

And just like that, with a simple birthday party invitation and a little kindness, my definition of love is expanded again.

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Melissa is an Air Force spouse who enjoyed 13 years living along the I-35 corridor in North Dakota, Louisiana, and Texas. The Air Force gods finally broke her free of the Central Time zone this summer and sent the family to Hawaii - just five weeks after baby #4 arrived! She works remotely for a non-profit in Louisiana as the Director of Technology and Strategic Operations and is currently pursuing her Project Management certification. Her oldest son (age 9) has Down Syndrome, and her oldest daughter (age 7) has an undiagnosed genetic disorder, so there are a lot of therapy and medical appointments; however, the chaos is balanced with weekly trips to the beach, hikes, and trying new restaurants.


  1. are a wonderful person & exceptional mother. But of course I knew that when you attended KU & Sigma Kappa. Love to you & your family. Sheila

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