Welcome to Holland

There’s this poem that they give to just about every parent when your child gets diagnosed with autism.  The poem is called “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl Kingsley.  Here is the poem:

I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability – to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this……

When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip – to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”

“Holland?!?” you say. “What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.”

But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It’s just a different place.

So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It’s just a different place. It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around…. and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills….and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy… and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.” 

And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away… because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.

But… if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things … about Holland.

All my Autism Moms are familiar with this poem, but even as I write this post, 10 years after my son’s diagnosis, it resonates in a new way for me. And I imagine, even if you are not a special needs parent, this poem may have some meaning for you as well. Sometimes you can get so wrapped up in your own pain that you don’t see the pain and battles that others around you are fighting, especially because their battles are so different from yours.

I watched a documentary recently on Netflix called End Game (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgJD6ksdkWY), the documentary follows several different people that are dealing with death and hospice. In the film, BJ Miller, a hospice and palliative care doctor, shares his own story. When he was 19, a sophomore in college at Princeton, was hanging out with friends and got on top of a commuter train while parked and electricity from the cable above connected to his watch and shock went through his body. He ended up having both of his legs amputated, as well as his left arm below the elbow. He gave a definition of suffering that I have not been able to stop thinking about since. He said suffering is like a gap between the life you wanted versus the life you got.

Let that sink in a little bit.

What hopes and dreams did you have that did not manifest in the way you thought they would? Did you give everything to a spouse who ended up betraying you? Did sickness cancel your plans for an adventurous life? Did you lose a loved one before you got to make things right with them? I imagine there are so many aspects of peoples lives that never came to be, and they may be currently grieving over them. How do we move out of that space of suffering and began to accept the life we got? Although our life may have turned out very different, can we still make it beautiful? The pain of the loss of that dream life may never completely go away, but what if it didn’t consume your thoughts every moment of every day? Would it make your current life easier to bear? What would it mean for the other people who occupy this life with you?

Where are you right now? Are you stuck in the place of suffering? Are you clawing tooth and nail to get out or have you made your bed in the valley of suffering? If so, what would it take for you to cross over to the life you got?

Every time I am getting ready to throw myself a pity party about my life, I remember the quote and it snaps me back into reality. That this is the life I got, what will I do with it?

Will you discover Holland or will you spend the rest of your days only thinking of Italy?

13 thoughts on “Welcome to Holland”

  1. What a beautiful analogy!! I’ve visited both places and I must say Italy is full of historic buildings but Holland is full of windmills and beautiful fields of tulips of all colors!!!
    Each day we wake up and make a choice!! Love this Shawntae!!!

  2. Shawntae,
    I love this blog. Having kids with autism was not the plan I had for my life but it has been a unique journey and I love my kids more than anything.

  3. After the loss of a child, there is always that empty corner of your heart that will never go away and nothing can fill it all the way. Taking nothing for granted and enjoying it all. We all face our battles and no one can walk in our shoes.
    Sending love and thank you for sharing such raw emotions

  4. Wow, what a thought-provoking post. I’m sure your journey with your son has been quite the rollercoaster. I really appreciate the concept of appreciate and discovering what’s in front of you 🆚 longing for what you hoped would be. So applicable! Keep writing. 🙂

  5. First let me say I’m not a mother of a special needs child, I doff my hat off to you and every parent who is!

    I also want to say in my own life struggles, I accepted Holland kicking and screaming. But when I calmed down, I saw the windmills and began to accept and appreciate…

  6. This is such a great reminder. When my son was diagnosed with autism 4 years ago I was in an entirely different place. Some days are still really, really difficult. But much of the time, I am so grateful for the many gifts autism has brought to my life. Thank you for sharing!

  7. ‘Although our life may have turned out very different, can we still make it beautiful’? I love this question because it boils down to a choice…a choice that only we can make! Such a beautifully written blog!

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