My debut book, Special, is not a memoir. As a self-help, special-needs parenting title, it shares shopping carts with taglines to the tune of: ‘A Mother’s Journey of Hope and Healing’, ‘A Mother’s Story of Grief, Hope and Acceptance’ and ‘Finding Beauty in the Unexpected – A Memoir.’ But, I repeat, a memoir it is not.
More along the lines of an amateur, anthropological study into a subset of parents with which I was newly acquainted, my approach was – curious. Questioning. Bearing a likeness to that of journalist Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.
Druckerman wound up raising a child in Paris – a situation she did not expect, took her time adjusting to and, eventually, found joy in. I wound up raising a child who will likely never walk or talk – a situation I did not expect, took my time adjusting to and, eventually, found joy in. So goes the story arc of my book.
My son Arlo, now four, was diagnosed with quadriplegic cerebral palsy when he was six months old. On receiving said diagnosis, a series of nagging queries took up residency in my head. Why has this happened to me? When will I stop feeling shit? Will I ever not compare my child to others? Will I be able to work again? What will my future look like?
Not long after that diagnosis, in a desperate attempt to find answers, I started interviewing people. I spoke with 50-plus parents living all over the world, raising kids with different disabilities. Common themes arose and chapter heads took form. A book proposal submission (or three) later I had a publishing deal, a deadline and a pressing need to find my voice in what was unfamiliar, highly sensitive territory.
I wanted Special to be helpful – both to me and other parents who’d been lobbed a curve ball – but the emotional wreck of a person who started writing it would be no help to anyone. This was one the reasons I didn’t want to make it all about me and write a memoir.
Five other reasons I didn’t want to write a memoir:
1) I didn’t want to read a memoir. Special was the book I wish I’d had in the early days of navigating Arlo’s disability – at a time when I was so swept up in my own sob story I didn’t have the bandwidth for anyone else’s. I only wanted the lessons, takeouts and happy endings. Hold the heartbreak, devastation and struggle, please.
2) I’m private. I love probing for personal information. So long as someone consents, I get my kicks and a bit of coin by sharing other people’s stories with the world. Never as comfortable a columnist as I am a profile writer (this very blog post is making me squirm), putting my opinions and private life out there is not something that comes naturally to me.
3) I didn’t have hindsight. I started writing Special when Arlo was freshly diagnosed, at a time when I hadn’t lived enough of this experience to do it justice. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I was writing from my wounds, not my scars (a big no-no, according to author Glennon Doyle.)
4) I was in denial. It took me a while to come to terms with Arlo’s diagnosis and the last thing I wanted to do was dwell on a situation I found entirely unacceptable. Writing this book was a distraction and escape from what was going on around me, and focusing on my story would have sent me kicking and screaming back into reality.
5) The special-needs parenting market is already full of memoirs. I saw a gap and dived right on in.
Despite all of these reasons, I knew there was no getting around the fact that I had to be in this book, memoir or not. Personal experience is what resonates with readers. People want something real. Honest. #authentic.
So here are six ways I wrote myself into it:
1) I pillaged my diary. Even before Arlo was born, I had decided to document the honest-to-god truths of early parenthood. I journaled every day, even as my account of parenthood veered off-road. A number of these entries appear, word for word, in Special, and that diary was an incredibly useful source for anecdotes that I would have otherwise forgotten.
2) I got a friend to interview me. I sent the first draft of my manuscript to four journalist friends for their feedback, all of whom wrote gentle hints in the margins along the lines of ‘if you wanted to share just a little of how you felt about this topic, here would be a nice place to do so’. One of those early readers suggested that I get a friend to interview me as a way of remedying my silence. It felt weird, but reminded me of some important parts of our experience that my brain had blocked out (Arlo departing daycare in an ambulance, for one).
3) I interviewed my partner. That same early reader thought it would be a good idea for me to interview my partner, Rowan, and slip more of our relationship into Special. We’ve been travelling this road in tandem (although, not always at the same pace) so his words gave broader perspective to my story. It also didn’t hurt to have another male voice in the mix, as most of my interviewees were mothers.
4) I included my children’s real names. Initially I didn’t want to use Arlo or his sister Odette’s names, but as my interviewees hadn’t held back, I felt it might be perceived as hypocritical, or plain rude, for me to not do the same. Rowan and I don’t share the same surname, and as both of our kids have his, I figured this gave them a layer of protection.
5) I incorporated some of my banter from the interviews. In line with my obsessive transcribing style, I recorded in writing every word, pause, um, ah, cough and eye roll of both my interviewees and myself. When I transcribe interviews, I also make little notes of how certain quotes make me feel, or ideas that they inspire. By weaving a bit of what I said and thought during the interviews into Special, I was able to maintain more of a presence throughout. It feels less like reporting, more like a candid chat. If readers are privy to both sides of a conversation, perhaps it makes them feel included – less alone.
6) I included some snippets from my therapy sessions. A big worry of mine in writing this book was that people might wrongly think I was an ‘expert’ in the field of mental health for parents raising kids with disabilities. My psychologist, an actual expert here, has given me a bunch of tools to keep my head in check. I included some of our interactions (with her permission) which meant there I was, again, but in a helpful capacity as conduit of expertise.
As Special came together, and the passing of time did its thing too, my thoughts and feelings changed. I perceived disability differently. I perceived my version of parenthood differently. I perceived the future differently – and it shows.
The first sections are heaving with quotes and research. As the book progresses, these peter out and I join the party. There’s an ease about the later chapters that the first ones don’t have. I’m still hiding, back at the start, but by the end of the book, my role had changed from a bumbling, timid narrator to someone who has learned some things, and isn’t afraid to share them.
Special is not a memoir, as it combines dozens of voices. But it does capture a meaningful slice of my life – one that I hope to write more about in the future. As Glennon would say, from my scars.
Melanie Dimmitt is a freelance writer and author living in Sydney. She’s written for titles such as The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Collective Hub, Mama Disrupt, Mindful Parenting and Broadsheet, and has created content for Hireup, Canva and Smack Bang Designs. Her debut book, Special: Antidotes to the obsessions that come with a child’s disability, is published by Ventura Press.