Stephanie Hanrahan is the mother of two special needs children. Both of them have autism, a condition that can cause difficulties socially. Recently, Stephanie faced a struggle that many mothers of autistic children will recognize: sending the kids off to school for the first time. She looked up one of the schoolteachers on Facebook, and what she found made her outright cry.
Stephanie documents her journey through motherhood on her Facebook account. She talks to her followers about her children Campbell and Eli, and about her husband Shawn, who lives with a rare heart condition. Her account is called Tinkles Her Pants because, in her own words, it’s about “moments that make you laugh so hard you leak a little.”
Stephanie’s account of her children’s schooling is a very touching one. But the most touching moment of all, possibly, comes when she details the time she started following the Facebook page of one of Eli’s teachers. While looking through the posts, she came across one that first confused her and then had her sobbing.
On the About page of Stephanie’s Facebook, she describes herself like this, “Wife to a sick husband. Mother to special needs kiddos. A woman who made her private journal public and now leaks nothing but truth.” Her stories make for fascinating reading as she details both the difficulties and the joys of parenting.
Stephanie’s writings have led her onto bigger and bigger things. In February 2019 she became a contributing writer for Today. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this little blog to impact me in such a big, big way. It’s been five of the most freeing months of my life,” she wrote on her Facebook.
Stephanie details everything about her life, even parts she finds difficult. “My kids live in the gray area – not ‘normal’ enough, not severe enough,” she wrote in November 2018. “Resources are slim when that’s where you abide, but societal expectations are still plentiful. It’s not their fault they underperform at times. It is my fault if I don’t advocate enough. So fight I will.”
Stephanie has also published several articles about motherhood on the website Lifestyle Frisco. In them, she speaks about her fears, her hopes and her past. “My body gave up two babies before I got the two I have now,” she wrote in a May 2019 article titled “Mother’s Day is for Many Different Moms.”
In her Mother’s Day article, Stephanie wrote about the pain of miscarriages and their aftermath. “Love making becomes robotic. You live and breathe for a tiny pink line when only a period comes,” she wrote. “There’s calendars, and apps, and hormones, and adoption fees, and the hard realization that we really are not in control of any of it anyhow. It’s excruciating.”
But, Stephanie went on, “I can confidently say, to the woman who is submitting herself to all that and more: you will become a mom. Your mothering may just take longer to obtain – or come in a different form than you originally thought.” As the parent of special needs children, Stephanie knows all about the importance of difference.
In September 2018 Stephanie wrote on her Facebook that both her children had begun their school education. “Tomorrow is the first day of preschool for both of my children,” she wrote. “It also marks the first time in four years I’ll be alone.” To accompany the post she made a list of “a few things I do know for sure.”
Of her children, Stephanie wrote, “They may not have first day jitters, but I sure do – every year, every day. Every day I worry if the wrong people will get to them and steal away a bit of their beautiful spirit. You see, in my bubble I can prevent against that.” Many mothers can most likely relate.
However, Stephanie went on, “If I don’t free them to experience conflict and controversy, and differing races, religions and opinions, they won’t build character. And in my opinion character is the best thing they can be taught outside of a textbook.” She added, “My greatest falls helped me stand back up a bit straighter.”
Stephanie also spoke directly to the people who would be educating her children. “So, future teacher, hello. We love you,” she wrote. “We hope you know you are our hero. That the only reason I can breathe and begin again as a woman is because for a few hours a day you relieve me as a mom.”
The mom continued, “I apologize ahead of time for the extra effort it might take with my kids, they get their strong will from me. One day it’ll be a desirable trait, but right now, I get it, they’re a challenge. You’re doing God’s work, fearless teacher. You’re molding children. I’m sorry I place such a heavy responsibility on your shoulders, but I know you’re quite capable of carrying it.”
Stephanie would go on to talk about her children and their teachers some more in a May 2019 piece she did for Lifestyle Frisco. It was titled, “A Farewell Thanks to Frisco’s Teachers.” The mom began the article by writing, “I didn’t cry on the first day of school. Not really my style, I guess. My children were ready and so was I.”
She went on, “But the last? There were tears. A lot of tears. And that is largely thanks to their teachers.” Stephanie wished to celebrate them. “To be fair, we are at the beginning of our educational journey, but the experiences we’ve had this year with Frisco’s finest – also known as the teachers – have set the bar incredibly high.”
Stephanie wrote that “ABC’s and 123’s” were not the most important things to her. “What I’m looking for – what I hope my children are the recipients of – is kindness. That’s it. Every day as I send them off into this beautiful, but often brutal world, I pray they are the getters and givers of kindness,” she said.
Both of Stephanie’s children featured in the article, but first she spoke about her daughter Campbell. “On the first day of pre-K, she ran in enthusiastically. It’s all fresh and new and fun until the exhaustion sets in. By day three, she was in shambles, and I had to carry her in kicking and screaming,” she wrote.
Most parents know the awkwardness and the helplessness involved in trying to comfort a child having a meltdown. But Campbell’s teachers stepped in to help. “I arrived at the classroom out of breath and minutes away from a breakdown myself, and that’s when her teacher dismissed the other students, got on the floor and hugged my child into her chest,” Stephanie wrote.
That teacher, Stephanie wrote, “looked me in the eye and said, ‘go,’ and so I did.” That moment struck the mother with awe. “In that moment, I saw my daughter’s body release into the safety of someone who cared for her. A bridge of trust had been built, and since then, neither of us have looked back.”
Stephanie did not name her children’s school in the piece, but she sang its praises. She was told by the principal, she said, that Frisco schools have “extra recesses, and brain breaks, and quiet corners in the classroom where children can remove themselves if they’re overstimulated or stressed.”
These are all things considered to be very helpful for special education students. Brain breaks are periods during which a child can stop and refocus. And quiet corners are useful for people with autism. When a task becomes too much for them, they can retreat away from it and from other children.
Hearing about these things greatly comforted Stephanie. “Inside the four walls of that school were people who cared. I could feel it. These children were names to them, not numbers,” she wrote. “The sigh of relief they gave me will carry me through these summer months as I prepare to let my daughter go.”
Stephanie also wrote about her son: Eli. The story she told about encountering his special needs teacher was a truly touching one. It involved a mild misunderstanding that gave way to joy. “His teacher recently friended me on social media, and naturally, I took a skim/stalk through her page,” she wrote.
Stephanie encountered something interesting, and slightly puzzling to her, when she went through the Facebook page of Eli’s teacher. “I came upon a picture of her holding a chalkboard sign that read, ‘I said YES!’ She’s already married, so it struck me as odd until I read the caption,” she said.
But the sign actually signified something different. “This post, by this one particular hero, was about saying yes to becoming a teacher in an autism specific classroom,” Stephanie wrote. “She went on to describe this job offer as her ‘dream,’ ‘an answer to prayer.’ I couldn’t stop crying, then and now, because it was at that moment I realized how lucky we are to have found the right place and people for my son.”
Stephanie was deeply, deeply touched. “I didn’t choose to have special needs children, but these teachers did,” she said. “And they’re doing it happily. Faithfully! Honorably! They wanted this. They wanted my child. In a world that often says ‘change who you are,’ they’re saying, ‘come to me as is.’ So I’ve given them my son, and, in return, they’ve given my family hope.”
Stephanie went on, “I don’t know many people selfless enough to love a child who isn’t their own. To seek their best interest above the easier way. But I know a handful of them now, and I bow down. I can barely handle two children, but a class of 20? All the praise. The truth is, the only reason I can breathe and begin again as a woman is because for a few hours a day these teachers relieve me as a mother.”
Before publishing that article, Stephanie had written on Facebook about one of her daughter’s teachers who went above and beyond. “See my daughter’s smiling, assured, confident face? See that weighted stuffed animal on her lap? Both are the result of a really, really wonderful teacher,” she wrote in February 2019.
Stephanie explained, “When Campbell was growing fidgety at circle time, her teacher brought her a new fox friend. When she got too overstimulated to go to specials, her teacher kept her behind and taught her the power of deep breaths. She hugs her and tells her she loves her daily, and it’s the most reciprocated relationship I’ve ever seen from my daughter outside of her love for her family.”
The power of a good teacher could, for Stephanie and her family, barely be overstated. Stephanie also shared on Facebook a picture her daughter had drawn. “How lucky are we? How lucky is she? I think Campbell’s drawing and narration say it all. In the hands of her teacher – she is free to dance without fear,” she wrote.
When it came time for Campbell to say goodbye to her teachers at the end of preschool in May, Stephanie documented it. “Today was her very last day of preschool. She seemed to be silly and aloof about it all until we got to the parking lot,” she wrote. “Then, as she choked back sobs, she said quietly, ‘I’m just really going to miss them.’”
Stephanie felt her daughter’s pain. “I tried to say the right things like, ‘just because they’re not our teachers anymore doesn’t mean they can’t be our friends,’ or ‘when something ends something new begins,’ but that just made her cry harder,” she wrote. “So I remembered what helped me when I spent a solid chunk of my 20s nursing a broken heart: Time.”
Stephanie said on Facebook that “watching my five-year-old process the loss of her first love – her teachers – is the most humbling moment I’ve had as her mother. I didn’t even know she was capable of feeling this deeply. But it also means they’ve done a tremendous job with her,” she wrote.
In the months after Stephanie wrote her article, she kept her Facebook followers updated on how her children were doing at school. When Eli turned three years old in June, she wrote a post for him. “Every day when I drop you off at school, your friends shout your name,” she noted proudly for everyone to see.
And as for Stephanie’s daughter, “Campbell had her graduation performance last week… Her teacher said she was nervous about standing on stage to sing, and I promised her she’d find me in the crowd,” she wrote in June. “And she did. About half way through the performance she spotted us and started waving.”
The family reached a milestone recently: they all got to go on vacation together for the first time. Stephanie was absolutely thrilled to finally get to do it. “That’s five years of sitting on the sidelines. Five years of watching other people play in the water and feel the sun on their skin,” she noted on Facebook.
But when the vacation took place, Stephanie noted on her blog that Eli hadn’t had a single breakdown during it. “We’ve worked hard with Eli, ridiculously hard, and the payoff has been this time together. I owe half of it to his teachers and therapists – who have pushed him on transitions, sharing, and waiting,” she wrote.
However plenty of her children’s development had happened at home as well. “And a tiny bit of credit goes to us too – two parents who decided hiding at home wouldn’t help our kids, so we exposed them to the world no matter if it meant carrying a child out mid-meltdown,” Stephanie said.
Stephanie’s article highlights the importance of teachers, but also the importance of the parent who chooses those teachers. “They say ‘it takes a village,’ and educators are among that,” she wrote, before offering more gratitude. “So to all the teachers out there who graciously give so others can grow… Thank you for saying YES.”