Summer Self-Discovery For All Of My Kids


While I prefer spring–with its gentle blooming and moderate temperatures–to the sometime fiery-ness of summer, I have always appreciated the latter for its calmer qualities. True or not, I’ve felt that I run around less, manage less, don’t have to be so beholden to schedules, and so on.

Summer 2018 is the first summer in our new home. Urban living suits me, since I love to walk, appreciate public transit, and enjoy the diversity, complexity, and stimulation of city life. But I wasn’t sure what this summer would bring.

My youngest finished high school early, in January, and had a bit too much time on her hands after that. She did some volunteering, took a philosophy class, and shopped for college life online, but otherwise lacked a daily purpose, a focus. We were thrilled and delighted when she sought and got a job as a counselor at a sleep away camp for children and young adults with special needs.

Her first group of campers was a cohort of boys aged 9-14. Most had behavioral issues.   That meant she got bit, hit with a stick, and verbally threatened, among other things. One memorable call home: “I got punched in the face today. And it was still a great day.”

I’ve been awed by my daughter’s embrace of what is incredibly challenging and physically and emotionally draining work. But I have been especially wowed by her heart, by her absolute dedication to these kids, and her parallel determination to make sure they just have a good time.

When she asked to work with older campers on the spectrum, her request was granted. And inside of her first week with her new group, she promised a camper that if he agreed to go in the lake (he was terrified of doing so), she would perform in the camp talent show. That, I can tell you, is a bargain I never would have made. But she did. She sang, and he subsequently swam with her in the lake. Mission so much more than accomplished.

My eldest is interning this summer as a prospective lawyer with the United States Navy. I’m not surprised that he pursued doing so, given his deep commitment to service, and the example of his cousin, a U.S. Army Officer. But I have been struck by how he describes his interactions with military personnel, and by how they comport themselves.

He went to a retirement party for the most senior military judge in the Navy, a woman. My son spent time that evening with the judge’s younger son, who has Down’s Syndrome. Her older son recently joined the Marines, solidifying a chain of military service in her family extending now to an unbroken 75 years. And in the course of her remarks that evening, she made a point of highlighting and saluting the immigrants among us, and the contributions they have made and continue to make. These are the kind of people anyone should want their career-bound kids to be spending time with, mentored by, and learning from.

With my eldest and youngest kids, I feel like summer has given them important chances to stretch their wings, but also to root themselves more firmly in who they are: young people with bone-deep integrity, tremendous heart, and a precision radar for what is right, good, worthy (and worth doing) in this world. As a parent, I’m not sure I could ask for—or want—anything more.

My middle child, who is autistic, had an open road this summer. The only thing on the horizon was a three-week stint in August, at a sleep away camp for children and young adults with special needs. Yes, he’ll be where his sister is working, and she’s already told her colleagues that he will be their favorite camper.

While my son was not complaining about having nothing to do, it’s clear to me that boredom is his enemy. So I took a giant leap of faith and enrolled him in a two-week tech class in which he’s supposed to be creating an online game for a transit museum. I knew when I enrolled him that he would have no understanding at the outset of what he was supposed to do and why, but I hoped that perhaps by the end, some glimmer of comprehension would appear. But the biggest challenge really was getting him to the program, which required a solid 1.5 hour round trip subway ride—and leaving him there, from 10a.m. until 4p.m. So much could have gone so wrong, but I just felt I had to try. I have to push this child of mine out into the world (and hopefully into the arms of other caring, compassionate adults), and see what results from that special alchemy. It’s a risk, but almost anything in the course of raising a significantly disabled child is. Which is why leaps of faith are real for parents like me. We need to make them more than most folks do.

My husband and I have raised our kids to own their successes and their failures. We’ve been very clear with them that their lives are their lives, and that they own what they choose to do or not do.  We pointedly don’t live vicariously through their achievements. But I’d be lying if I said that my heart doesn’t skip a happy beat when I hear about how and what my kids are doing.

Summer isn’t always about just kicking back. Sometimes, it’s about the best kind of self-discovery, the kind that might set you on a life path, but even if it doesn’t, will surely give you the muscle memory you’ll need to call upon down the road when you might be wrestling with some doubts about who you are and what you’re made of. I know what my kids are made of, and I think they know too. And that knowledge is something they’ll carry with them wherever they go. Their brother, who is charting a very different path, might struggle in ways that most people can’t even comprehend, but measured against what he’s capable of, I think it’s fair to say that he’s climbed a bit of Everest this summer. And he and the mountain are both still standing.

Nina Mogilnik’s professional career has encompassed work in the philanthropic, nonprofit and government sectors. Nina serves on the board of Birch Family Services, an organization dedicated to educating and supporting into adulthood individuals with a range of developmental disabilities. Nina is also an avocational writer, and has had a number of essays about her experiences dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s and her son’s autism published in Haddasah Magazine and in The Jewish Week.  She was recently invited to blog for The Times of Israel and has been contributing her take on life and current events.  Nina’s proudest accomplishment — and hardest job by far — has been as a mother. Nina has degrees in philosophy from Union College (B.A.) and from the University of Chicago (M.Phil). She lives with her husband and kids (human and canine) in New York City.