“You have to be tough and not care what people think,” said Jenny Garrison, a pastor’s wife and the mother of a child with special needs. “My childhood made me tough. I was very much on my own. I had to be really independent and strong, and I think that helped me a lot.”
So Jenny toughed it out and earned a degree in Bible teaching from Columbia Bible College, married Paul, and served churches in Texas; Surrey, England; Green Bay, Wisconsin, and presently Mesa, Arizona, facing the challenges of culture shock, leading women’s and children’s ministries, and becoming a parent of three daughters, including one with special needs.
“We lived in England for two years. Even though it is England, and English speaking, you still go through a normal amount of culture shock. Our first Christmas in England, I was standing in the kitchen listening to ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’, and I just cried,” Jenny recalled. She learned “it’s a process where you allow yourself time to grieve and to be frustrated. Then, very quickly, you ask God to help you embrace the time you are there, because you don’t know how long you’ll be there. We ended up being there for two years. There were things after we left that I wish I had done. Learn how to give up the things that are comfortable to you and fully embrace what God has in front of you, knowing that God is going to put you in some uncomfortable situations. It’s ok, because He is going use everything later. He redeems everything, even the uncomfortable situations. You better learn to deal with the uncomfortable, because that is going to be in your life–a lot!”
Making things a little more comfortable was a group of older British women who took Jenny in and treated her like a little sister. “I was a young mom in my 20s, I already had my oldest daughter, and then I had my second daughter while we were there. I got to be mentored a lot by beautiful Christian women who taught me what it was to be hospitable and taught me how to be a mom. That was extremely helpful, especially when you are a pastor’s wife and you feel inadequate in that,” Jenny recalled. “They demonstrated that when people are in your home, It doesn’t matter how well you do anything, how nice your home is, how nice your dishes are or how well you cook. They weren’t wrapped up in all the other things they were worried about. They focused on me and my needs in the moment. They made me feel special. They made me feel very cared for.” This lesson became increasingly helpful when as pastor’s wife, Jenny had to welcome all kinds of people into their home at many different times and occasions. “Sometimes the house was a mess because we had little kids. This is just how it is. Take a deep breath. The number one focus is on the other person. Listen. Be aware of what they need in the moment. [Learning] that was huge for me.”
These same women threw a baby shower for Jenny. In addition to all the baby gifts, two women brought a gift just for her, a lovely outfit that was loose fitting, perfect for a mom post-delivery. Six weeks after the baby was born, these same women hosted a tea at a grand estate where Jenny and 50-100 other fashionable women attended. Jenny was excited for the opportunity to wear her new outfit. She had only been there about ten minutes when the two women who had given her the gift kindly let on that she was wearing pajamas. “I was standing in pajamas in front of all these women and couldn’t go home because I had been in a carpool. I had to go the next two hours walking around in what I knew to be pajamas. It was rather humiliating. It was one of those lessons when God said to me, ‘You’re never going to feel completely comfortable or competent in anything you do.’ I was feeling very incompetent in that moment. I was not the perfect pastor’s wife who had it all together.” Jenny added, “I had a lot of other pajama moments in my life, like trying to be a mom, especially a special needs mom. I’d tell myself, ‘I’m not the one to be doing this. I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t even dress myself right.’ But then she would tell herself, “You need to learn to laugh. Realize there are other people out there who have pajama moments too. When you feel like everybody has it together but you, it’s not true. Everyone else has had their pajama moments. We’re all in this together, so just get over yourself.”
Jenny wasn’t gaining weight in her pregnancy with Megan, who came two weeks early. Initial scans seem to indicate that all was fine, so they sent Jenny and Megan home. When the baby was only ten days old she contracted strep B meningitis. “We were in the hospital for two weeks. It was a very traumatic experience,” Jenny recalled. When they did a scan to make sure the infection was finally gone, the doctors discovered that there was spinal fluid in a part of Megan’s brain where tissue should have been, and this had likely happened during pregnancy. Jenny and Paul comforted themselves with this truth, “God was with her in the womb the entire time. She was in the palm of His hand the entire time. We know that,” Jenny declared. The baby had some paralysis on the left side of her body, but nobody could tell them what to expect long-term. “They didn’t know. We had to spend the next two years just holding our breath,” Jenny recalled. “I’ll never forget when she was 2 years old and stood up for the first time. I didn’t think she would ever walk. I was doing dishes, and there she was, getting up on her feet. Little things like that we take for granted. Every little thing like that is huge.”
With physical and occupational therapies, Megan was able to attend the first few years of school. By second grade it was recommended that she should start special education classes too. During those years, she began to suffer grand mal seizures, which are not uncommon to people with brain injuries. “All that was hard to digest in a small amount of time,” Jenny said. Since then, medication has controlled the seizures. Megan’s therapy, which includes riding and caring for horses, has helped increase her strength and mobility. Megan is now a lovely young woman who, among other things, serves as a greeter at her church, extending hospitality to members and guests and making people feel welcomed.
“People say, “I don’t care whether it is a boy or a girl, just as long as it’s healthy,” Jenny said. “Well, for a lot of people, what if it’s not? Then what? My life is going to be terrible? The baby’s life is going to be terrible? What?! I just want to hug people that have special needs children and say to them, “You’re on a different journey. It is an extraordinary one, and it can be extraordinarily amazing. As difficult as it is, it introduces you to a whole new community of people, and so many of these people are the most outstanding people you would ever want to meet in your life. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. Your journey looks different, but it’s a good one. It makes you, your children, everybody in your family, and those around you different because you have been in it, and that’s extraordinary too.” Megan’s sisters are more attuned to the needs of families with special needs, which impacts their own families, their places of work and worship, and their communities as well. “There is just this ripple effect that is really cool to watch,” Jenny said.
Parenting, in general, requires toughness. “You can read all the parenting books you want, but every child is different; every challenge is different,” Jenny said. “When a child has a meltdown in the middle of the church lobby, and everybody stands to watch, people think, ‘What kind of parent are you that you can’t get that kid under control?’ Or when you have somebody come up and tell you what you should be doing with your child… Oh, my! You just want to smack them. You mostly just want to say, ‘You have no idea.’ You have to learn how to close your eyes, take a deep breath, put your focus on your child and do what’s right for her, and have it be between you and her, not about the people around you. If you know somebody that has a special needs child, say a prayer for them. They don’t need your advice. Just give them a smile; give them a pat on the shoulder, whatever you can do to encourage them, because this is a tough journey.”
“When it comes to the special needs community, I think a lot of times parents feel isolated and judged,” Jenny said. “Ask questions like ‘How are you doing?’ and ‘How can I help?’ Know that they are special people because of what they have to offer and what they have been through with their child. Realize that this is their child who they love, and they want their child to be recognized as a human being. They are not to be ignored, but acknowledged. Communicate that they are people who are to be respected and valued. We all want to be respected and valued.”