Belonging.

What does it mean to belong—to be part of? To feel well known, understood and wanted? To feel part of a group, a family, a community, a workplace? To belong. Remember Norm in Cheers, where everyone knows your name? You want to be there, right?

I’ve thought long and hard about the word ‘belonging’ as this holiday season hits. I thought: Do I belong to my church? My God? My husband? My family? And who belongs to me? And why do I want to belong ? Why does it feel so good?

As an only child, I have struggled with this often. My dad left when I was three, and when my mother died when I was only 14, I could remember thinking Ohmigod, now I belonged to no one. Of course, my family loved me and took care of me and did the right thing. But did I really feel as if I belonged to them?

I’m not sure you can. Not totally… not like a mother, father, sister, brother belong to each other.

Cousins do help: see both my boys with their cousins at Rockefeller Center.

I found with family—your nuclear family—you don’t have to work at it. It’s just who you belong to and vice versa. But everywhere else, and with everyone else, it’s work. If you work hard and nurture your relationships, you can build a belonging. When you get married, you belong to each other. But again, it’s a relationship you work at. You nurture. It’s not unconditional or expected.

And trust me, there is nothing like that unconditional, natural belonging you get from your parents and siblings.

Lord knows it’s not something you can create or hope for, this belonging thing. If it were, I would have had it many times already. What  I’ve come to learn is that it’s a gift, given to you, that some of us get to keep longer or have more of.

Even tougher is when you think your children don’t belong, or have trouble belonging.  I see this with my son Joey.

How does Joey belong? A 14-year-old kid who is nonverbal and has severe autism. Where does he belong ? Who accepts him? I cry when I think of him feeling left out. I am terrified that he might have the same painful feelings I have often had. That feeling of Ohmigod, I belong to no one.  And worse, will anyone ever belong to him?

As before, my children teach me.

I took the boys to take their Christmas picture. As they stood there waiting their turn, they both seemed like giants compared to all the other kids there. I must admit, I laughed inside as I thought, Am I crazy—a Christmas picture of a 14- and 16-year-old?

My typical son Nicholas was a bit uncomfortable, even though he would never admit it.  He knows what it has taken to get us to this point. How, over the years, we have spent hours trying to get a picture of Joey. How we have actually had photographers quit and walk away, saying I don’t think is for me. Just because Joey ran around, took off his clothes, and once, when he was four, peed on the the floor. I don’t think that was really a reason to quit. Seriously?

But c’est la vie. We are here now. And my special boy is waiting patiently, keeping on his new, a-bit-too-tight red polo sweater and looking rather handsome. Yes, there he was, smiling and happy. Enjoying the moment. Laughing every time the flash went off.

Want to hear something amazing? He didn’t care if he belonged. He didn’t care if others thought it funny that he wasn’t the usual Christmas-picture-sized kid. He was just happy to be Joey and alive.

So, Joey, another lesson learned. I guess in the end, we belong to ourselves. We should like who we are and sometimes just not care if we belong or not. Autism is a difficult, complex diagnosis. But in some ways, it’s powerful and confident and rather strong. It again has taught me such an important life lesson: I belong to me. And I like me and who I am. And who I’ve become. My character, my honesty, my trust. Oh, and by the way, the Christmas card came out great, thank goodness. I have two beautiful boys who, for the moment, belong to me.