I have to tell you a secret. For a very long time, I personally was not a fan of Mother’s Day. It’s perhaps sad, but true. Losing my mom at 14 has made the last 30 Mother’s Days a little empty for me. My mom was powerful and smart, and she gave such unconditional, unbridled love—it’s no wonder the void is still as painful as the first hour she was gone.

Add in having a son with special needs, which made Mother’s Day into a day of reflection of what it could be, or should be. How can I celebrate that, I wondered? I watched others celebrating, and the pain in my heart seemed to grow stronger. I was angry with myself for not being happy for others. Then I realized I was just angry.

A few years ago things started to change a little. I guess I let go of some of the past and some of my dreams, and started new ones. It’s not easy, but it is possible. I started liking Mother’s Day again. And, of course, it was my children that helped me get here.

I’ve said it before and will probably say it a million more times: They have taught me more then I could ever teach them.

My sons, Nicholas and Joey, are 14 and 11. Nicholas is changing the world with school—his activism, his business—but always takes a moment at least a few times a day to tell his old mom he loves her. It melts my heart. And don’t tell him, but I’ve saved a few of his text messages that say it. Because I know that when he’s 17 and hates me, I’ll need to look at them.

Nick wants to be president. He is not easily fooled and doesn’t tolerate misjudgment. He doesn’t complain much; instead he looks for a ways to make it better. If he sees something wrong, he will fix it. I am very proud of his philosophy and have learned from it. There have been times I didn’t think I could go on, and then I think of him and know I can. Nick has used his positive attitude to handle the stress and challenges of the usual day-to-day, as well as the unusual challenges of dealing with a sibling with autism, my other son Joey. Nick is remarkable

Joey? I should have known that Joey would be trouble from the beginning! As I type that my heart smiles. He was only seconds into our world and the doctor exclaimed, “It’s a girl! I mean, it’s a boy!” Right then it started: Joey causing confusion. Joseph, born 9 lbs. 8 oz., is the most beautiful child you will ever see. When he was a baby, I used to lift up the back of his shirt and try to see, murmuring, “I know there are angel wings under there.” However, while he might have looked like a cherub, but he surely didn’t act like one.

Gosh, he was so tough, cried so much. And at about two, he retreated behind a wall, unable to process the waves of sensation coming toward him. (To someone with autism, it’s as if colors and sounds and touches are all screaming at you). But he has come so far with the help of many. I look at him now, and I see a boy who used to not even be able to look at me, his own mama, a boy who is happy and fights so hard to be part of my world of rules that he doesn’t understand, all while looking at me with eyes so full of hope. I see that and tears of pride fill my eyes.

And Joseph more than anyone, even my beautiful mother, has taught me what motherhood really is. It is tireless, and honest, the greatest and most important job there is: creating and molding a human being. It’s amazing we’re trusted with this—I can’t even balance a check book. But it’s true! It’s us mothers who build character and conscience and empathy, one little potatoe at a time. You have to know when to pull back and when not to. It’s exhausting, and I often wondered, Will I ever get my life back? With Joey, I realize, I might not. But then I remember Joey and Nicholas are my life.

Most important: I try to remember to thank God for what a gift it all is. It might be different from what I thought it should be or could be, but it’s a gift just as beautiful. And as with what happened to me at 14, it could be taken all away in an instant. So when I’m tired of autism, when I’m tired of

the spending,
the laundry and the homework,
the driving all over creation, to therapy and and sports,
and the crazy rest of life: of losing cell phones, of the endless meetings, of dinner and making lunches, of the buses and the field trips and the calls and the stains and the test scores…

…then I remember my mother’s favorite line: “When something’s right, it is hard. And when is wrong, it’s easy.” Wow, I guess motherhood must be very right.

Phyllis Fanzo Lombardi is well known in the Ardsley School District, Westchester County, and the nation for her tireless advocacy on behalf of families touched by autism. She has trained EMS workers, designers of schools and hospitals, and educators about the needs of low-verbal children with disabilities. When her son is admitted to the bar, she may just run for president.