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I Don’t Need a T-Shirt to Tell Me My Son is Growing Up

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom and author
04/08/23  12:00 PM PST
my son with complex medical needs is growing up

There is a reason Etsy exists. And Pinterest boards. And the entire home section of Anthropologie. We like to fancify our lives. We like the idea of tablescapes and monogrammed sweatshirts and the perfect mod lamp. It sounds silly, but it serves a purpose. Underneath all the fluff is this idea that we crave specialness. We seek that touch that will make a room, an event, perhaps us, a little brighter.

It was with this idea in mind that I bought my son Charlie a onesie for his first birthday with a monogrammed blue gingham “1” on the front. I cut the collar with scissors to make room for his tracheotomy. With his jaunty birthday hat and a trach like a little bowtie, he looked downright dapper for his birthday party. The tradition began. Every year on his birthday, I ordered a special shirt with his age on it.

This year, Charlie turned eleven. Due to his cerebral palsy he often gravitates towards items that younger children are drawn to – easy chapter books, trucks that make noise, extra soft blankets. But in so many other ways, he is turning into a young man with the preferences of any eleven year-old. He is obsessed with his iPad and can navigate it better than me. He loves socializing and gets bored when school is not in session. He has also developed a specific clothing style – ideally Champion athletic wear all day, every day.

When this birthday drew near, my mind automatically circled to that t-shirt. What color would it be this year? Maybe yellow?, I thought. Then, No, that’s too childish. Then, Wait, is this whole thing too childish now? Of course I wasn’t going to keep dressing him up in numbered t-shirts through his thirties. But when was the cut-off? When do I say goodbye to this specific childhood ritual?

With a not-so-small amount of grief, I decided it was time. Last year at ten, the milestone was double digits. But eleven feels different. We are peering over the hedge into adolescence. He deserves to be seen and treated as the young man he is. I did not order the shirt. I let the tradition age-out as it should, despite how hard it was for me to let it go. Instead, Charlie picked the dessert, his clothes, and what he wanted to do on the big day and we rolled into eleven as we should, with him making his own choices.

I continually strive for Charlie not to be underestimated by his teachers, peers, and society at large. This shift away from the birthday shirt might seem small, but it is a step towards him advocating for himself and becoming an adult who meets the world on his own terms. And you know what? The birthday was just as special, maybe more so, because of that. I didn’t need the t-shirt to tell me my boy was growing up.



child with special needs
Jamie Sumner is a special needs mom and author.
Author of the middle-grade novels:
















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