We just celebrated my son’s ninth birthday. If you had asked me ten years ago what my future son’s ninth birthday would look like, I might have described the perfect summer pool party. Something rambunctious and loud and perfectly planned. Water balloons and canon ball contests and twenty sun-kissed kids clamoring around a cake shaped like a surfboard. Hot dogs and music and grown up drinks in red plastic cups for the adults.

Guess whose ninth birthday looked absolutely nothing like that.

This is what we do, we special needs parents. We compare what we think a childhood should look like to what our kid’s experience actually is. I play this game a lot, and it’s like Tic Tac Toe. Nobody wins.

This birthday, I stopped myself from creating a day I thought my son should want. I didn’t plan a thing. There were no invitations and no guests. I told my son to plan his perfect day, and I sat back and followed his lead.

His plan involved sleeping in my bed on his “birthday eve” so he could “wake up really early to a birthday hug.” He wanted me to decorate the chandelier over the kitchen island so he “could feel happy all day.” He wanted waffles, he wanted his ABA therapist to make him a card, he wanted his dad to come over after work. He wanted Hailey, his long-time sitter, to take him to see his favorite airplane, he wanted a funny video from his uncle, and he wanted cheese pizza with candles on it.

There was no fanfare, no plethora of ticky-tacky presents, no big to-do. It was simple and easy, and pared down to only those things that were important to him.

As I tucked my son into bed at the end of the day, his eyes half-closed with exhaustion, I asked him how his ninth birthday was. He smiled. “It was so awesome, Mom. I sure am loved.”

I sure am loved.

My son has such a difficult time in so many areas, but he knows exactly how to make himself feel happy and loved. It makes me wonder who is really teaching who here.

My son’s ninth birthday was nothing like I would have planned. But for the first time, it was everything it was supposed to be.