CoVa Mom Role Models: Susanna Davis

While There’s No Foolproof Method for Raising a Special Needs Child, Susanna “Susie” Davis Relies on a Combination of Compassion, Intellectual Wit and Lots of Religious Reflection

CoVa Mom Role Models, Susanna Davis
Photo by David Uhrin

The first thing most people notice about Susanna “Susie” Davis (that is, after her beautiful skin and eyes) is her wit. Her legendary “what-do-you-mean-show-restraint-I-am-showing-restraint” exuberance is matched only by her intelligent humor. “I look for the absurdity and exaggerate it to drive it home,” she says. “I make fun of myself, my situations.”

And it’s a good thing. 

This former C-130 loadmaster for the Air Force is also a warrior. That too is a very good thing.

For two weeks out of every four, Davis, a full-time history teacher at Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach, is also a full-time single parent to three children, ages 9, 11 and 13.  Her husband, JD, whom she met in the Air Force, flies for Fed-X.

Davis describes the couple’s older daughter as “an organized leader” and their younger one as “identified gifted.” “When we had her, I assumed I was gifted,” she recalls. “She would look up at me and smile an angelic smile, and I felt a little superior. Until life kicked the wind out of me.”

From birth, their son seemed “spirited.” At age 3, he was deemed to have special needs. The current diagnosis includes autism, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ADHD, and Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder. “He exceeds cognitive benchmarks but then does irrational things. He has no impulse control. Everything is amplified with him,” Davis explains. Their home has holes in walls and locks on doors. “After breaking things, he will scream at the top of his lungs, ‘It’s my coping strategy!’”

He’s been “kicked out of daycares,” admitted to a special residential school and hospitals, and he has barricaded himself into his room. Angry at those who removed him from daycare, Davis recalls being spoken to “in soft tones” and made to feel that “a hail of judgment was rained down on me.” When your kid has a behavioral issue, she explains, “People look at you like, ‘Why can’t you get your crap together?’”

Around 2009, Davis was teaching and pursuing a second master’s degree (since “tabled”) while JD was deployed to Afghanistan with the Air National Guard where he was sent approximately eight times. When he would call home from a satellite phone, she didn’t want to “bawl hysterically” and tried to maintain that “all was OK.” After all, she levels, “You can’t complain to someone in a war zone.” But she hated him, she asserts. She hated everybody. “I wanted to curl up in a ball.”

When JD is home, however, she is quick to acknowledge his involvement, describing him as “awesome” and “a great dad.” Though they fight—and used to have “horrible fights”—both know that “dealing with this alone would be impossible.” Gamely recognizing that this is the hand they have been dealt, Davis, who was raised Catholic, notes “lots of religious reflection.”

“You learn to accept what other people don’t,” she notes. “Your standards of what is normal have been beaten down.” And her humiliation? It has “found a new low.” One humiliating story involves her then-4-year-old son, who wanted a Batman toy—and, incidentally, wasn’t wearing underwear—racing away from his mother in Wal-Mart as his pants slid down to his ankles in the dairy section. His bare lower half precipitated piercing shrieks of, “My penis is cold!”  For her part, Davis slipped over to the next aisle feigning interest in Lay’s potato chips. She recalls being mortified but noted wryly, “I didn’t yet know my life.”

Throughout the challenges, Davis has learned along the way to quit blaming herself. “There is not a mother on this planet who doesn’t blame herself,” she says. “She cried a lot initially, but these days, she’s learned not to feed the guilt, reminding herself that her son’s path is a “genetic thing.” And, yes, there was a time when she “hated people who won the genetic lottery.” She confesses to wanting to say to all moms posting about their children on social media, “Stop. Please stop.” But, she is also quick to recognize that, “I’d be that person if I wasn’t this person.”

Still, she acknowledges, “Anybody who says they have it figured out are lying.” With her characteristic, sarcastic twinkle, she adds, “Work your magic, you parenting sage.”

Nowadays, her son, who can be “amazingly kind” and “has so much going for him,” is medicated and in a lot of therapy. “Therapy works when the patient makes it work. But when you are 11 …” She trails off. “As mothers, we want to help, but you start to realize there is nothing you can do.” What she refers to as the “end game” remains unknown. “The future is so freakin’ scary,” she freely admits. 

Yet, she also insists that, in addition to making her a better teacher, “My son has given me an unbelievable life, though not the life I thought I was going to have at the baby shower.” Does she want to “quit” sometimes? Of course. Although she knows she can’t give up, she allows herself to “quit for the day.” And she does a lot of projects in her garage. Plus, she seeks help; she considers her 6-foot-2-inch male babysitter, Jackson, a “godsend” and a member of the family. She also looks to the wisdom of her own mother who said, “I can’t move out. So, I move around.”

Ultimately, Davis reflects, “I have some great people in my life who accept me. And, at the end of the day, all anyone wants is validation.” For all of her straight talk about anger, hate and guilt, she exudes genuine love and compassion. It’s her coping strategy. 

Betsy DiJulio
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Betsy DiJulio is a full-time art teacher, artist and curator with side hustles as a freelance writer, including for Coastal Virginia Magazine, and a vegan recipe developer and food stylist and photographer for Tofutti Brands.

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