This week’s Meet a Mom is one of our most inspiring stories we’ve featured at The Local Moms Network. Sara Hood is a mom of two little boys (ages 9 and 7) and married to NFL player Evander “Ziggy” Hood, who just signed with the New Orleans Saints; they were college sweethearts at the University of Missouri. But her amazing story started when she was a child, born in a Sudanese refugee camp to two Ethiopian parents that fled civil war. When her oldest son, Josiah, was born, she had a heart attack—at only 23 years old. Josiah was later diagnosed with autism and is non-verbal. But she has come through with her happiness and health intact—not only losing 60 pounds but becoming an advocate for those with special needs. Here’s how:
As a 4-year-old in a refugee camp in Sudan, did you ever imagine your life as it is now?
No—I’m so blessed. I’m the epitome of the American dream. Being born in a refugee camp the cards were stacked against me. The sacrifice my parents made was for the betterment of our future and it was a great decision.
Amazing. How did your childhood impact how you have navigated the challenges you’ve faced as a mom?
I have the most incredible parents—they are resilient, loving, kind, compassionate, strong, and filled with so much faith. My childhood and my faith allows me not to be shaken when life gets rough. My mom respects and loves my dad. My father worships my mother. It’s the sweetest thing. Together they not only taught me, but showed me, courage and bravery by leading by example in spite of what life throws at me. When our son was diagnosed I had two options: 1. Stand strong, advocate for my son, love my son with every fiber of my being, be the mom that God wanted me to be or 2. Fall apart, balled up in the fetal position. I will have a breakdown once in a blue moon…I will allow myself the moment if I need it. However, it’s just that. I gather myself and push forward.
When you were pregnant with Josiah, they told you he would have special needs, and eventually he was diagnosed with autism. What would you tell yourself then that you know now?
I would tell myself you are made for this. You will see the world differently. Your eyes will be open. Your heart will be open to love others in a way you never knew possible. You’ll be this lioness protecting and fighting for your baby in a way you didn’t even know you could. I would tell myself the journey will be difficult; it will have its lows but the highs overwhelm the lows. You’ll learn to love without words. You’ll find your strength and voice. And above all I would tell myself it’s all going to be OK. You will be even greater than even I could’ve imagined.
Having a heart attack at 23 must have been a shock. Is that what motivated you to really committing to your health?
Nothing forces you to commit to your health like almost dying. That’s as real as I can put it. Initially it was fear that drove me to commit to my health…fear of losing my life. My husband. My son. My family. Then I stopped fearing and started LIVING. The consistency and the ensuing results became so addicting. Watching how I couldn’t barely lift a 45lbs bar and with a year I could squat 225lbs. Also I realized the endorphins made me happier.
So fantastic. You even coined a term, “Lovestyle”. What is it and how can we find ours?
As a mom our identities are to intertwined with our children. I didn’t know where one began or ended. Lovestyle is what your passion and purpose is and pursuing it without fear. Striving to show kindness and compassion to others even if we don’t agree. Lovestyle is knowing self-care is important. Lovestyle is to have an open heart and open mind.
How else did you find yourself again after going through these dark times?
It was my faith and I knew that I didn’t have a choice. I was facing a situation that was out of my control even though every part of me as a mother wanted to be a control freak and protect and love and bubble wrap him like the Michelin man. We were 26 years old when we he was officially diagnosed and we were still so young. We all had so much life to live that it wasn’t fair to him or to ourselves to basically bury ourselves at that point. The diagnosis didn’t mean death. Was there some grief that comes along with it? Yes. You grieve the disappointment, you grieve the future you thought your child was going to have, the future you imagined for them…that’s the hardest part….But what I’ve also learned is there is so much beauty, in the new experiences that you get to have and how you see the world.
How has your marriage been instrumental in your finding yourself again?
I’m very blessed. The divorce rate among parents that have a child with special needs is stupid high but my husband is very hands on. One of the things I wish we had talked about more early on in our journey is how my husband would leave work (as an NFL player) where he would hit people all day long and then he would meet us at the hospital because we were in testing or Josiah had a seizure or something happened. Anyone who know us knows he says ‘If I quit, and I don’t give my best, what am I going to tell Josiah’. This is why he is going into his 11thNFL season and is probably in best shape of his life. It’s how can I provide for my family in not just financial ways…but how can I provide emotional support, how can I provide love, how can I provide in a way that is outside the financial realm.
And where else have you had support?
My mother in law is phenomenal and I also have my parents who are very much involved and it’s so true [that] it really takes a village. I’m sure I could have done it on my own if I had to but I am glad that I don’t. I am very lucky that my family is so involved with our kids and in Josiah and in supporting both my husband and I, even as we run our businesses and Ziggy going into year 11, with my entrepreneurship and business changing and growing.
How do you stayed connected as a couple?
We do date nights every week and if that means we sit on the floor with a glass of wine, then that’s what we do. If that means we can go to dinner then that’s what we do.
As a special needs mom, how do you make sure your younger son also gets special Mommy attention?
Once a week my husband will take one child on a date and I will take one child on a date—by themselves. My youngest is a cuddler, a lover, so I make sure he gets some of my undivided attention. Whether that’s outside or we play games or we sit on the couch and cuddle, and watch a move….anytime he can be just with me, he loves that. It helps that the boys are very different personality wise and so of course Josiah has a special bond with Daddy.
How do you find time to recharge your own batteries?
I make it a priority… if that means I can drink a hot cup of coffee by myself for 10 minutes, in silence and in one sitting, I feel like I’m winning. For me I also re-charge by going to the gym. That is an absolute must for me and it’s also how I keep my sanity I also read and meditate and every couple of months I may get a massage or a facial but having that me time is an absolute must.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers—especially those dealing with a new diagnosis?
I would say it’s okay to ask for help even when you don’t want to and your pride is telling you that you don’t need it. And especially after a diagnosis, that’s it’s going to be ok, it’s all going to be ok, even when it doesn’t feel like it and it feels like your entire world is crumbling, it’s going to be ok. You can handle this, you’re strong enough, you’re tough enough, you’re smart enough, there is nothing you can’t handle, there is something about a mom, we’re just rock stars…and the other thing I would say is it’s ok to have a grieving point.
The other thing I will say is to advocate for your child. You’re not crazy. No one can tell you anything about your child more than a mother can. And stand firm on faith, stand firm that you can do this and find a friend you can talk to, find a support system, find someone you can sob and cry to and someone that you can share your heartbreak and also share you victory’s with. And that goes for any mom—none of us are experts. None of us have all the answers. There is no playbook. You’re doing your best Momma and that’s more than OK—it’s great.
Want to learn more about Sara and her Lovestyle mission? Go to saralovestyle.com
This story originally appeared on The Local Moms Network.