Down syndrome · parenting · special needs parenting

Making Peace With Our Question Mark

When you have a child, they say your heart walks around outside your body, and I couldn’t agree more. All of the hopes and dreams of another person somehow mean as much to me as my own ever have.

We tend to think we will know what parenthood looks like going in. It starts with midnight feeds and changing diapers and blossoms into milestones. Before you know it there’s an independent human being making decisions and taking on the world. Supposedly, if you do a halfway decent job of it, the child becomes successful and lives a good life. But the reality is seldom so cut and dried.

When you have a baby with a developmental disability, you get advance notice that children don’t come with a recipe, guaranteed to come out as expected as long as you follow the directions properly. You know how it’s supposed to go: play sports, do well in school, go to a good college, find a wonderful spouse and enter a great career. Ensure good values and belief system of your leaning. Stick a toothpick in it to ensure it’s baked through and voila!

The recipe is punctuated with random question marks, some more than others, but we don’t understand them, don’t like them, and do our best to ignore them or stomp them into the ground.

Our son Alex is 16 now (hokey Pete, how did that happen?) and we aren’t sure if or how or when college or trade school will happen. He has career aspirations, and we work together with his school team to make step by step goals towards them. He is thoughtful and tender hearted, so we hope for him to find true love. Independence is still millions of baby steps away, and not a clear picture yet.

The recipe card most people cling to is the length of a novel for us, with many revisions and impromptu modifications. Our question marks are neither random nor infrequent. They started immediately and they’re everywhere. Early on we looked question marks straight in the eyes, then made it a full partner in the effort instead of something we try to avoid or ignore. We embrace the questions because we recognize that nothing is given or assumed for anyone, but especially so when parenting children who are not neurotypical.

Once you acknowledge the question mark, you can make peace with it, not only on behalf of your child, but in general. There’s a certain comfort in saying aloud that results are not always proportional to the effort and plans , no matter how brilliantly derived, unravel here and there. Once it’s on the table, the question mark isn’t so terrifying anymore, and it frees you up to focus on the process without clinging so desperately to results.

In so doing we find the magic in the process. And oh boy do we know about magic around here.

special needs parenting

If Comparison is the Thief of Joy, Then Count Me Out

As a blogger, I follow many bloggers, it’s what bloggers do. I love reading about other families and lifestyles and I often find myself nodding in agreement with the words on the pages, sometimes daubing away tears, other times spewing coffee with laughter; and when I read those, it makes my day.

On the flip side, there are many headlines that I scroll right on by.

When I do, it’s a bonafide case of “it’s not you, it’s me” I can be a little touchy, you see.

Actually, I’m not certain that touchy is the right word. It’s just that the normal challenges of parenthood elude me. When I read about potty training a 3-year-old (as challenging as that may be) I can’t relate, it never has been and never will be my challenge (Hannah was so the world’s easiest child to potty train, and the rest were a whole different ballgame). Just insert whatever normalish rite of passage parents are struggling with, and picture me making this face and scrolling right on by.

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Most bloggers strive for relatability, and that relatability is for the masses, the typical families with the usual struggles and normal crises.

Which means that they don’t relate to me at all, not even the tiniest little bit.

In a 16 year series of combined baby steps, normal steps and a few truly giant leaps, we have left behind any semblance of relatabilty in exchange for quirkiness and complexity.

This leaves us in a situation of continually trying to help people see us and make a bit of headspace for us where we are. Wading though the depths of normalcy on a daily basis, which reinforce just how unrelatable we have become. It’s a constant, relentless cycle.

Social media is like that for parents of kids with complex needs.

There’s this dichotomy for us when we log on and scroll down. My feed is a mix of folks from my family, high school, college and my former jobs, so there’s a pretty sizeable chunk of average in my timeline. That average is foreign to me, and often reminds me of just how many ways we veer away from average. Another contingent is my cadre of parents of complex kids. The ones whose lives are just as unusual as my own. Connecting with them feeds my soul. I write for them, and I read their posts and breathe in the connection.

In order to keep balance, though, I tend to avoid much of the Normal McNormalson that pops into my life via my screens. Leading our family through each day is a feat in itself, I don’t need the constant comparison to slow me down.

Keeping up with the Joneses will never happen. You know how they say that good fences make good neighbors? The same is true of the social media and blogging neighbors. I maintain a virtual privacy fence loaded up with latches and locks, not to keep my family in, but to limit the potential for constantly comparing and contrasting on my end.

That yellow tulip, popping up right there in the midst of all the purple makes for great contrast. It doesn’t blend, it doesn’t match, it just stands out. The tulip almost certainly hasn’t a care in the world about it’s mismatched setting, and likewise, I prefer not to fuss about all the purple flowers surrounding our singular yellow bloom. Our blossom is lovely in it’s own right, and needs not concern itself too much with the vast purple expanse surrounding it.

If comparison is the thief of joy, then I don’t think it’s a game I need to play. Protecting my heart and shielding my joy makes life around here so much sweeter, which is just the way I like it.

adoption · Down syndrome · special needs parenting

The Next Step in Pro-Life

This weekend marks the 45th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortion nationally. I am not even going to attempt to discuss the law, rather, I’d like to examine the next step.

What happens after birth?

What happens when children are born with disabilities, and in an instant a parent becomes a caregiver?

What happens when a parent gets addicted to opioids or dies of an overdose?

What happens when parents hurt their children because of human frailty, or neglect, or substance abuse?

What happens when children have enormous medical challenges?

What about services and support for people living with mental illness?

And so much more.

Wouldn’t robust support of families caring for children with exceptional needs be pro-life? Would women be less likely to terminate a pregnancy with a child who has a prenatal diagnosis of disability if they knew that access to everything their child would need to thrive would be available and affordable?

Wouldn’t it be pro-life to fund research and resolution for opioid addition? And while we’re at it, there are record numbers of children in foster care at present, in large part related to opioid addition, being a foster parent is, in my humble opinion, the most stunningly beautiful example of pro-life imaginable.

Do you get what I’m saying here?

There are dozens of ways to embody a full-circle, lifelong pro-life stance without even bringing abortion into the conversation.

But it’s hard.

It’s easy to talk about changing a single law, and to carefully hand select politicians who have a certain box checked on their platform. But if that’s your stance, can you answer what should happen after the children are born?

Adoption.

But wait, is it right to separate a child from their ancestry for life? Biology is enormously important, and while infant adoption is sometimes necessary, far too often it’s a lifelong solution to a short term problem when better solutions for both the child and parents are available.

I don’t claim to have answers, in fact, it’s the questions that overwhelm me.

But as a person who has spent my adult life focused on the children who are already born, the ones with disabilities, the ones whose parents are addicted, the ones who have been orphaned, the ones with mental illness, the ones with so little support. I have come to believe that if everyone who made sure that they voted for the pro-life candidate took a step or two to care for the children once they’re born that it would transform everything. We have the ability and the obligation to fill in those vast gaps for the children who are already born.

parenting · special needs parenting

What a Load of Should

“What are you doing for you?” It was Ben’s caseworker checking in.

I cried.

I was ashamed.

I didn’t have an answer. I know I should be taking care of myself, but…it just seems like one more item on an overwhelming to-do list.

Sometimes, lately at least, taking care of myself feels like a burden.

It means something else doesn’t get done.

It means that the piece of me that I had earmarked for someone or something else has to be set aside.

It means one more thing to squeeze into my day.

It means guilt because I have put myself aside.

Can I win?

If I do this instead of that, am I really better off?

….

I have long advocated for self-care, but truth be told, self-care is the first thing to fly out the window when stuff gets chaotic…and chaotic happens a lot around here.

Instead of doing something for myself I stuff a couple of cookies in my face.

Instead of doing something for myself I sit on the toilet for an extra 57 seconds to scan my phone.

Instead of bothering to try, and just get interrupted, I skip doing something just for me for days at a time. Sometimes weeks.

….

Funny, it didn’t bother me until she mentioned it.

So

I spread this load of should all over the place, and that makes everything, and I do mean everything worse.

….

But maybe I can back that train up.

If I can’t squeeze in something to do for myself, can I manage some self compassion?

Kristen Neff (I haven’t read her book, but she defined self-compassion, which absolutely deserves a shout-out!) identified 3 parts of self-compassion; self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

In other words, do unto yourself as you would do to others…

Whoa…

If I look at my situation through a lens of self-compassion, my shoulds magically clean themselves up.

The guilt I felt over my failure to make time for myself abates a bit. The burden of trying to be all things to all people lightens when viewed in light of my humanity, with some self-kindness and a dash of mindfulness.

If a friend of mine spilled her guts and they looked about like mine do right now, wouldn’t I tell her she’s enough? That it’s okay to put herself aside, as long as it isn’t for too long? I’d probably suggest that she seize any opportunity that arose to relax and enjoy some quiet, but until then… I would assure her that she’s going to be okay.

Because she will.

advocacy · parenting · special needs parenting

7 Big Truths About Special Needs Parents

Every week or so my messenger app dings with a message from someone reaching out. Often it’s a question; someone looking for input or encouragement, asking advice or giving any of the above. Sometimes it’s a local friend, often strangers find me via Google or an article and seek me out.

No matter who it is or what the reasoning, I welcome it.

I’ve noticed a few things as well. Though I’m reluctant to generalize, there are some threads common to many of these families.

  1. We’re dedicated. Whether it’s helping a child with ADHD or dyslexia succeed in a general classroom, finding a niche for a child with Asperger’s (yes, I know it’s technically not called that anymore) who is gifted, making plans for a child with a complex medical diagnosis or finding the right fit for someone with a developmental disability; families are bound and determined to do right by their kids.
  2. The resources aren’t readily available. This many years after IDEA and ABLE, it’s still hard to find and create resources for people who need any services or aids outside the norm.
  3. We’re tired. We struggle to find child care or respite, we spend untold hours driving to and attending appointments and meetings, we often are years or even decades behind on sleep, and we’re often trying to brainstorm, troubleshoot and solve behaviors.
  4. We’re broke. Between copays, deductibles, and gas, our money flies out of the bank account with extraordinary speed, and it’s not from being irresponsible. In fact we often feel guilty for small indulgences that many people take for granted because we know that the $2 we dropped on coffee is $2 less we can pay on bills.
  5. Despite all that we’re usually grateful. We realize that the services we can access for our kids are unprecidented, and though we struggle to make it all work, we do so gladly!
  6. We’re an unparalleled network. We find each other, we support each other, we advocate together and encourage each other. It’s a worldwide commune where people gladly share anything they have, eager to help one another out.
  7. We have a vision. It starts with our desire to make the world a better place for our children, and a recognition that our children make the world a better place. And we’ll go to the end of the world to bring it to fruition.

What would you add?

parenting · special needs parenting

The Loneliness, Do you See it?

A couple of my friends shared this post this morning. Take a minute and read the texts that special needs parents would like to get.

There’s a theme there, do you see it? They’ve been left behind. They feel invisible. They’re lonely and overwhelmed.

It’s pretty much accepted in special needs circles, our families get left behind by most of our friends. We’re the ones watching the world go by and wondering if everyone has forgotten we’re here. The people we hung out with before special needs entered our world went on about their normal lives and we couldn’t keep up.

I suspect we ghosted them or RSVP’d “no” a few too many times. Do they know it was unavoidable? That we wanted to go but couldn’t find child care? That it’s hard to get out these days? It sounds selfish, but we need our friends to bear with us a little bit. Consider what it’s like if your child has gotten mono and you have had to slow down and tuck in for a season to care for them, maybe that’s a good comparison, except it isn’t just a season for us, it’s ongoing. It’s hard to see everyone get together without us. I wish I had the energy to try harder, and I wish you cared enough to slow down and include us. Or just show up once in awhile.

It’s tempting to just write it off, suggesting that it’s your loss, or that we must have never really been friends anyway. But I did think we were friends, I really did. I think that if your child had special needs and mine didn’t that I would have stood by you. I thought you cared about our family, and when we went through our hardest times, the test was too much for the friendship to bear. It’s a loss for me, a big one, though you don’t seem to feel the same. It hurts.

I usually focus on the ones who stayed. The friends who showed up instead of stepped out. The ones whose steadfastness has exceeded what we ever could have asked for. Those friends who do show up with coffee and a smile, the ones who have carved out time for us when we couldn’t keep up, who make room in your lives no matter what. We know it’s hard to fit us in, and we know it takes effort to include us, but you always do. You always do.

advocacy · parenting · special needs parenting

Why Do I Post So Many Pictures of My Kids?

Many bloggers take great care to avoid showing their children's faces, to keep a modicum of privacy for their families. They make up blog names for their kids and keep the family's identity anonymous. I get that, the Internet is far from safe, people steal photos of children and use them for rotten purposes. It seems that it's foolish to churn out photo after photo of my precious brood.

But I do.

It's because I want you to see them, to really see my kids.

I want you to get used to their features; those almond shaped eyes and small mid face that are the hallmarks of Down syndrome.

I want you to see their humanity, their preciousness, and to recognize them as the multifaceted, complex people that they are.

Alex was stared at yesterday. Blatantly, unavoidably stared at for several minutes yesterday. I'm sure it's because he wears his diagnosis on his sweet face. Anyone who might not be familiar or comfortable with Down syndrome will see his differences and not be able to stop examining him in order to perhaps put a finger on just what is different about him.

I want a world where every single person can look at someone with a disability and see the human being, not the difference.

By my sharing of photographs and our daily ups and downs, I hope to give insight that will facilitate that. I want people to understand that my children are as adorable and adored as any other child, and also to realize that there are differences and challenges; both for them and for us as parents and caregivers.

This is all my bodacious effort to make the world a place where they are accepted.

How can I do that if you never see their faces?

I know that some will disagree, and I'm okay with that. In fact I'll gladly listen to any dissenting voice. I've never claimed to have all the answers. I'm just doing everything in my power to make the world a safe, accepting, and welcoming place for my children.

Something many parents get to take for granted.