autism · Down syndrome · family · parenting · special needs parenting

Let’s Talk About Self-Care

It’s a topic I go round and round with; self-care.

I love the idea of self-care, putting my oxygen mask on first makes perfect sense, if it was actually that simple. The problem is that there is nothing about parenting a child with complex developmental, behavioral and medical needs that makes the oxygen mask analogy work the way it’s suggested.

Having worked with oxygen as a paramedic, if the person receiving it exerts themselves, they need more oxygen. The delivery system is cumbersome and the person is tethered to it in order to get the benefits of the blessed gas. That makes for serious limitations. To put on your oxygen mask adds the burden of obtaining and maintaining the equipment necessary to do so.

Today is the first day in months that I haven’t felt like I have more to do than I could possibly accomplish. Sleep was pretty decent last night, I was only up once with Ben, and this is the first week of 2019 when Ben has no appointments and, unless something completely unexpected happens, no snow days. That means I have a whole week to get work done, work that has been waiting since last year to be touched.

I’ve often live in survival mode. Treading water so to speak. Prioritizing self-care feels like lugging around an oxygen tank in order to keep my oxygen mask on. If you have never tried metaphorically wearing your oxygen mask while treading water, I don’t recommend it.

Like when you’re broke and need gas to get to work to get a paycheck and you put in only as much as is absolutely necessary and just pray it gets you through the week.

Or when you need to get groceries and have to wait for the money to hit the bank account so you make do with leftovers and the odd items at the back of the cabinets for days on end.

Most people have been there (if you haven’t, stop right here and steep yourself in some serious gratitude), and parents, especially moms, of kids with complex needs, live there when it comes to meeting our own needs.

I do what I can. I get outside to soak in sunshine, and field the never-ending phone calls from doctors, teachers, insurance, and more on my little outing.

I take short little trips to see family and get away, clearing my schedule and notifying as many people as possible to not contact me. To do so I have to cram in impossible amounts of work before and after and still manage urgent communications, which often have the bonus of being at odd hours if I get to visit another time zone.

Please hear me, I despise complaining. Kvetching feels dirty to me. I strive for resilience and optimism and strength. I bathe in gratitude for what we have on a moment by moment basis. I find joy in the little delights of the day, like when my pileated woodpecker friend visits my suet feeders or the belly laughs over the antics of my kids and pets and even my husband. There is so much that I do to keep keeping my head above water.

I’m not a whiner.

But as I tread water and continue to do everything in my power to keep my nose out of the water, my oxygen tank was kicked off long ago as more of an anchor than anything beneficial.

Having the resources for self-care, much like having the bank account that allows you to fill the gas tank all the way up every time it’s low and load up a shopping cart with goodies as the need arises, is just not something that everyone can just do. Not everyone can find the time, money and energy necessary to take care of herself.

And being told how important it is doesn’t help. I’m not diving to the bottom of the lake to retrieve my oxygen tank, that’s precious energy I can’t afford to expend. Every single fiber of my being is dedicated to staying afloat.

I like to wrap up posts neatly, whenever possible on a lighter note. I’m not comfortable being this vulnerable and blunt. It’s nice to leave my readers with a warm fuzzy for their day. But this is truth. Not just for me, but for so many of us. We’re out here just keeping on. I just want you to take a minute to see us.

marriage · parenting · special needs parenting

A Tribute To My Husband…

We are a case study of opposites attracting. He’s a headstrong doer, I’m a heart-strong be-er. He takes conflict with his daily coffee, whereas I will go to the end of the world to avoid hurt feelings. He’s decisive, I procrastinate. He talks on the phone and connects with people, I text and keep to myself.

Yet somehow it works. We’ve been married almost 23 years now, and though it took us awhile, we figured out a thing or two along the way. I have to say, we do all right.

When the neonatologist told us our son appeared to have Down syndrome, it was him who took the lead, accepting the diagnosis and plunging ahead. I might have floated adrift for quite some time, but Mike rallied immediately, then threw me a lifeline and reeled me in.

We often have tough decisions to make, and when I waffle he’s strong. When I procrastinate he pushes. When I get bogged down in my feelings, he’s pragmatic. When frustration gets the best of me, he’s diplomatic. When I demure, he asserts. When I feel, he thinks.

I’m pretty sure people envision me in the driver’s seat in our complex family, and I don’t think that’s wrong, but if I’m the driver, he’s the engine. One of us wouldn’t get anywhere without the other.

I don’t know how much I actually pause to appreciate my husband. Certainly not enough. In case I haven’t said it lately, I notice you. I appreciate you. I value you for who you are and for all you do. I can’t imagine living this life and parenting this crew without you right here with me for every little detail. In the midst of it, you make me a better me. You call me out when I’m off-base, you challenge me to improve myself, but you love me exactly where I am. I know you didn’t ask for this crazy life, but you have stepped into it and mastered it. I love you completely. And just in case I forgot to tell you, thank you. You are a treasure.

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.

advocacy · parenting · special needs parenting

Something Has Got To Give

Every once in awhile, when scrolling through Facebook, I see something that drops my heart into my stomach. Today, it was an article about a murder-suicide.  The victim was Grant, a young man with CP who was nonverbal and wheelchair bound. The co-victim was his father. A school principal, and special needs advocate. The theory is that the strain of caregiving caused the father to snap. 

I pass no judgement on him.*

The strain of caregiving is colossal.  Love is not enough when days and weeks of being overextended turn into years and decades.  And even more so, the heartbreak of seeing your child suffer.  When Ben is having a bad day the heartbreak of enduring it with him is immense.  Some days it’s easy to sink into the abyss of wondering how long it will last; to blame yourself for the circumstances, and to succumb to the inescapable feeling of your child’s struggle. 

Especially when help is almost impossible to access. 

Caregiver fatigue or burnout is a serious concern for parents of children with disabilities, yet if you Google the term, you find resources from the AARP, ALS, Alzheimer’s and dementia sites, etc.  In other words, caregivers are identified as caring for the elderly, not for their children. 

Furthermore, articles place the impetus for resolution for caregiver stress square on the head of the caregiver herself.  Yep, not only do parents have few resources for respite and help, but when we’re overextended in caring for our beloved children, we have to rescue our own selves, as if we wouldn’t have done that in the first place if there were reasonably accessible ways to do so. Getting respite for a child with complex medical, developmental or behavioral needs is outrageously complicated, and if you happen to be above a very low income threshold (just above poverty level), there’s zero help whatsoever in getting it.  And as for hiring a “mother’s helper”, I’m pretty sure no mom on the planet wants their precious tween to be hanging out here when Ben smashes a plate, breaks my glasses or damages my wedding ring (all of which have occurred within the past 24 hours).  

Let’s be realistic here!  Parents of complex kiddos, even those who have decent support systems, are barely keeping afloat, and some just plain aren’t. We’re falling between the cracks because there aren’t that many of us and because we’re too damned busy caring for our children to get the help we need. 

The point of all this?  As a full time caregiver, and acquaintance with many others who are in similar shoes, I’m asking you to stand in the gap for us. Call your state and national politicians, and ask them to make access to respite and wraparound services easier for parents of children with serious disabilities.  Or, just sign this petition

We have to do better. For the children and the parents. 

*Please know that I don’t think murder-suicide is ever okay, and I certainly never want to see it happen under any circumstances. I’m simply saying that humans can only endure so much before snapping. 

parenting · special needs parenting

To My Husband On Father’s Day

That pair of slippers the kids and I are giving you for Father’s Day doesn’t seem adequate. If I was to give you a worthy gift to honor your parenting it would be something like a caribou hunt in the great white north. Since the hunt is currently out of reach, I hope the slippers suffice; for now anyway. 

When I consider what you do, day in and day out, I don’t know how I could ever honor you enough, but maybe just listing what you do in a day would be a good start.  

  • You get up with Ben during the night because he goes back to bed better for you. 
  • You give Ben his meds because he takes them better for you. 
  • You start Ben’s daily bowel flush because he complies better for you. (Is anyone noticing a trend here?)
  • You catheterize Ben because he prefers you to do it. 
  • You take the boys outside with you while you do odd jobs around the house. 
  • You notice when laundry or other cleaning gets backed up and take the time to do it. 
  • You maintain the house, constantly making improvements and adaptations for the boys. 
  • You make sure I have time to take care of myself and exercise. 
  • You take Hannah on a father/daughter fishing trip every year. 
  • You maintain our vehicles. 
  • You pinch hit for any of the tasks I normally handle including doctor appointments, school dealings, and driving the kids wherever they need to go. 
  • You show me daily how much you love me, and say it too. 
  • Oh, yeah, you work full-time too. 

There’s more, so much more that I actually take for granted because you just do it. People often tell me that they don’t know how I do it. The truth is that it’s a team effort, it’s us managing this complex life, not me. 

Today I want you to know how much I value you. I want to thank you for making sure we’re equally yoked because the weight is lighter for both of us when we share it. 

marriage · special needs parenting

If I Taught Marriage 101, This Would Be My First Lesson 

Twenty-two years. As of June 10, we’ve been married for over half my life. 

I met Mike when I was 15 and he just turned 18. He let me drive his sports car on my learner’s permit that summer, but I was a bit tricky to nail down. Then he went off to college. Upon his return he asked a friend of mine on a date. I wasn’t about to let that happen, and found out that it was a calculated move to reel me in that worked. 

We started dating when I was 16. We became adults together and got married just a few months after he got his first police job. 

We blew it big time in those early years, but somehow, just before Alex was born we both decided to get our act together, just in time to welcome him into our lives. 

Not too long after that we brought our 13 year old niece home and became parents of a teenager. Then we added Ben. 

It’s been a hell of a ride, but at some point I realized that I needed to let him go.  Since then, I make sure Mike gets to take up every reasonable opportunity to go out hunting or fishing with his friends. 

It sounds ridiculous. With everything we have to manage at home, why would I cut my husband loose like that?  

Because when he’s here, he’s really here. 

He does Ben’s flush and catheterizations every day. He gives Ben his meds and gets the boys outside and sends me out for runs.  I never have to nag him for anything.  Seriously. If I want something I say the word and he makes it happen. 

I accidentally stumbled upon the perfect solution:  When my husband has freedom to do all the things he loves he’s content to be domestic.  That, and he treats me like gold.  

Our day in, day out life is demanding and draining. Neither of us could do it for long without opportunities to replenish ourselves. I learned the value of self care when I didn’t do it, and have become a huge proponent of the practice. Indeed, equally important is spouse care. In taking turns getting breaks, we both maintain balanced, healthy lives in which we can be highly effective spouses and parents together. 

If I taught marriage 101, this would be my first lesson:  love in such a way that the person you love feels free. 

advocacy · parenting · politics · special needs parenting

What About Those Who Can’t Help Themselves?

God helps those who help themselves.

Originally coined by Algernon Sydney, made famous by Benjamin Franklin.

It’s sound advice.  If I get the ball rolling, God will give it momentum.  If I make good choices, God will bless them.  I’d buy stock in that promise.

But what about Ben?  What about the others that can’t help themselves.

AHA!  Of course.  Ben has good parents.  Parents who help themselves and help him.  Parents who know what they’re doing, can figure things out, and get things done.  Done deal.

But wait.  It’s not so simple.  It takes a team far bigger than that.  It takes 10 specialists, teachers, paraprofessionals, therapists, and much more to help Ben, and eventually, he is almost certain to require round the clock care at a full time, residential facility.

But it’s okay, I’m on it.

Yep.  I’m a round the clock caregiver to a child with complex developmental, medical and behavioral needs, and I organize and facilitate the team that contributes to his well-being.  No worries, though, because God helps those who help themselves and the full time caregivers of those who can’t.

Sweet.  Glad we got that settled.

But then there’s the cost of managing this.  The daily expense of the numerous appointments, phone calls, miles and miles of driving, and of course, the wear and tear on a 130 lb body who daily carries a non-compliant 82 pound child, even with several bulging discs.  There’s that dread that keeps getting pushed to the back burner of what happens if the primary caregiver needs care.  Not to mention the physical therapy and doctor appointments for the caregiver, and the dismal foreboding of the possibility of surgery.  Pshaw.  Not to worry, God helps those who help themselves, so there’s nothing to see here.

Or, perhaps.  Instead of buying into a comforting colloquialism, we could, just perhaps, find out what it is that families who are invested in caring for complex children need to survive and thrive.  Perhaps, wraparound supports provided by insurance or Medicaid for children with severe and complex conditions would be a wise investment for the present and the future.  Perhaps, intact and thriving families are good for the economy and can raise children who are capable of becoming contributing members of society.  And maybe, just maybe, we don’t need to even call it an entitlement.

Perhaps.  But isn’t it easier when God just helps those who help themselves?