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.

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?

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.

special needs parenting

Joy is an Act of Resistance

Yesterday was a day that started out dicey and slid down the slippery slope to an urgent visit to a psychiatrist and social worker at the Community Mental Health office. Tears were shed, cuss words were uttered and there were some awful moments for every single family member.

In the morning we had discussed having a fire in the fire pit and eating dinner outside. Even after the kerfuffle that kept on escalating, we managed to have our fire.

It seems obvious that when your day completely derails to admit that it's simply derailed and hang it up.

But I don't believe it.

Our fire was a bold statement. A statement that screamed that the awful moments won't define us. That we refuse to surrender to the chaos. That we will continue to pursue joy no matter how elusive it is.

So we had our fire and we laughed and had s'mores and lived. At the end of a fractured, derailed day we came together and declared that we will continue to try. No matter what.

This isn't denial. We know how close we were to disaster, it's defiance. We will not let our derailed day define us.

It's resilience, the act of getting up again and again no matter how many times the rug is pulled from beneath us.

It's resistance, refusing to slide down the slippery slope into despair.

It's a way of communicating our determination to win the war even when we lose the battles.

It would have been easier for two exhausted parents to just throw the food on the kitchen table and claim every right to give up on the fun we had planned. It might have been the obvious choice, but we would have missed the fresh air, the communion and teamwork that happens when you enact a plan together.

We had our fire and it was good. We ended the day with a fresh cherry of joy and a dab of whipped cream on top of the sundae we had to pick up off the sidewalk.

parenting · special needs parenting

6 Ways to Keep Your Sanity When Your Kid is a Handful

Alex is a bit of a handful, Ben is both hands overflowing. There are still many days when I'm about to tumble right off the deep end, but I do have a few sanity savers that keep me just this side of the brink.

  1. Locks and gates. I keep areas of my house cordoned off and keep the kids in the house. This means I can shower, drink my coffee and just function as a human being. It doesn't make things easy, but it keeps my kids safe. We literally lock the kids in the house. Elopement is real and it's terrifying. I found Alex about a mile away one morning when I got up. Keeping the kids in the house means they're reasonably safe.
  2. I have a mom clan. Not that I ever get to see them because their lives are just as zany as ours, but I can hop on social media and find the women who get it and know that no matter how ridiculous my life looks, they will never second guess or judge.
  3. I exercise. Without my runs I would completely lose my mind. I don't know if it's the runner's high or just the mental organization that comes from movement and nature, but man alive I need my runs.
  4. I've learned to let it go. Whether it's the frustration or upset over my own mistakes or the latest meltdown from the kids, I pretend I am putting a leaf into a stream and watch it float away. Sometimes I have to release it a few times before it goes away completely, but thankfully my stream can handle as many leaves as I need to place in it (and occasional logs too).
  5. I cultivate meaningful activities at home. I get great satisfaction out of cooking and baking and gardening, all of which I can do in those precious minutes when my kids are entertaining themselves. (With help from the door locks so I can turn my back for a few minutes). Being creative and having meaningful activities when I feel stuck at home reminds me of my own identity and value aside from just being the mom.
  6. Live in the moment. Rehashing the crap and worrying about what might be coming will rob you of your joy. It's easier said than done, but so worthwhile! The leaf in a stream works for worries too. You don't have to get mired in what ifs and should haves!

This is my list, but it isn't the only list. Everyone is different so these may or may not work for you.

I would love to say "take a break" or "take time for self care", but I know there are far too many days that those are impossible. In fact if it wasn't for having a husband who is just as committed to exercise as me I'm sure that would fall by the wayside as well.