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Balancing a Career and Mothering a Child With Special Needs

Mothers Really Can Have it All

We all remember the popular book of the 1990s, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Well, when you think about trying to maintain a full-time job and parent a child with a physical or developmental disability, it’s almost as if you are talking about two concepts that are as far apart as the planets Venus and Mars. Yet, it can be done and in some cases, it is the best thing for both parent and child.

As most parents with a special needs child can attest, getting the news that your child has a disability is one of the most devastating experiences of your life. After carrying or preparing to welcome a child for nine months and maybe anticipating him or her for years before the pregnancy, news that the child may not be able to walk, to talk or to learn as other children leaves parents numb, depressed and in a state of emotional turmoil. For many, it takes years, hours of prayer and professional counseling to accept the daunting task of providing for the medical, social and educational needs of a special child.

Depending on the nature and severity of the disability, many parents find that the prospect of coordinating services, arranging for childcare and providing an appropriate educational setting is simply overwhelming. Even affluent parents and those with strong familial support find it difficult to care for these children, particularly when there are other children in the family. And with the 84% divorce rate amongst families with disabled children, many women find that they are given the primary responsibility of caring for most of the child’s needs.

In the midst of scheduling medical and therapy appointments, attending school meetings and addressing the daily demands of the child, is working outside the home even a remote possibility? For some the question of working is really less of a question and more of a mandate. The high cost of housing, gas, food and basic essentials make employment less of a luxury and more of an inescapable reality. But even for those parents that have the financial wherewithal not to work because of a spouse’s income, familial support or a rich relative, working outside the home presents a perplexing challenge.

Many women who have spent years pursuing a degree or building experience as a professional simply do not want to work in the home as a full-time caregiver. These women take pride in their career and business accomplishments and they derive a great deal of satisfaction and self-affirmation from the work they perform in their careers. Working is not only their way of making a contribution to the world of business, government, community or politics, but it is their way of fulfilling lifelong dreams and aspirations.

Those women who have the luxury of not working, but chose to do so, often feel conflict over their personal goals and their greater commitment to their disabled child. At the same time, they may also feel external pressure from family members and friends to make caring for their disabled child their full-time commitment. Plagued by feelings of guilt, some women actually quit their full-time jobs and opt to become stay-at-home moms. Although it is the solution for some, many women soon start to feel bitter and angry about their choice.

The reality is that making the choice to work while raising a disabled child is an individual one that needs to be made by women based on their own situations, beliefs and principles, devoid of any external pressure. Working outside the home is not a matter of right or wrong, it’s a matter of personal choice. B.J. Freeman, Ph.D., a renown psychologist who formerly headed UCLA’s Autism Clinic, several years ago gave me a piece of advise that I think is appropriate for all parents of disable children.

Dr. Freeman told me to start early accepting that a child with a disability is not going to grow out of it despite the best treatment; the key to successful parenting is to the extent possible, fit that child into your life’s schedule, rather than completely rearranging your life around the child. She went on to relay that some of the happiest families she saw in her practice where those that embodied and lived by this principle.

This will look different for each family, but the crux of what Dr. Freeman conveyed is that parents who decide to alter their careers, their marriages and their entire familial structure need to do so with a full understanding that even with such a tremendous sacrifice, your child may never achieve at the level you expect. So before embarking upon such drastic change, make sure that in exchange you are not expecting something in return from your child, other than his or her love. Setting up a quid pro quo relationship is sure to lead to bitterness and anguish.

Parents who decide to or who have no choice but to be full-time caregivers for their children should do so with no expectations and likewise, mothers who chose to work while raising a disabled child should do so without feelings of remorse or shame. In fact, for some mothers, continuing to work is not only the best thing for them, but also for their child. When a caregiver feels good about herself, she is a position to give more of herself and be the best for her child.

Using well-established empowerment circles, working mothers can meet the many needs of a disabled child and achieve workplace success. Identifying family, friends, community resources and agencies that can provide assistance with every aspect of a child’s care from babysitting to driving will alleviate some of the daily tasks that are often the responsibility of moms. There are local and national agencies which provide support for families caring for children with disabilities, parent support groups and non-profit organizations that provide assistance for families. You can identify resources in your community by checking the internet, your local library or school district.

Also, some mothers successfully manage caretaking and work responsibilities by converting their full-time schedule to part-time, negotiating flexible hours with their employer or pursuing self-employment options, which may provide more relaxed schedules.

Mothers can have it all. You can love, nurture and care for a child with a disability while at the same time maintain your career. The key is making smart choices, recognizing that you will need support from others and eliminating any externally imposed negative feelings about your choice.

Areva Martin is an attorney, advocate, television host, legal and social issues commentator, and author. Her next book Make It Rain! — a new perspective on branding, building a career, and creating advantage — will be published by Hachette in 2018. @ArevaMartin.

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