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“I don’t know how you do it!”

When you’re a single parent of a special-needs child, your partnered friends of typical children will say that, over and over again (with great enthusiasm). I never know how to respond. On the one hand it’s a compliment, but part of me wonders if they are they throwing salt over their shoulder and thanking the gods that they are neither single nor the parent of a special-needs child. The simple answer is that you “do it” because, well, what else would you do? The bonus to being a single parent of a special-needs child is that despite the challenges, it is incredibly rewarding. Kind of like you managed to launch the Normandy Invasion all on your own.

Getting the special-needs news.

My daughter, Eliza, was born at 26 weeks and 4 days, weighing 1 pound, 4 ounces (to put this in perspective she was about the size of a small bottle of water). From the day Eliza was born I knew I was going to be the parent of a child with some kind of special need. The unknown was what the needs would be, would they resolve or would they be lifelong special needs. Not having a third trimester in utero causes a whole bunch of things to go awry and despite the mantra of some organizations that “support” parents of premature children, they don’t all magically “catch up” by the age of two. Eliza is now nine and is in an integrated class, with a paraprofessional to assist her and she still receives occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy. To get to this point Eliza spent 100 days in the NICU, has had over 5,000 hours of various therapies and her medical needs are attended to by eight different specialists. But if you saw her in the playground, you’d just see a wonderful child having a grand time.

Other single parents of special needs kids are more blindsided by their child’s delay or disability. Some delays, disorders or disabilities didn’t show up until early infancy, the toddler years or in some cases, not until the kids are school age.

Regardless of how or when you became aware that you had been inducted into this select group of parents, there are a few pieces of advice that universally apply:

Take a deep breath.

(Okay, it is going to take lots of deep breaths or possibly you may need to be reminded to actually breathe). When your child is first diagnosed you will realize that there is no partner in the room that you can look to and say “what should we do?” because there is no we. It is just you. You may be surrounded by family and friends (or not) but at the end of the day, the decisions are yours alone. The good thing about making the decisions on your own is that you don’t have to deal with another parent who may think that a procedure, therapy or evaluation is unnecessary. You are also spared the resentment that inevitably arises if you are the parent who attends to most of your child’s daily needs. My partnered friends in the land of special needs have to work harder to maintain their relationship, so there is a hidden bonus to having to make all the decisions on your own.

Avoid Dr. Google.

When my daughter was born and gravely ill, I decided that “Dr. Google” would be my decision-making partner. Not the best of ideas I have ever had. In seven years of partnering with Dr. Google I have come to realize that no one publishes a study that concludes with “Hey, this all turned out pretty okay!” So until you are a wee bit further down the special needs highway, try to avoid Dr. Google as your decision making partner. The internet is flush with websites, blogs, studies and support groups for just about every special need. Some offer up helpful advice, others offer up platitudes and some are downright depressing. Medical studies are the most difficult to decipher. It is important to remember that virtually anyone can publish a “study.” The results of a particular study may be alarming, but then on closer examination you realize the study was done on 36 children in a remote area of Bali, so likely not the best “study.” With some practice though you can find out about new therapies or treatment that may not be known to your child’s medical providers which might be worth pursuing.

Be prepared for platitudes.

Friends and family will, with all great intentions, tell you things like “you’re never given more than you can handle” or “things happen for a reason.” Really? My stock answer over the years has become that if people are not given more than they can handle, then why do we have fully booked mental hospitals? I would get angry with these platitudes or the all-knowing sentiment that “everything will be just fine.” Since I saw no one with a crystal ball, I pretty much summarily dismissed these comments. It has taken a long time for me to realize it, but the friends and family who made these comments simply did not know what else to say and they really did think they were offering up helpful or kind wisdom.

Find at least one person you can talk to.

Since you have no partner to complain to about these inane comments, find the friend who says, “Well, this sucks” and complain to that person. That person may not be walking in your shoes but at least they are rolling their eyeballs with you about the platitudes.

Make yourself a map.

Once you’ve gotten over the initial shock of your child’s special-needs status, you now have to figure out how to navigate new worlds. Instead of a handful of well-baby check-ups each year, you may have to navigate multiple specialists, Early Intervention, more than a few therapists, and in later years the education system. In Eliza’s first year of life at home she had an average of four medical appointments each month and an average of nine hours of physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy each week. In the perfect two-parent household, one parent often becomes a stay-at-home parent to manage the ever growing list of doctors and therapists. As a single parent you likely do not have the luxury of quitting your job so that you can attend to all of this. So what to do? What helped me was getting a really unattractive and enormous whiteboard that I mounted to the front door. I drew a monthly calendar and listed every appointment and therapy session.

Learn the art of defensive scheduling.

Depending upon the modifications you can make to your work schedule (start later in the morning, leave early, take an unpaid day once a month, work 4 longer days instead of a typical 5 day work week, win the lottery) you will need to schedule medical appointments around your schedule and often schedule multiple appointments for the same day (this will often require sucking up to the medical office secretary or occasionally begging). If your child has multiple specialists, I preferred one-stop shopping and had all of the specialists at the same hospital.

Insist on clear communication.

Since you won’t be able to attend every therapy session (unless you win the previously mentioned lottery) insist that the therapists use a communication notebook to record comments about each session so you don’t have to decipher what happened from the nanny or sitter. I set up a private Yahoo Group that Eliza’s therapists all joined and we could all post comments and questions and it was enormously helpful and alleviated some of the guilt that I felt in not being at every therapy session.

Pat yourself on the back.

Once you have achieved a level of organization that the NASA launch team would be in awe of, you will inevitably meet some partnered stay-at-home parent who will tell you that she (it is usually a woman who says this) made the hard decision to quit her job and stay home since it was best for her special needs child. This will invariably deflate your sense of accomplishment since it implies you are not doing the best for your child. But the thing you need to remember is that you have achieved something great because, on your own you have managed to not only love, feed, clothe and house your child, but you have managed to attend to all of those extraordinary things that your special needs child requires to succeed. This thought may not alleviate all of the guilt you might feel by not being there for every therapy session, but you can feel smug that you did all of this by yourself (and there is nothing wrong with feeling a bit smug now and again).

Find a village to help you.

Some members of the village you thought you were part of before you became a special needs parent may not be too welcoming. Much like the parents throwing salt over their shoulders while in the same breath telling you they don’t know how you do it, some members of the village may distance themselves from you. If you’ve had a difficult pregnancy or your child’s special needs were apparent at birth or shortly thereafter, you may find that your pregnant friends want to avoid you like the plague. It is hurtful, but I suspect they just don’t want to be reminded that they too may not have the perfect water birth in the woods with a doula under a full moon and a prefect child. Give them time. The good villagers will return.

Connect with other special-needs parents.

Your village will expand to include new friends you never would have met, but for your child’s special needs. These are people who understand what it is like to raise a special needs child alone. You should fill your village with people who celebrate your child’s milestones (no matter how delayed) and rejoice with you when your child no longer needs oxygen at home, rolls over for the first time at thirteen months, first talks at three or finally has the fine motor function to stick her finger in her nose (which isn’t as easy to do as one would think).

Remember to take care of you.

Often lost in all of the special care your child requires is you. My biggest failing was, and is, not taking some time for myself. It can be exhausting raising a typical child alone. Raising a special needs child alone can deplete your reserves to a critical level. Finding time isn’t the easiest thing to do. If you can save a few hours a week or month by buying everything online for delivery to your home, do it. If someone nebulously offers to watch your child, respond immediately with a date and time. If someone offers to do something for you (cook, walk your dog, help plan a birthday party, put a crib together or get your car inspected) assume they mean it and take them up on the offer. People do want to help but most of the time they don’t know what you need so don’t be shy about speaking up.

Rejoice in your child every single day.

The rewards of raising a special needs child as a single parent is that the two of you have done this together, that you have made the hard decisions on your own, that you have made the right decisions on your own and that you have a beautiful child who will explore the world with you. Eliza is a wonderful artist, not your average Crayola-loving kid, but a child who will debate over using oil pastels or ebony pencils when planning her work. Eliza is currently inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe and wants to learn everything she can about the artist, where she lived, the materials she used, how large her canvases are. This child, who was not predicted to survive, who was given slim chances of leading an average life, who has worked so hard to achieve things we take for granted, like walking and talking, looked at me as she lay in bed in one night, slapped her forehead and proclaimed “I can’t believe Georgia O’Keeffe is dead!” And I smiled, because I know that despite everything, we will be better than just fine.

DID YOU LIKE THIS POST? Please go to the Singlewith Home Page for much more, and sign up for our weekly newsletter in the box (above, right)! You’ll get great new essays, advice and ideas by and for single parents, coming to your email inbox. Also, register for our Singlewith Forums, to become part of our community and start connecting and getting support from fellow single moms and dads. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter (@singlewith) and Instagram (singlewithphotos). In short, JOIN US!

Photo by  Oleg Sergeichik on Unsplash

ASK LINDA, PSYCHOTHERAPIST, SINGLE MOM:

I share custody of my 11-year-old daughter with my ex-wife. I recently introduced my daughter to my girlfriend, who is going to be moving in with me in about a month. Now my daughter refuses to see me.  What should I do?

Linda answers:

First of all, how long has this been going on? It is very important not to allow this to become ingrained. Your daughter is allowed to be angry, upset or have any emotions that she may have about your girlfriend. She is allowed to constructively express her emotions to you. She is allowed to discuss them and she is allowed to have choices around spending time with the two of you. She is even allowed to stop talking to you. What she is not allowed to do is to control or dictate to you who or who you do not bring into your life in a serious relationship.

So, just as you would do if you were living together full-time and she was angry with you, maintain your routines. See her when you normally see her. Do homework with her. Have dinner with her. Talk with her. Play games with her. Try to do these things even if she’s freezing you out. Remember those two-year-old tantrums? Your 11-year-old is regressing to that state. So, same advice: Stay calm and be there for her. Sooner or later life will normalize.

It is important to make sure that when you introduce a potential partner into your daughter’s life that she is both given a chance to get used to her and that she is kept safe. It’s not a good idea to have secrets or to have a surprise meeting between your child and a new partner. Make sure that you take it slowly. Over time, start talking about your partner as a new friend. Perhaps even introduce her as a friend before you introduce her as your romantic partner.

If you just introduced your daughter and girlfriend, and your girlfriend’s moving in soon, it sounds like you may have skipped some of these steps. Is there a way you can slow down the process a little bit? It may not seem sudden to you, since you’ve had time to get to know your girlfriend before making this big decision. But for your daughter, it’s all brand new.

Parenting after divorce can be complex. Your daughter may still be mourning the breakup of her parents, and in her eyes, your girlfriend is  “replacing” her mother. She will need time to accept that the relationship is really over between Mommy and Daddy and that there’s truly no going back.

So, slow down if you can, and either way, try to do fun activities together, allowing the relationship to normalize through active fun. Ride a rollercoaster, go to a trampoline park or a bowling alley, or watch funny movies together. New experiences, exercise and laughter all prompt our bodies to release “feel-good” hormones like oxytocin and adrenaline. Your child will associate feeling good with both you and your partner – the people she has shared those experiences with – and this will help with the bonding process.

HAVE A QUESTION FOR LINDA? Sent it to info [at] singlewith.com, and put ASK LINDA in the subject heading. She may use your question for an upcoming post!

DID YOU LIKE THIS POST? Please go to the Singlewith Home Page for much more, and sign up for our weekly newsletter in the box (above, right)! You’ll get great new essays, advice and ideas by and for single parents, coming to your email inbox. Also, register for our Singlewith Forums, to become part of our community and start connecting and getting support from fellow single moms and dads. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter (@singlewith) and Instagram (singlewithphotos). In short, JOIN US!
Photo by  Marcel Strauß on Unsplash

Do you write silly poems to your kids on their birthdays?

Dan Pearce just posted his latest oeuvre to his 8-year-old on his blog, Single Dad Laughing. It’s a beaut, containing classic lines like:

“You have this great smile that stretches clear to the moon,
And each time that you smile it, away goes all gloom.”

Read the rest on Dan’s blog. (He’s one of the best! Be sure to check out “This Dad, That Dad,” which should be required reading for anyone struggling with the idea of their ex’s current partner being a parent to their child.) Then come back here and post your best, worst and funniest lines of Mom or Dad poetry, or any classic ditties your kids have written to you. If we get enough good ones, we’ll make it an article! (Extra credit for drawings, too.)

DID YOU LIKE THIS POST? Please go to the Singlewith Home Page for much more, and sign up for our weekly newsletter in the box (above, right)! You’ll get great new essays, advice and ideas by and for single parents, coming to your email inbox. Also, register for our Singlewith Forums, to become part of our community and start connecting and getting support from fellow single moms and dads. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter (@singlewith) and Instagram (singlewithphotos). In short, JOIN US!

Photo by  timJ on Unsplash

ASK LINDA, PSYCHOTHERAPIST, SINGLE MOM:

Dear Linda,

My husband was the love of my life. Or so I thought. We’re divorcing after 12 years together and I just can’t stop crying. I want to pull it together for the kids, but I often am just overcome with grief. I feel like my best friend – and my life plan – have both died. To make it worse, the kids are reacting to the tension and are acting out. Which just adds to the stress and sadness and makes it harder for me to hold it together. How I can cope?

Linda answers:  

I am so sorry that you are going through this major loss. Your grief, tears and feeling overwhelmed are normal for the trauma you have suffered. These emotions are part of the mourning process, which will eventually lead you forward in your life. The “airplane safety demonstration” provides a key life lesson on the importance of taking care of yourself during a crisis such as this. The flight attendant says, “Put your oxygen mask on before placing an oxygen mask on your child.” Why? If you do not take care of yourself, you will not be here to take care of your children. When you have a major life stressor, you might forget to take care of yourself.

Your kids feel your pain and stress and are having their lives turned upside down, too. Talk with them. Let them know it is OK to feel sad. It is OK to cry. It is OK to be angry. Explain that both your emotions and theirs are real and that it is OK to feel whatever they feel. Here is the tricky part: What you do with your emotions is where you have choices. To help overcome difficult emotions, MOVE: exercise, play physical games, go skating, biking, running, play kickball, or play hide and seek. Move and get those feel-good chemicals activated in your body. Also, make sure you are all eating well and getting enough sleep.

Often when emotions become overwhelming, you might get caught up with repetitive thoughts and get “stuck in your head.” One simple and great technique for moving through these emotions is to start naming all the colors that you see. You can do this by yourself or with the kids. Try this for about 5 minutes, when you or they start to feel overwhelmed. It’s a mindfulness trick, sort of a mini meditation break: When you are concentrating on the colors and their names, you cannot simultaneously stay trapped in your negative thoughts.

Divorce or breakup is a loss, and you will need to mourn. It takes time, but you are a survivor and you and the children will come through this. A qualified family therapist might help guide you through this process together. I recommend that you seek out this kind of support for yourself and your children, since it will help you to “normalize” and move through the mourning process.

HAVE A QUESTION FOR LINDA? Sent it to info [at] singlewith.com, and put ASK LINDA in the subject heading. She may use your question for an upcoming post!
DID YOU LIKE THIS POST? Please go to the Singlewith Home Page for much more, and sign up for our weekly newsletter in the box (above, right)! You’ll get great new essays, advice and ideas by and for single parents, coming to your email inbox. Also, register for our Singlewith Forums, to become part of our community and start connecting and getting support from fellow single moms and dads. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter (@singlewith) and Instagram (singlewithphotos). In short, JOIN US!
Photo by  Marcel Strauß on Unsplash

ASK LINDA, PSYCHOTHERAPIST, SINGLE MOM:

My ex-wife was awarded primary custody of our 6-year-old son, over my strong objections. I wanted 50/50. Now I’ll suddenly only see him on weekends. We have a very close relationship and I am furious about the situation, my ex’s behavior and the judge’s decision. My son’s going to wonder why I don’t want to see him much anymore. How can I talk to him about this without getting into all the bitterness and anger of the custody dispute, or making him mad at his mom? I don’t want him to think that I don’t want to be with him!

Linda answers:

First of all, I’m sorry that you are in this situation. It must be very difficult for you to not be able to see your son first of all on a daily basis and secondly only on the weekend.
The ideal resolution for this situation would be for you and your ex to sit down and agree how to discuss this with your son. If you had trouble doing that on your own, I would suggest reaching out to a professional therapist in order to mediate the situation.
Again, ideally you would want to agree and discuss boundaries about visitation and how you would jointly communicate this to your son.
If your ex-wife will not agree to discuss this with you, you can only control your side of the equation. Calmly outline to your son that you love him and Mommy loves him. In the discussion with him, make it clear whatever the judge has declared. Also, make it clear to him that you cannot change the situation because the judge has made a legal decision. Although the boundaries may be clear to you, he may be very confused. Always remember that boundaries mean safety for children. Let him know about his space in your home. Involve him in making it his place. Begin new traditions together in your new home. Think about today and and not the past. You can make this an exciting new adventure for both of you!
Also think about setting up regular times to Skype or FaceTime with him during the week in order to keep consistent contact. You can watch movies together, play games, chat,do homework, or even just be in the same room through technology, so that you can maintain consistency in one another’s days.
HAVE A QUESTION FOR LINDA? Sent it to info [at] singlewith.com, and put ASK LINDA in the subject heading. She may use your question for an upcoming post!
DID YOU LIKE THIS POST? Please go to the Singlewith Home Page for much more, and sign up for our weekly newsletter in the box (above, right)! You’ll get great new essays, advice and ideas by and for single parents, coming to your email inbox. Also, register for our Singlewith Forums, to become part of our community and start connecting and getting support from fellow single moms and dads. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter (@singlewith) and Instagram (singlewithphotos). In short, JOIN US!
Photo by  Marcel Strauß on Unsplash

Do’s and Don’ts from “Dating Dad”

When it comes time to introduce your sweetie to the love of your life, it’s likely you won’t be the only one with performance anxiety. You’ll have put it off as long as possible because the implications—

1. You two are serious enough that it’s time to bring your child into the equation
2. Which means that the person you’re seeing has somehow managed to last more than three dates
3. And you trust (as much as you can) that this person will be around long enough to make a strong connection worthwhile

—are many, and the potential consequences—

1. Your child can’t stand the new joy in your life
2. The new joy in your life is awful with kids
3. Your sweet kid and your darling fall in love with each other
4. Your child is going to tell your ex about it, and you’ll have to provide some sort of explanation
5. If things don’t work out, you’re not the only one who will be left desolated, and you’ll have to explain to your child why there’s a big hole in your lives, and you’ll have to start all over again, except this time you both will feel the need to be more guarded than before, and who’s really going to fall for you and your kid (or two, or three) and all of your baggage and quirks and faults?
6. You, your honey, and your little goofball do so well that none of you can imagine life without each other, and the three of you become a family, and create an imperfect-but-wonderful new world together, and you and your love watch your baby grow up together, maybe adding a little miracle sibling or two along the way, and everyone feels whole and happy and…
7. The three of you just don’t connect, it’s no big deal, and you move on

—are too many and too maddening and too heart-wrenching to think about for very long, but finally, you realize that it’s time. Something in your heart says it’s right to take that chance; that your child will be okay, and you will be okay, and your new sweetheart will be okay. But that doesn’t mean you, your adoring kid, and your adored honey won’t feel a ton of pressure.

I haven’t done it in a long time, but I can still provide a few dos and don’ts for that first special date.

DON’T make a big deal about it with your child. Sure, you can barely contain the rich mix of excitement and apprehension that makes your stomach hurt and your head ache, and your nerves jangle like Rosie O’Donnell’s second chin. And, yes, you want your kid to be on his or her best behavior and make the “right” impression. But putting pressure on your baby will only set things on edge. Don’t tell him or her too far ahead, and when you do break the news, keep it light. “Hey, my new friend Lenna is going to meet us at the playground tomorrow, so we can all play together.” Or, “We’re going to have a guest for dinner tonight. Her name is Marie, and she’s a good friend of mine.”

DO plan something that’s fun for your kid, and doesn’t require super-human feats of good behavior. Skip the fancy restaurant; have a picnic and bring toys. Don’t go to the art museum; visit the zoo. Avoid the library, and play at the park instead. Plan an easy, fun activity, with potential for stretching it (like going to a movie, then stopping for ice cream afterwards). It’s only the first outing. Maintain perspective.

DON’T make your child perform. You know he can spell “disestablishmentarianism” or sing all eight thousand verses of “My Darling Clementine.” And, yeah, it’s freaking adorable when she does that dance move with the little maracas you brought home from Cabo a couple years ago. But you’re not an organ grinder, and your child isn’t a performing monkey. She’ll do the cute stuff when she’s comfortable. Let her find her own way. You’ll look ridiculous trying to coax some brilliance out of your kid.

DON’T stress. Your sweetheart knows how important this is to both of you. He or she is nervous. Really nervous. This is worse than meeting the parents. Your date understands the implications as well as you do (or should, if you’ve done your homework and made a good choice), and has decided that his or her behavior and chemistry with your child on this date could make or break the whole relationship. But it’s not true. It’s only the first meeting, and things are bound to run off the rails here or there. If you’re meant to be together, some minor disasters early on will only become fun stories down the road.

DON’T do what I did for the next three days after the latest one of these things, which was: obsess over how it went, and whether the timing was right, and if she really, really understood the implications of the fact that I allowed her into my daughter’s life, my heart doing the rumba every time Simone mentioned her name.

It’s going to be okay, really.

Excerpted with permission from Best of the Dating Dad. Original post written December 28, 2006.

DID YOU LIKE THIS POST? Please go to the Singlewith Home Page for much more, and sign up for our weekly newsletter in the box (above, right)! You’ll get great new essays, advice and ideas by and for single parents, coming to your email inbox. Also, register for our Singlewith Forums, to become part of our community and start connecting and getting support from fellow single moms and dads. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter (@singlewith) and Instagram (singlewithphotos). In short, JOIN US!

Photo by  Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash