Ironically, a part-time job of mine in college was working for an agency that provided respite services for families caring for a disabled family member. I helped care for people ranging from ages sixteen up to their sixties; none of whom would ever live independently. Most were older and ambulatory. Seizures and varying levels of intellectual disability were common. The youngest, at sixteen, was the outlier and most disabled; like Andrew, she would not be alive if not for the medical intervention and technology available today.
Working in the homes of different families allowed me a glimpse of what caring for a disabled family member, particularly for the very, very long-term might look like. As a young and naive college student, I came away from the experience with the following big ideas:
(1) Caring for a child with disabilities will significantly increase the odds of marital discord/divorce, incredible sibling dysfunction, social isolation, and chronic sorrow.
(2) If the child is not going to be institutionalized, families need to obtain help. A lot of help. They can’t do it alone or they will burn out and their family unit will fall apart.
Disclaimer: I know there are many exceptions and lots of marriages and families don’t fall apart. I also realize that obtaining any help, especially quality help, is a choice that many families simply don’t have.
But working at the agency left quite the impression on twenty-two-year-old me. More than teaching me about compassion, it left me fearful. And suffice to say, when I found myself in my very own disabled child situation, it felt like some kind of an awful punishment; my worst parenting nightmare had come true. And I freaked out.
But I’m doing much better now, thank you.
I am doing much better not because I am amazing, inspiring, a super mom, or hero. The crude truth is that if I do appear to resemble any of those things, it is because I am extremely fortunate to not have the entire scope of Andrew’s care fall squarely on my shoulders.
With the dramatic stabilization of Andrew’s health on the blenderized diet a year and a half ago, caring for him has been the the smoothest it’s ever been. But it’s all relative. Because, still, the best analogy I can come up with in terms of what day-to-day care for Andrew is like is that of a colicky newborn–but so much harder. Andrew doesn’t sleep through the night, is fed and burped every two hours when awake, spits up, has temperature regulation issues, cannot stool on his own, doesn’t like to be left alone for more than a few minutes or he cries and passes out, cannot tolerate sitting in a stroller without having it pushed or aggressively jostled, and is basically held/touched/jostled by somebody most of the day even though he is heavy and only getting heavier. Once all these details have been accounted for, Andrew is a happy guy.
And you know what? He’s a happy guy most of the time, thankfully! But it takes an extraordinary amount of work and patience to keep him that way because his baseline state is typically one of physical discomfort.
Going at it alone, with no end in sight, most of us would start to lose it.
I am doing much better because I am not going at it alone. I am fortunate to have–and often, buy–the support system and village to make that possible. This is why I appear reasonably sane and cheerful most days. I get a break from the day-to-day physical grind of constant care, which alleviates some of the emotional baggage accompanying it, which in turn, allows me to focus on the incredible sweetness and gifts of Andrew. I can continue to work but at a part-time capacity. I am also able to give my other two children plentiful one-on-one attention and they get to do the things that other kids get to do. And, equally important, the village allows me to have quality time with my husband.
I realize it isn’t considered good form to talk about the struggles. I know talking about the daily challenges and admitting that it can be hard makes people uncomfortable or might make those who pity us pity us even more. I know first-hand that it is preferable to hear about how amazing and life-changing the experience has been, how it’s made us so much stronger, how I wouldn’t change anything about our lives, how this experience has been such a blessing in disguise, and this and that. There is that, too, of course. But glossing over the struggles strikes me as disingenuous.
Caring for a severely disabled child, particularly over the long, long term can bring weariness. I am as optimistic as they come, seriously. But only three years into the journey, I find myself weary even with the help of my quaint little village. Caring for a child with disabilities has a way of challenging one’s marriage, one’s relationship with their other children, one’s faith, one’s sanity, and every original notion of what one once believed to be so essential for a life fulfilled. With all of this challenging going on, the results can be either really great or really terrible.
Looking back at my two harsh takeaways from my college days as a respite worker, I have much more perspective about what the families must have been struggling with for years and years. During a time when society pushed parents to institutionalize and forget about their disabled child, these parents went against the conventional wisdom of doctors and professionals by choosing to keep their child at home. Consequently, they were sent home with no support, no help, no respite. Most of these families did not have the choice nor privilege of having a village help them until, often, decades later of going at it alone. They also did not have the virtual support and amazing community that the Internet today provides. That’s where I came in, years later, to provide long overdue respite for families, only to freak myself out in the process about the pervasive sadness and dysfunction I felt in each home. But I see now in a way I didn’t see as clearly before that the families I worked with were ultimately acting out of unconditional love for their special needs child. Those parents were doing the best they could under near impossible circumstances and I salute them for it.
Despite my initial freak out about having one of my worst fears come true, things have been okay. In fact, they’ve been more than okay. Often, things are quite awesome. However, it is a challenging journey and not meant to be traveled alone. I am glad to have recognized this early on and to have the good fortune of going on this journey with a loving village at my side.