#DoingItAll

'I am strong. Do I have a choice?' Moms of special needs kids are #DoingItAll, too

Jan. 14, 2014 at 8:15 AM ET

For moms with special needs kids, the task of “doing it all” is an even more daunting one.

In addition to the normal stresses of parenting, they bear the emotional and often financial strain of being an advocate for a child who needs more. And many of the hundreds of women who wrote to Maria Shriver and TODAY say it’s the most exhausting challenge of all. 

This week, Shriver and TODAY are highlighting women's stories and their financial struggles in a series called #DoingItAll, culminating in a "help-a-thon" on TODAY Wednesday; in the meantime, TODAY Moms is asking moms to help each other with some of the most common challenges women face as they try to take care of everyone and everything in their lives.

Cindy Findling’s husband died, leaving her and her two children, one of whom has autism. Findling says that like others in her position, she struggles to find enough time and get enough help.

“Getting enough support in school or out for the daughter with autism, providing them both with the support they need to grieve the death of their father, and juggling the financial and logistical realities of running a business…People tell me all the time that I am strong. Do I have a choice? I don’t think so,” Findling writes.

For Jennifer Gratzer, mom of 3-year-old Mateo, who has many disabilities, it took some time before she accepted that “ I am not a sleep deprived, brain-dead, exhausted woman because I am a slacker…it is because I am CEO of Team Mateo, and our team grows daily.”

From her family’s experience, Gratzer has identified several areas where all parents of special needs kids could use help. They include the need for more daycare providers, babysitters and caregivers who can take care of special needs kids so their parents can take care of themselves. Writes Gratzer, “I would truly love to be able to have a massage or a doctor’s appointment without having my son in the room. I have a wonderful sister who helps out, but I try not to call too much for fear of burning her out.”

Gratzer says she would love some kind of centralized information source, “so we can get and give advice, recommendations and warnings without spending too much time searching the Internet.”

Finally, Gratzer says families with special needs kids need the acceptance of strangers. “I work every day to make my life and my son accessible to others. I see that pause and that question in people’s eyes. I know it’s curiosity and discomfort at not knowing how to interact, so I usually open the conversation for them.”

Psychiatrist and TODAY contributor Dr. Janet Taylor says parents with special needs kids are themselves a special group. “We don’t acknowledge the extra burden and energy required for a child with special needs, the extra energy into medical worries,” said Taylor. “When you are in that position, you do truly feel like you are the only one who can take care of them.”

Taylor says it’s natural for parents to have frustrations, but that’s a sign that you need extra help. And there is help out there, whether it’s other parents who have navigated similar waters before, or school counselors or healthcare providers.

She adds that parents of special needs kids must acknowledge that their own emotional health is key to survival, so they shouldn't discount seeking therapy.

We asked TODAY Moms on Facebook to share the advice they have for the challenges that come with raising special needs kids.

Many responded that support groups – whether found in other families who share the same situation, schools or online communities – are a life-saver for beating isolation.

Stephanie Campbell Headley’s 12-year-old twins Zoie and Bailey have Angelman Syndrome, a genetic disorder marked by developmental delays and speech problems. “My life is made easier by networking with other Angelman parents through social media and through relationships within my family and my church,” she writes. “There is so much love and positivity out there. You just have to know where to look!”

Kara Clarke Matunas suggests that doggedness and determination go a long way. Mutanas seeks advice from other parents, pediatricians, specialists and parenting groups.

“When your child has special needs, not only are you their mother, you are also their physical, developmental, occupational and speech therapist. You are their advocate at meetings for education and you are their legal backbone if you do not feel they are getting it all,” she writes. “Some days can be a challenge but it is the most rewarding life. I'm so proud of my little girl every day.”

“Research, research, research the diagnosis, treatment, the therapies, and the services available,” advises January Gibbens. “Listen to your instincts about what your child needs and be involved.

And for Katie Sallee, a single mom of a child who has ADHD, parenting has become a never-ending search for answers.

“When you are put in a situation you know nothing about, your love for your child prompts you to learn EVERYTHING about their condition,” she writes. “I know that I don't successfully 'do it all' but I just keep moving, learning, persevering, because, really, I don't have a choice."

Moms, go the TODAY Moms Facebook page and share your advice: How do you make sure you get all the resources you need to help your special needs child? Or tweet it using #DoingItAll. 

Video: Special anchor Maria Shriver and workplace strategist Cali Williams offer ways for single moms to balance their career and family. They suggest getting help from local schools, celebrating your successes, and remembering you don’t have to be perfect.


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