This parenting thing is bonkers.
Parenting a special needs child? Super bonkers. How else to describe the reality of constantly making decisions that one’s supremely unqualified to make, decisions that impact the life of a child?
This Father’s Day, I’ve been thinking about parenthood as an extreme balancing act. Put another way, it’s just like pre-parenthood life, lived at a much greater density. Every action seems to come with an unanticipated reaction. While I’m in the mood for grand philosophical pronouncements, I’ll add that parenthood is proof of the finite nature of life: finite time, energy, resources, attention. (Is love quantifiable and finite?)
Here’s one of thousands of examples from my own life, from one of billions of parents in the world.
It started with an impossible question: Do Amy (my wife) and I want our child to succeed at school? Or do we want her to eat – thereby providing herself with the basic nutrition needed to grow?
A little background: our daughter has ADHD, which, as described by www.webmd.com, is a “chronic condition marked by inattention, hyperactivity, and sometimes impulsivity.” It’s a real thing. Last school year, her difficulty focusing and controlling her impulses had caused her to fall well behind her peers in reading and math, and lead to some behavioral issues. This year, armed with an official diagnosis, she began taking a stimulant medication that seemed like a magic pill, pushing away distractions and turning her into a school machine. With hard work, and dedicated teaching, she closed academic gaps faster than anyone could have expected, displaying newfound confidence and restraint along the way.
Cue the inspirational music, right? Not so fast.
The medication has a common side effect: appetite suppression. Doctors have long been concerned with our petite, picky-eater’s weight and rate of growth. As we cheered our daughter’s academic progress, her weight slowly began to drop until she entered alarming territory. With about two months left in the school year, we stopped the drug immediately, unsure of how it would impact her performance. After all, some things – like health – are more important.
Now, the choice isn’t quite as stark as I laid out. We’re currently exploring our options with other classes of medications. At the same time, no one can take away the confidence and knowledge my daughter has gained. Her progress will not vanish simply because she’s stopped taking a synthetic drug that satisfies her hyperactive brain’s constant need for stimulation, enabling her mind to focus on the task at hand.
Still, it’s clear to me that I’m a long way from that magical destiny where I can exhale and think, my daughter’s in a good place, I don’t have to worry about her daily. (Amy assures me that our other more “neurotypical” daughter isn’t getting the short end of our attention, but I worry about that nonetheless.)
People often call me a good dad. I’m not the first to suggest that society’s bar for being a good dad is considerably—and, yes, unfairly—lower than the good mom bar. (Michael Chabon explores this idea hilariously and profoundly in his essay collection Manhood for Amateurs.) This Father’s Day, I’d like to cede my space of recognition. I couldn’t come close to doing this alone. I don’t know how anyone does. To borrow a cliché, and invert the name of a certain 70s musical act, I’d like to recognize the village of people it is taking to raise our ADHD child.
Chiefly, I’d like to celebrate all mothers, partners, and spouses. Yes, in many ways, fatherhood is a more complicated endeavor than in previous generations. No longer are most dads expected to just go to work and leave the details of childrearing to mothers, and rightly so. Yet, from where I sit, motherhood seems even more complex and challenging.
Amy, an accomplished professional, is our primary breadwinner. Somehow, with an hour-plus commute each way to work, she manages to serve as the family chef, bill payer, and social calendar organizer. No matter how much I contribute, Amy always manages to do more. Her reward for all this work is seemingly more work and less time for own pursuits.
Then there’s our daughter’s teachers (both regular and special education), her amazing school principal, dedicated therapist, concerned physicians, loving grandparents and extended family.
Clearly, when I take a step back from the day-to-day, I can see how fortunate my family is to enjoy such robust support. And yet raising a child with ADHD remains precarious, often joyful but not infrequently heartbreaking. How in the world are parents supposed to raise healthy, confident special needs children (or all children, for that matter) without such support?
As difficult as some of our challenges are, I’m reasonably confident we have the resources, education and support to meet them, giving our daughter a great chance to become her best self. How many parents in our unequal society can say the same? What can we do to ensure that more parents have more people to thank? I wish I had the answers. Today, I can only offer gratitude for what I have, and offer a kind of messianic longing for things to be different for so many others.
Bryan Schwartzman is an award-winning writer who lives in suburban Philadelphia and works for Reconstructing Judaism. He and his wife, Amy, are the parents of two daughters.
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