by Michael Bloom~
This is what the father featured in the annual Staples television commercial celebrates. As autumn is quickly approaching, the weekly store fliers are filled with “Back to School” specials that feature clothing and school supplies to entice people into shopping. Meanwhile, most families (especially children) would much rather focus spending the last free days of summer vacation at the beach or swimming pool.
As a child, I had mixed feelings about the approaching school year. Although I was a high-achieving student who enjoyed school, I treasured summer vacations with my “stay at home” mom. While my dad was working, my mom and I went out for daily adventures at museums or parks. On rainy days, we would do arts and crafts or play music. During the month of August, we were among the millions of families who completed back to school shopping so my supplies and wardrobe were ready to go. The focus of my parents’ efforts were squarely on me to be equipped and prepared to excel in the next grade.
These annual rituals continued right through my college years. I was indeed blessed to have such doting and supportive parents.
In later years prior to entering the caregiving role with my own parents, I continued to view the start of the fall season as a return to learning. I would often enroll in a personal or professional development course just to keep sharpening my skills as a leader.
For families raising children with special needs, the annual get ready for school experiences and rituals can feel much different. Instead of anticipating their child’s year in the next grade, children with special needs may be returning to a segregated classroom, a private day school, or residential campus. For some families, they look forward to the return to the fall (in school) routine and all of the supports that become available to them. For others, there may be a bit of sadness as they grieve another year of “more of the same” or an anticipation of great challenges as they struggle to get quality support for their children.
I had the honor to support children with special needs during my tenure as the Executive Director of a private, residential special needs school in Massachusetts. As the new school year began, I could see the anticipation, love, and stress that family members (parents, grandparents, siblings, etc) were feeling. Our great team of teachers and residential support counselors met with families and did everything they could to listen to family members’ input and re-assure parents that their children would have a fulfilling upcoming year.
Today, I have the privilege to coach caregivers, including parents/guardians of children and adults with special needs. One common characteristic of all of these caregivers is that they are so focused on the development and treatment of their loved ones that they neglect their own needs.
Last year at this time, I had a consultation chat with a mother (who I will name Sally) raising two daughters with disabilities while working full time. She had attended one of my live caregiver recharge workshops and took me up on an offer for a 1:1 chat. At the beginning of the call, Sally shared her incredibly busy schedule filled with home, job, and caregiving responsibilities. Next, I asked her what she wanted most in her life.
As this dedicated mother shared her wish list, every item had to do with her daughters. I could hear the determination, exhaustion and stress in her voice. I pointed this out to her and let her know how admirable it was that she put her daughters first. It is very common to put the needs of those we care for at the top of our wish list. I shared that I did this during my initial years as a caregiver for my parents and put all personal and professional development activities on the backburner. Although I provided a high quality of support to my parents, I had a decline in personal wellness and often experienced feelings of loneliness and depression.
Fortunately, my last few years in the caregiving role were much more balanced because I took on the challenge from a peer coach to prioritize my own needs and desires. The quality of support I provided to my mother as her live in primary caregiver increased as I recharged my energy through personal development retreats. Taking several weekends away over a few year period worked wonders for my soul. All caregivers, including parents and other family members of children with special needs can also benefit from doing things for themselves.
During the consultation call, I gave Sally permission to identify at least one activity she wanted to do just for herself. After a pause for thought, Sally shared several activities to complete if “I only had the time.” By the end of that conversation, she agreed to schedule and complete one of those activities during the fall. In a follow-up chat, I was pleased to find out that she did.
If you are a parent or dedicated family member of a child with special needs, I grant you permission to identify at least one activity, hobby, program, or retreat you can engage in during the upcoming school year. Taking time for your own growth, development, and wellness will only make you a better caregiver for your loved one. You truly have the power to make this upcoming autumn the most wonderful time of the year. Just do it!