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ADHD Parenting Without Guilt

Stop comparing yourself to other parents.

Do you ever compare yourself to other parents, with or without children with special needs, and, in your own estimation, come up lacking? Do others sometimes hint that you could be doing more to help your child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)?

I’ve learned the hard way that if I try to take on too much I tend to become overwhelmed. Everyone’s “I-can’t-do-this!” threshold is different, and mine seems to be toward the wimpy-mom end of the spectrum. With this self-awareness, I try to manage life accordingly, by choosing to volunteer for just one cause at a time, keeping control of my workload, and refraining from over-scheduling the kids with sports and activities. I set limits, and try to feel good about doing so. But, the other side of the setting-limits coin is managing those bouts of guilt that inevitably spring up when I don’t come forward to do my parenting-part — I should volunteer to chaperone that school field trip! I should do a better job of helping my daughter Natalie with her homework! I should…I should…I should…

[Can You Detect When Someone Else Has ADHD?]

I‘d like to use the fact that Natalie’s ADHD and learning disabilities demand that I continuously expend extra parenting energy as an excuse for not doing more, but I can’t get away with that, because Nat’s friend Harry’s mom, Victoria, does do it all. She’s a leader even among the mover-and-shaker PTA parents — she coordinates meals for the staff who work extra-long hours during parent-teacher conference week, tutors a student twice a week after school, and runs “Mileage Club,” an initiative that encourages kids to be physically active. She contributes untold volunteer hours to the school each year, putting me to shame! Her son Harry, another child with ADHD, is as much of a special-needs handful as Natalie, but she can do it all anyway. Why can’t I?

I just can’t. That’s why. Everybody’s different. I do the best I can.

I believe that most parents do the same — give as much, try as hard as they can — given their own unique situations. I was disproportionately touched (yes, this story involves me crying, once again) to hear that Natalie’s principal, Dr. Podhaski, believes that, too. He may judge my parenting skills less harshly than I sometimes judge myself.

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Several months ago, I went to a meeting at Natalie’s school to learn more about why it’s on the “No Child Left Behind watch list,” — because of the test scores of special ed students and kids living at low socioeconomic levels, the school district’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction told us — and what the district plans to improve these outcomes.

The meeting was poorly attended. I was one of three moms, and the token parent to represent the two combined “problem” populations. The other two were parents of “typical” kids, and, like Victoria, vertebrae in the PTA’s backbone. I was acquainted with one; the other I knew only by sight. As the meeting drew to a close, Mom Number Two commented on the low turnout. “It’s always the same people who show up,” she said. “How do we get more parents involved? You don’t see any special ed parents here.”

“Hey!” I wanted to say. “I’m here!” (No, you don’t see me at PTA meetings, but I am here tonight!)

Dr. Podhaski was also in the audience, and, in interceding with Mom Number Two, he said something that stuck with me. I’ve replayed his words in my thoughts over and over again ever since.

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What he said was something like this (not a direct quote — I’ve probably embellished it to no end over time!): “Wait a minute! We shouldn’t judge other parents for not being here. Most parents really care about their kids and are doing the best they can. You can’t know what other people’s lives are like. Some parents are just trying to survive. We expect them to read with their child every night. We expect them to supervise homework. Maybe the best some parents can do is get their children to school each day, so that’s what they do. Now, we’re saying they should come to meetings, too? No, we need to support those parents for getting their kids to school, and support the kids all we can once they’re here.”

“Yeah, Dr. P,” I thought, “You tell her! She certainly has no idea what life with Natalie is like.”

I would never claim to have the same problems as the low-income families Dr. P went on to describe: I’m not a single parent, I’m not working two jobs while my children are home alone, I don’t constantly worry about where the grocery money will come from. For this, I’m exceedingly grateful. Still, I felt that in some ways his words applied to me. After all, in our school district, kids who are deemed “at risk” and kids in special ed are often lumped together, and the challenges of parenting a child with special needs, while different from those of parent with limited means, are real, and they are significant. Parenting a child with ADHD and comorbidities, and the challenging behaviors that accompany those conditions, is exhausting. When a week goes by without me reading with Natalie, it isn’t because I don’t care. When I decide I’m not up to volunteering to drive students for a class field trip, it’s not because I don’t care. I care deeply. I’m just doing the best I can.

During the last week of school I called an individualized education program (IEP) meeting with Natalie’s teachers and Dr. Podhaski. “I remember something you once said,” I told him, repeating the gist of his message, as we made our way out of the room. “I really appreciated that. It touched me,” I said, with those damned embarrassing tears coming.

No one but me knows what it’s like to be Natalie’s mom. The worries. The rewards. What I give up. What I gain. What I do, and do well, and what it feels like when it’s all too much. It means a lot to me, Dr. Podhaski, and like-minded souls out there, when that’s acknowledged, not judged.

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