The Mother of All Guilt
As the ADHD child goes, so goes the family — for better or for worse.
I have three children — ages eight, seven, and nearly two — a girl and two boys. They have all been raised in the same home, by the same parents, with the same values, guidelines, and general upbringing.
But our kids couldn’t be more different from each other. My youngest, the girl, is different because of her gender and the fact that she’s my third, born nearly seven years after my first. I am not as anxious raising her as I was raising my firstborn. She changes the diapers on all of her stuffed animals. My boys never did this.
My middle child is smart and athletic, but he wouldn’t look you in the eye if you paid him. He’s very shy.
To say that my sweet oldest child has been active since birth is an understatement. At eight, he has already run a 5k. He rarely sleeps, has more ideas than a dictionary has words, and tries to act on them all at once. He is kind, hilarious, smart, and outgoing. He is also easily distracted, extremely sensitive, and often can’t focus. He has ADHD, and it affects our entire family.
On High Alert
When he was younger, I had to find parks that had only one exit, so I could see him from all angles. I was that parent who couldn’t relax at the park. I couldn’t have a conversation, because I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. Not because I was a helicopter parent but because my son would see something outside the park, and run for it without thinking. I had to keep him contained and safe. Dropping my guard was not an option.
I rarely scheduled play dates at museums or festivals. He was signed up for gymnastics, swimming, preschool, and camp by the time he was three, so I could keep his mind and body busy.
When he was officially diagnosed, at five, we worked with a family therapist to establish routines and set up charts, so he could manage his own tasks. These helped a bit, but it still wasn’t easy. When he turned 6 ½, we tried one of the “milder” medicines to treat ADHD. It’s not a stimulant, but an off-label drug used to “take the edge off.” Great, I thought: Can I have some? We gave him a very low dose — just 1 milligram per day. It wasn’t life-altering, but it worked.
He could get ready for school in the mornings without an all-out brawl or collapsing on the floor in tears. He could do his homework after school — by himself. He could get in the shower, most nights, without argument and be down for the night by 9 P.M. Most importantly, he felt good about himself. When you’re young and you have ADHD, you hear “no” a lot: “Don’t do that,” “Don’t touch that,” “Don’t run.” I try to keep things positive, but if he’s about to burn himself or get hit by something, I yell, “No!” or “Watch out!”
When we learned that his body couldn’t process the medication safely (it affected his liver enzymes), we were back to square one. He had problems with self-regulation again, and I had to be hypervigilant and hyper-aware of his surroundings, routine, and diet. Not that I wasn’t on top of those things when he took medication, but at least he and I could take a deep breath at times.
Our family stopped going out together. We couldn’t enjoy a museum or a park without worrying that our oldest was going to have a meltdown or run away. They say, “You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child,” and it’s true. Our son’s ADHD affects everyone. It sets the tone, for better or worse, in our home.
I worry about him constantly, more than I worry about the other two. This probably isn’t right, and it surely isn’t fair. I worry that he won’t do well in school, that he’ll make a horrible decision when he’s a teenager that will affect the rest of his life. I worry that he won’t find friends who will understand him. I worry when he doesn’t seem to be happy, and when he doesn’t feel good about himself.
I am not perfect, I get upset, I get angry. I get frustrated when he cannot master what most eight-year-olds have had down for three years now. His younger brother is more organized, plays team sports, and follows directions to a T. But he doesn’t have ADHD, and he’s painfully shy. It’s not fair to compare kids, but we all do it. Am I paying enough attention to my other two, am I too strict with them, do they think I care more about their brother? Mom guilt abounds.
What do we do about all this? Nothing. We keep trying. We make more org charts and chore charts and sticker charts. We keep trying to hug more and yell less. We try to be understanding and calm, and to love each child for his or her uniqueness, no matter what that uniqueness is. As my oldest tries to remember to put his shoes on in the morning, I try to not get frustrated when he hasn’t remembered for the eighteenth day in row. My mantra is: one foot in front of the other.
I also try to remember that those two feet will take him far in life. Much of the guilt I feel as a mom is due more to society than from anything else. I believe that putting those two feet in front of the other can make kids with ADHD stronger, more resilient, and successful in life. They just need moms who can let go of some of the guilt, so they can guide their kids to a positive place.