Special needs parenting can be a rollercoaster and wonderful people can help along the journey.
A crucial turning point came early on for me when I recognized and acknowledged that the stress I was experiencing with the challenges of parenting a child with a prognosis of FASD did not always match my capacity to tackle them.
A week ago, a key relationship in my parenting life came to a close. The wonderful psychologist whom I had been seeing for over three years was retiring and we had our final session together.
It all began five years ago when our family doctor made a referral to Surrey Place, a wonderful organization that supports individuals with developmental disabilities and their caregivers.
He made the referral after we shared that T was prenatally exposed to alcohol. At 18 months, the developmental pediatrician at Surrey Place gave T a prognosis, not diagnosis, of at-risk FASD.
It was devastating news to receive and it took me a while to process it. But thanks to this prognosis, we received a plethora of life-enhancing services: developmental therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and behaviour therapy.
Another significant service was family counseling.
The developmental therapist asked early on if I was interested in their free family counseling services. She cautioned there would be a one-year wait list.
My philosophy, which I’ve adopted early on, was to take advantage of all the services we were being provided, because I knew that T would age out of these services at 6 without a diagnosis.
A year flew by and I was matched with a PHD student completing a practicum. We met once every two weeks after my work.
After she completed her practicum and left six months later, the psychologist whom served as her supervisor decided to keep me as a client.
I will forever be grateful for this, because her support the last 3+ years has truly helped me become a better parent.
Our sessions were typically an hour. It was and wasn’t what I expected a relationship with a psychologist to be.
In one sense, yes, there was a lot of talking. I talked and surprised myself with how open I was.
On the other hand, there was none of that deep analysis of my childhood or subconscious – or me breaking down in tears – that I expected thanks to how counseling is portrayed in pop culture. Not that there is anything wrong with that, just so we’re clear!
I talked a lot. We met every 3-4 weeks – and virtually during the pandemic – and I always came prepared with a list of the things that had happened with T and/or that was on my mind.
Our early conversations were less candid. It was a relationship after all and like any relationship, trust and comfort must be built first. But thankfully, they were built very quickly.
With no offense intended to the practicum student, who has a bright future ahead of her, working with the seasoned psychologist was different, because she instinctively knew, through years of experience, when to listen and when to probe and even challenge me.
She was not just someone who listened and validated my concerns but she became a trusted coach.
When T got kicked out of the Montessori program, when the public school board cancelled the specialized kindergarten program he was in, whenever I had to meet with school board staff to advocate for resource supports for T, the psychologist and I strategized and she coached me with wonderful advice from her years of experience working with families like ours.
I also want to add that many of the sessions we had together were also spent celebrating the milestones and successes that T has had. Being able to take a step back and to reflect with an objective person was also helpful in recognizing the gifts that we are blessed with.
I am very thankful that in recent years, open and frank conversations about mental health are being had and that there is a concerted effort to reduce stigma surrounding mental well-being.
I truly believe in saying that it is ok to not be ok.
In my case, being a special needs parent has changed my life profoundly – in positively rewarding and crushingly challenging ways.
Reading the experience of other parents going through their own journey has been inspiring. One common thread I repeatedly see is the feeling of stress, exhaustion, helplessness, loneliness and being misunderstood.
I’ve felt all those emotions in varying degrees.
As someone whose family has benefitted immensely from the social services available in our community – and I acknowledge this privilege, as I know that many others are not as fortunate – I can testify that there is no shame or embarrassment in asking for help.
In fact, it is essential for your survival.
Special needs parenting is a long game and I know that every day is a few more meters that I run – or stumble and fumble – in this life-long marathon.
Taking care of myself mentally, emotionally and physically and spiritually are important in allowing me to be the best parent to T, which also happens to be just one of the many hats I wear in life, along with husband, son, friend, employee and so on.
I became a better parent because of the psychologist that I had the blessing to have been matched with.
At our last session, I made sure to spend time to thank her and to tell her how much her support has meant to me and how she has made my life, and in return, T’s life, better.
For the first time in the three years that we’ve been meeting, we both teared up and got emotional.
Can you spot my cameo in this wonderful video promoting the incredible services of Surrey Place? It was taken during one of my counseling sessions before the pandemic.