Parenthood

Why working parents of special needs kids were uniquely positioned to survive this new normal

Somehow, we are making it work during COVID-19. Or, at the very least, making do. 

Hours of corresponding with the school, only to be responsible for keeping your child on track. The double shift of balancing full-time work with caregiving hours at home and no option for a babysitter. Making tough choices to keep family away to protect your kid’s immune system. 

Since the pandemic began, working moms and dads have struggled to balance a heavier caregiving burden with professional demands and greater financial stress. 

While no one can exactly train themselves for a pandemic — or parenting itself for that matter — if anyone has been preparing for the rigors of balancing full-time work with full-time caregiving, it’s us. 

In 2020, parents of neurotypicals have gotten a taste of what was, in pre-pandemic times, an invisible world. For us, two parents of special needs kids with full-time careers, the ‘new normal’ feels like business as usual. 

We wanted to offer our fellow special needs parenting brethren a brief moment of respite in remembering that they have already developed the skills and strategies needed to get through this (seemingly never-ending) season and whatever ‘normal’ we take on next. 

While no one can exactly train themselves for a pandemic — or parenting itself for that matter — if anyone has been preparing for the rigors of balancing full-time work with full-time caregiving, it’s us. 

Let’s reflect on four reasons why parents like us are uniquely positioned to weather this challenging time. 

We are resilient in the face of chaos. 

There’s so much uncertainty in special needs parenting, both in terms of educational and wellbeing outcomes. Often, success means just in getting through the next day. Some special needs families are living in something of a perpetual crisis. 

However, the skills that we’ve gained from managing the unmanageable has made us incredibly resilient to disruption. During COVID-19, this makes it easier for us to accept the new situation and find a way to pivot, while those who haven’t faced these sorts of issues before may still be reeling. After all, Zen-level calm is easier to maintain when we’re used to combining work with an unquantifiable number of interruptions. 

We know where and how to compromise.

Do you remember this March, when social media was littered with upbeat postings about the color-coded schedules and the high-supervision art projects? Are you seeing as many of those now? Neither are we.

Don’t get us wrong; our hats are off to anybody out there who can maintain that sort of high-touch homeschooling. But we’ve learned to prioritize the mission-critical stuff long ago, not for lack of caring or energy, but out of exigency. 

Parents of kids with disabilities are used to doing a significant portion of education or therapy at home. From occupational therapy to ABA, the caregiving homework tends to pile up. This ‘second shift’ can be tough to juggle with a 9-to-5. 

Embracing the virtue of necessity is one of the most striking parallels between every day special needs parenting and pandemic parenting.

We are wizards of multitasking.

Many parents are finding that distance learning is a bust for young children. It’ll be some time before we have data on the educational outcomes associated with the pandemic, but it’s no stretch to say that many parents are exhausted. This burden is especially pronounced for essential workers, single parents, or parents of multiple children. 

Like all other moms and dads, we have struggled with the difficulty of enforcing work completion and the logistical hurdles of providing emotional and technical support for our kids. Once again, special needs parents have a slight advantage because this has been our experience all along. Somehow, we just learn a way to toggle between duties to get the critical stuff accomplished. 

Advocating for our kids has taught us how to negotiate. 

Is distance learning working out in your district? Do you have safety concerns about protocols for schools or workplaces that are reopening? Do you need to maintain teleworking to protect a family member’s immune systems? There are going to be an awful lot of discussions with schools and employers in the coming months.

Nevertheless, COVID-19 has made it clear that parents need more accommodations to balance work and life, starting with better access to parental leave and greater flexibility at work. 

Guess who’s already prepped for those sorts of conversations? That’s right. Special needs parents have sought and fought for IEPs, 504s, or any of the other accommodations that are so important for our children’s’ success. Negotiating with schools and employers can feel like an uphill battle. But we have already honed the advocacy skills we need to make those conversations productive.

Nevertheless, COVID-19 has made it clear that parents need more accommodations to balance work and life, starting with better access to parental leave and greater flexibility at work. 

But we get that not everyone has these luxuries. We see that some of you are struggling, and we certainly don’t want to pretend that terrible things aren’t happening in the world. If you are merely surviving day to day, making minimum wage as an essential worker, or a single parent, the above is unlikely to resonate with you. For those parents who have recently lost their jobs, have sick family members, or have lost home nursing care, this pandemic is a disaster. 

Still, the one thing parents like us know is that the more travails you go through as a family, the more sympathetic you can be toward others. We sincerely hope that this pandemic will foster greater empathy among all kinds of parents and more supportive words at the bus stop– whenever the school buses begin running again. 

Resources

Mindful Return’s Balancing a Career with a Special Needs Child – This self-paced e-course will help you calmly navigate the challenges of working parenthood.

Wolf + Friends – This online community can connect you with other working parents of special needs kids. 

FlexJobs.com – This is one of the best platforms for searching for jobs that offer greater flexibility and remote options.