During the first year of my Ph.D. program, my wife, Lauren, and I became foster parents of three children. They were siblings, ages 3, 5, and 7.
Our lives completely changed, and have never been the same again. Eventually, after three years of battling the foster care and legal system, the laws in South Carolina changed, thanks in large part to our attorney, Dale Dove, who took important matters to the federal courts. Once the laws changed, affording foster parents the right to proactively seek adoption , we were able to almost immediately adopt our children.
It was a truly humbling experience.
Being the parent of children from a difficult background has been a humbling and beautiful experience. Lauren and I had to learn that due to the neglect experienced by our children and thus, the lack of healthy and organized attachment , that emotionally, our children were basically infants, regardless of their actual age.
When our children were throwing temper tantrums over what seemed to be small matters, rather than expecting them to make emotionally intelligent and conscious decisions, we needed to see them as infants, unequipped to handle the complexity. We needed to love them and give them physical affection. To hold them like you'd hold a crying toddler.
Encourage daddy time. The greatest untapped resource available for improving the lives of our children is time with Dad - early and often. Kids with engaged fathers do better in school, problem-solve more successfully, and generally cope better with whatever life throws at them.
Over time, our lives have begun to normalize. However, our lives are far from "normal," in a traditional sense. And we are okay with that. Our lives are "normal" for us. Despite the challenges and difficulties, and the fact that our life and family may not be what we envisioned or expected, we wouldn't trade our family for the world.
Recently, I came across a book by Tamara Anderson, a mother of two autistic children who podcasts and writes about her experiences. The book is called, Normal For Me,and although not heavily scientific, the book was actually quite science-based. But, even more, I found it to be a humbling and honest read. Actually, I loved the book. It gave words, meaning, and comfort to my own experiences as a father of children I love and care about, but who may be faced with different challenges than what I perceive another family to have.
The book details strategies for dealing with diagnoses, such as managing expectations, grieving when coming to terms with your situation, overcoming denial and anger , and then healthily moving forward even accompanied by periodic depression .
The Story of a Book
A large part of the book addresses matters of faith, such as having your faith shaken or strengthened when seeking "miracles" or "blessings" associated with your child's well-being and development.
Additionally, the book provides helpful suggestions and perspectives for dealing with the sheer exhaustion of parenting high-needs children. Interestingly, in my own case, Lauren actually became pregnant with twins one month following the adoption of our children. Thus, in a span of 10 months, we adopted three children and gave birth to twins (I know...).
Parenting can be exhausting. Parenting children with autism, though, I personally cannot imagine. My youngest brother is autistic. And for six months during my undergraduate, I actually did behavioral therapy and school -shadowing of an 11-year-old autistic boy. Sometimes, there seemed to be no solution. Sometimes, it feels like the road ahead is simply too long.
Kiss and hug your spouse in front of the kids. Your marriage is the only example your child has of what an intimate relationship looks, feels, and sounds like. So it's your job to set a great standard.
Anderson also addresses the emotions of comparing your life to other families that seem far more normal. She addresses jealousy and envy. I must admit, I myself have had similar experiences when having dinners with friends whose families seem far more stabilized and whose children seem far more responsive, capable, and obedient.
Aside from the more traditional solutions, such as therapy, etc. Anderson advises the use of journaling wins and celebrating small victories. I can absolutely attest to the efficacy of these strategies. Research has shown that gratitude journaling is a powerful and effective tool for emotional regulation, selective attention , and well-being (e.g., Flinchbaugh, Moore, Chang, & May, 2012).
Additionally, measuring progress is another helpful form of selective attention, wherein you consciously focus on progress made rather than the impossible chasm to cross. Measuring the gain, rather than the gap, can strengthen resolve and motivation because these are often the byproduct of confidence , which has been found to be the byproduct of past performance (Sitzmann & Yeo, 2013). Thus, by giving yourself the space to reflect on the progress, no matter how small, you've made, you recognize change. That recognition gives a sense of movement and confidence, which can increase motivation.
"If you want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders." - Abigail Van Buren
As a father of five young children, three of which were recently adopted through the foster system, I found Normal for Me to be a refreshing, inspiring, and helpful read.
Fundamental to finding joy in your circumstances is recognizing that your life is "normal" for you and that that is not only okay but absolutely amazing. Once you reshape your internal narrative and develop helpful strategies, you can then begin developing confidence and increased motivation to grapple with your challenges.