Our family’s journey

Working Mom vs. Stay at Home Mom

I have been a full-time working mom.  I have been a part-time working mom.  And I have been a stay-at-home mom.  The nomenclature is deceiving.  I think ‘staying at home’ was the most work I have ever done…and certainly the most challenging – particularly while homeschooling my boy.  But I digress.

As you are aware, Berrik started a new school in September.  It was really great right from the get-go, but I didn’t feel totally confident that the trend of happiness and low stress education would continue.  In October I applied for a few jobs, interviewed, and was given offers.  They were good jobs.  But once I was faced with the reality of going back to work the thought kept me up at night and made me feel anxious.  Clearly, I was not ready.  Or they weren’t the right jobs.  Or both.

So I stopped applying and started to think that maybe it was better if I stayed home.  Time is flying.  It’s nice to be home for the kids.  Our family time was easier because all the household ‘tasks’ were done while everyone was in school, so evenings and weekends were strictly family time (well, technically, strictly ‘drive all three kids all around the city like crazy people’ time).  But at least dinner was on the table, we could eat together, the fridge was full, the laundry clean etc.

In November I had a critical conversation with Berrik’s teachers.  It was the moment that I realized this trajectory of low stress education and happy children was not likely to change – that our new normal was all three of our children settled and happy in school and doing well.  Around this same time I saw a couple of jobs that interested me.  I applied for them both and ultimately was offered both of them.  Pretty incredible in this economy to be actually given a choice!  There was very little choice to be made, however, because one of the offers was one I knew without any doubt would be a job I would love.

Starting in January, I will be working as Manager for the Palliative Care Consult Service.  According to the job description, this means I will be responsible for the operational leadership and management of staff, teams and activities associated with the Palliative Care Consult Service across all sectors of care within the Calgary Zone.  Having worked in the palliative portfolio in the past, and having experienced the benefits of palliative care as a family member, I am beyond excited about being back in this area of the health care world.

These past two years have been life changing for me.  Leaving a job I really liked to be a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom was a major shift for me.  Realizing that being at home was exactly what I needed to be doing, and then even enjoying it (this surprised me) had me re-examining my goals – as a mom and in my career.  Experiencing both sides of the stay at home vs. working mom debate, the assumptions about what I do all day, the judgment about leaving work, going back to work, homeschooling, private school etc., was eye-opening.  There are definitely people in my life who were a bit judgey about it all.  The older I get the more I realize that those are the people that are maybe less secure about their own decisions, and I just step back from those relationships.  I have so many friends and family members who have supported every decision we have made, knowing that regardless of whether the decisions were the right ones, that I am trying my best to do the best for my family.

We are at such a good place right now.  Our kids are happy and healthy.  I am about to start a job that I know I will love, working with people I have so much respect for in an area of healthcare that I feel much passion for.  Kevin has a great job that he enjoys.  Our extended family is the best.  And I have a group of friends who lift me up when I need it, and give me a reality check when I need that too!  At a time of year when most of us are counting our blessings, I have too many to count.

img_1534SIDE NOTE: On the topic of life decisions and change, I got my nose pierced last week.  I have wanted to do it for 25 years.  Literally.  When I left my job a year and a half ago, I told myself that if life ever calmed down and if I ever got Berrik settled and on a good path, I would do it.  So.  I did it.  (Life isn’t super calm, but it’s sure less stressful!)  Bonus: My tween and teen think I’m super cool – or they did for a brief moment – which is perhaps the biggest win of all.

 

Kids will do well…

“Kids will do well, if they can.”  This is a quote from Dr. Ross Greene, an American psychologist.  He believes that “Kids will do well if they want to” is a philosophy that is held by many, but he says it is wrong.  Dead wrong.  Think about it.  He’s right.  It makes so much sense.   He talks about rewarding kids for desired behaviour, and punishing undesired behaviour and how that method is based on the assumption that kids don’t want to do well, so therefore we need to make them want to by motivating them with positive and negative reinforcements.  When you consider that kids do well if they can, you then realize you need only to figure out what is getting in their way and work to remove those ba.

Obviously it’s not simple.  But it IS sensible.  At least from my perspective.  And we are living it.  Berrik struggled in a system that seems to be set up with the philosophy that kids will do well if they want to.  He was absolutely rewarded for desired behaviour (the very few times he exhibited the desired behaviour) and was regularly punished for undesirable behaviour.  There was many a conversation between myself and his teachers about medication – because medication would help him fit the system, ultimately.  (EDIT: Please note that I am not anti-medication to treat symptoms of ADHD (or anything else for that matter).  In our situation at that time, I didn’t feel like it was the best solution for Berrik and I was concerned that it was viewed as the ‘only solution’.  We each are living our experiences and those who have used medication as one of the strategies to help their child do well are doing what we are all doing – trying to allow our children to do well.) There were just as many conversations about reward systems, and removing of privileges. And I say this with no negative feelings towards the teachers. With the exception of one, Berrik’s teachers truly seemed to want to help Berrik achieve success. But with many many kids per class and extremely limited resources, it seemed the only way was to make the kids fit the system rather than have the system fit the kids.

Enter private school designed for kids who do not fit the system.  A school designed to allow the system to fit the kids.  A school where every single person from the Board to the school admin believe that the system should fit the kid, and that kids will do well if they can.  In Berrik’s case, he needs a little extra support to keep him on task.  He was speech delayed as a toddler and this still impacts him as well.  His developmental coordination disorder makes things like writing more challenging.  So, he works with the speech language pathologist weekly.  He works with the OT twice per week.  And his teachers are making accommodations that make it easier for him to do well.  Not surprisingly he is doing exceptionally well.  Because kids will do well if they can.

 

I was at the school’s annual AGM listening to one of the OTs and the family counsellor present about a new program that is being piloted this year.  They referenced Dr. Greene’s quote.  And they talked about developmental age vs. chronological age.  It really resonated with me and if I needed one more reason to know that I have my boy in the correct school for him, this was it.  Think about it.  Chronological age is a pretty arbitrary thing to use to determine things like school grade, ability to drive, ability to drink or smoke marijuana, etc. etc.   Think about the kids you know and all the different phases and stages of development.  Even amoung my own three kids, their developmental ages vs. chronological ages have varied by quite a bit.  My kids’ friends vary dramatically as well.  Take any handful of 12 year olds (or 15 year olds, or 3 year olds) and compare their developmental age.  Some are incredibly mature in some areas of their lives, and some are developmentally younger. McKenna didn’t walk until 19 months.  She never crawled. Her physical development was on the edge of what would be considered ‘normal’ and she was way behind her peers.  Wasn’t much we could do about it, so we just let it be. She’s a strong runner and a competitive dancer now.  Development happens when it happens and while it should progress, the rate at which it progresses varies and shouldn’t be labelled or used as a predictor of future ability.  What is important to note as well, is that kids may be developmentally more mature in one area of development and not in others.  Dr. Greene talks about this as well. If we pay attention to developmental age and give kids what they can handle based where they are developmentally, they will do well.  It’s not unlike giving a first year resident surgeon an incredibly complex surgery on her first case.  The outcome likely won’t be all that good.  Why are we surprised when we ask kids to perform tasks beyond their developmental ability and it doesn’t go well?  It often results in behaviors that we see as negative.  But actually it’s quite normal and the kid is not the problem.

So the next time you see a kid (or your own kid) behaving in a way that isn’t meeting your expectations, think about your expectations. Are they developmentally appropriate?  Stop comparing your kids to their peers.  Its not helpful or useful.  Meet kids where they are at, and they will do well. Because kids will do well if they can.

That’s SO weird!

Justin Timberlake.jpeg

This guy.  Undeniably talented.  Clearly intelligent.  When I heard him make this speech I felt a bunch of emotions bubble to the surface.  The most prominent was gratefulness. Grateful that this guy with a voice and a huge audience of young people uses that voice to say things like he said.   Grateful for the acknowledgement that different is a good thing and that it can preclude greatness that is measured in your impact on people and the world.  Berrik has been called many things in his short life by people who are lacking in humanity and kids who learned this behavior from the world we all live in.  I’m sure he will be called things that cannot be said on TV also at some point (although to be fair, most of us will be!).

Ultimately though, the thing I am most grateful for is that Berrik is in a school where being ‘weird’ is the norm, and is celebrated as part of each kids’ individuality.  In a world where kids are all trying to fit in and be the same, it feels like an alternate universe to enter Berrik’s school and classroom.  No one asks him to be like anyone else.  The school team seeks to figure out who Berrik is and then celebrates his strengths AND his weaknesses.  Because when you step back for a moment and consider my sweet boy as a whole human being, he’s pretty darned amazing.  So if all the parts of him make up the fabulous sum of who he is, then can any of those parts be seen as negative?  Nope.  At least not at school.  It’s quite fascinating to be in the classroom with Berrik and his classmates.  It’s difficult to explain but you can feel it when you’re there.  So completely different than in his former school classroom.  Or the classrooms of my daughters over the years.  The best way I can think of to describe it is that the typical tensions related to who are the ‘smart’ kids and the ‘jocks’ and who fits into all the other ‘labels’ or ‘categories’ that are common in a regular public school, doesn’t seem to exist.  As his mom, it’s most noticeable to me in my own child.  Berrik is fully, authentically, unapologetically himself in this classroom.  He is free to be.  It doesn’t occur to him to worry about what people think because there seems to be so little judgement.  And when you don’t feel judged, I think it makes you less likely to judge others, so all the kids seem to be authentically themselves. Like I said, hard to describe.

Back in the days where Berrik was undergoing some assessments related to ADHD, the psychologist asked how we were managing at home.  I recall being a bit confused by the question.  While I recognize that many kids who are differently wired can have symptoms that result in or appear to be behavioural issues, this had never been an issue for Berrik.  And even though we have two neurotypical kids, it never really occurred to me to consider the impact of Berrik’s differently wired brain as something needing to be managed in a special way within the context of home.  Did he act the same as the girls? No.  But the girls act differently than each other also.  Berrik is just Berrik, just as Avi and McKenna are also their own people with sometimes surprisingly different ways of being from each other and from Berrik. We are just 5 people who are each very different from each other, but the sum of those parts is a pretty great little family.

How fortunate we are that our little ‘weirdo’ can live his life in this way.  It’s not that he gets to be unaware that he’s different from some of his peers, it’s that he has learned that different isn’t something negative, and in fact just might be the coolest thing about him.

September is a nightmare for me. Literally.

It is the end of September and the transition back to school and the million activities has gone with unprecedented smoothness.  Obviously me being at home this month rather than working full time has been the game changer.  Berrik’s transition back to school from being homeschooled has also been incredibly easy.  For the first time ever, managing school with Berrik has been completely simple and almost without any stress at all….for him or for me.

Yet, I am not sleeping well.  I am having almost nightly vivid nightmares that have me waking with a start, heart beating, covered in sweat and unable to get back to sleep for sometimes hours.  The theme of the nightmare is the same each night.  I am doing something wrong – although it’s not always clear what I am doing that is wrong, the anxious feeling of doing something you’re not supposed to is intense in these dreams. And each night, whatever I’m doing wrong results in a massive disaster about to happen, and that’s when I wake up.   Everything from police chasing me as I am driving, and then about to crash, to hiking up a mountain and slipping and falling off a cliff, to having a blow out with my best friend and her ending our friendship.  The story in my dream is almost always different but the impending sense of doom and the panic feel the same.

I’m no psychologist (perhaps I need to talk to one!), but my gut sense is this has something to do with having a child with special needs.  I think when anyone has a child whose path in life is not ‘typical’, whether it be learning disabilities, illness, accidental injury or any other situation that puts a child and family on an unexpected trajectory, there is a special kind of stress and thought process.  I don’t know this for sure.  I’m just speaking from my own experience.  I worry about all my kids.  I am heartbroken for them when life hands them a lemon or two (but usually glad for the teachable moment), and overjoyed when they find success.  But with Berrik, it’s a bit different.  He gets more than his share of lemons.  And that is truly heartbreaking.  But he’s resilient and works hard as a result, so I can see the lemonade for those lemons.  Where I really struggle is wondering deep down if his struggles are somehow my fault.  Did I do something during pregnancy that caused this?  Did I not intervene early enough?  Am I doing everything I can to help him?  Each year I learn more and more about how to help him achieve his greatness, but at the same time I question whether I am doing enough, and whether I am doing it soon enough.  It’s a ridiculous and unproductive thought process since we cannot turn back time, and intellectually I know we do many things to help him and that many of them are working really well.  Yet the thoughts are there.  Always lurking.

How does this relate to the nightmares?  I think that now that Berrik is in school and the majority of the daily responsibility for his learning has been handed over to his incredible and very capable teachers, I’m feeling some anxiety.  The school is really good with communication, so I’m up to date on how Berrik is doing in a general sense.  But the day to day, hour to hour progress is no longer available to me the way it was when I was teaching him at home.  I think that this is resulting in me feeling anxious about whether putting him in school will prove to be the best answer down the road; maybe trouble letting go of the control? My fear of realizing 2 years from now that I should have kept him home is my guess at what is causing these crazy nightmares.  I have looked back many times and wished I had made a decision earlier or made a different decision, or learned more about something sooner. Even though my gut tells me this school is going to be great for Berrik, I think my brain isn’t ready to accept a movement towards worrying about Berrik in the ‘typical’ parent worrying about a typical child way.  I think the nightmares are part of that processing.  I think they are related to my fear of impending doom if things don’t continue to go well in school.  And my panic about making the wrong decision but realizing it too late.  For years I have been in fight or flight mode, and perhaps now that some pressure is off and the cortisol levels are dropping, things are trying to sort themselves out in my head.

The whole situation has really got me thinking about the sequelae of raising a child with special needs.  I never like to diminish the joy that Berrik brings us by talking about the negative feelings, because the negative feelings have nothing to do with Berrik in the sense that he does not cause me to feel this way.  But the guilt, anger, and fear are feelings I have struggled with since we realized that his trajectory was going to look different than many of his peers, and different than that of his sisters.  Some hours, days, or months are worse than others, and almost always, our day to day life overrides these tough emotions, but those feelings are there, waiting in the background.  I know that in the big picture, his journey is considerably simpler and easier than so many others.  I also know that I am exceptionally lucky because I have a husband who is ‘all in’ when it comes to the kids, and a support system of family and friends that always have Berrik’s back and always have mine.  A friend recently reminded me to enjoy the ‘moments’ because every moment is a blessing.  She is one of those people who really understands what is important, and can look to the positive no matter how rotten the lemons are that are handed to her.  So instead of worrying about what I should have done differently, or about what challenges next week or next year might bring, I’m going to start trying to enjoy the moments of this week.   And here’s hoping this deliberate effort to adjust my mindset will chase away those nightmares.  I could use a nap.  🙂

 

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