Being a mom of a special needs kid is lonely. There. I said it. Moms like me are conditioned not to talk too much about the negative, and we have definitely learned not to think too much about our own needs. We don’t want to be isolated, but the distraction of therapies, IEPs, and doctor’s appointments coupled with the seeming heaviness of our special brand of mommyhood takes a toll on our friendships. I don’t think friends intend to become aloof when a mom welcomes a child with special needs into her family, but it happens.
There are many reasons why friendships are strained with a special needs mom. Some friends are afraid of offending, so they just keep their distance. Some feel separated by the differences in their parenting journey. Some don’t know what to say, so they just don’t say anything at all. Whatever the reason, it is another blow to the mom at a time when she needs her friends more than ever. What can you do if you have a friend who is a special needs mom?
- Ask questions, and don’t worry about offending. After my son was diagnosed, it was like the elephant in the room when I saw my friends for the first time. I was dying to talk to anyone about the glut of information that was swimming around in my head, but I didn’t want to dominate the conversation and make a social fool of myself. It was such a relief when someone finally broke the silence and asked about the diagnosis. That gave me permission to share my news and begin to educate people about the new normal in our family. I am still thrilled to share when someone asks a question, and never offended by genuine interest.
- Give her a safe place to vent. Sometimes I want to run away and I need someone to hear me say that without judging me or thinking I am a bad parent. Most of the time, I remember that children are a blessing and I feel optimistic about the future, but sometimes I see “normal” families and I just want to have an easy day. I need a shoulder to cry on from time to time to help me get back to a balanced way of looking at life. Jamie, mom to 10 year old Andrew, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth, has also longed for a friend who would let her share the realities. “Everyone expects me to be so optimistic all the time, but I sometimes want to scream that the burden of care is overwhelming.”
- Tell her she’s doing a good job. All moms need to be reminded that they are doing it right from time to time, but moms of special needs kiddos need this even more. Often our herculean efforts don’t produce tangible results, so it helps to have someone outside the fray to encourage us to not grow weary. Once after I had a diffused an epic meltdown, a friend gently sat down beside me and said that I had handled the situation perfectly. No kinder words were ever spoken.
- Offer to babysit. It may seem like a simple gesture to you, but for a family that may not have a reliable caregiver, it is a life ring. Understand that special needs moms may be hesitant to let you help because they are afraid that the task will be too difficult. Promise that you can handle it and won’t judge, and then greet the mom with a smile on your face when she returns. Even if the job was difficult, you can smile knowing that you gave her a precious gift of a few hours alone with a spouse or other children.
- Share your parenting struggles and triumphs Friends, especially those with typically developing children, express that the difficulty with sustaining a friendship is that they don’t feel like their parenting struggles can ever compare and they are hesitant to share. That phenomenon creates a one sided relationship that can easily fade away. The last thing I want is to be so wrapped up in my world that I can’t hear about your world. I want to hear about your child’s latest development or the thing they are doing that drives you crazy. It may sting a little to be reminded that my child can’t accomplish those things, but not having a friend hurts worse.
- Give her some (guilt free) me time. Moms are notorious for putting their needs last, and special needs moms are serial offenders. Give her a chance to get away from scheduling therapy and researching new techniques by planning a girls’ night or weekend getaway. It is refreshing to be able to take a break and be someone besides the mom of the kid with special needs. I have learned that I can’t give 100% of myself to my child 100% of the time, but I sometimes need a push to actually schedule the time to recharge.
- Recognize the victories, no matter how small. When it comes to milestones, special needs moms often work ten times as hard to only reap 1/10th the results. Although major victories do happen, it’s the small accomplishments that are more prevalent. Identify the small successes and celebrate them with the family. Because of low muscle tone, Andrew struggled to learn to jump as a preschooler. After months of therapy, he finally learned to jump and Jamie was thrilled to have a friend share in the triumph. “When my neighbor saw him jumping in the front yard, she ran over and gave him a huge high five and then gave me the biggest hug. She acted like he had been accepted to Harvard, and it was so special to have her rejoice with me.”
- Keep it alive. All moms are busy, but special needs moms are often operating so far past emotional empty that it is difficult for them to remember to do simple things like call their friends or even say hello. It’s not that she’s not interested or longing for companionship. It’s that she is in survival mode and she needs someone to draw her out every now and then. Also remember that rejection is a part of the equation often for these moms. If you don’t make the effort, she may assume that you are one of the many who just can’t handle her challenges.
- Don’t treat her like a victim or a martyr. There seems to be a tendency to pity or idolize moms like me. I’m not more patient or somehow saintly. I’m also not miserable or dejected because of my enrollment in the special moms clubs. Mostly, I am just like you, a mom who loves her kids and wants the very best for them. I want to celebrate the victories and complain when things are hard, and I am so grateful to have a friend who will share the good and the bad with me.