Part 4 in our series on Autism and Family Life
Divorce. Autism. Single Parenting.
These are three things we don’t ever think will happen to us when we’re newly married – or new parents – or newly diagnosed.
As noted in our last blog on autism and marriage, having a child with autism certainly does not mean that your marriage won’t last yet it’s obvious that autism brings many additional stressors to a marriage. And like parents of typically-developing kids, sometimes our marriages do end in divorce.
Single parenting is a tough job. For parents of kids with autism, flying solo can feel like piloting a single-engine plane in turbulent skies.
I couldn’t find any research on single parenting a child with autism, but I did run across blogs and perspective pieces on the subject. To get some insight into the unique aspects of being a single mom or dad, we did an informal survey of local single parents. Some identified themselves as single parents whose ex shares in child-rearing while others identified as single without any involvement from their ex. Here’s what they had to say.
How long have you been a single parent?
Parent Responses: Ranged from six to ten years
What is the most difficult thing about single parenting?
- Exhaustion from doing everything by myself
- Maintaining a full time job
- Coordinating and paying for therapies
- Financial stress
- Judgment from others about my child’s behavior
- Losing friends and family
- Feeling so isolated
- People don’t “get it”
- People tell me to “take care of myself” but I have no one to take my place so I can
- Stares and unkind words when in public
- Can’t afford or find childcare for my child so it’s just me all the time
- Can’t work due my child’s needs so I am in poverty
- Super-human amount of work involved in every aspect of my child’s care
- Hardest thing is to feel I’m not failing either of my children because I never feel I’m doing enough or everything I should be
- Need for constant supervision and challenging behaviors is very isolating and exhausting
- Can’t do the simplest of things (going to the bathroom, taking a shower, answering the phone) because my child might elope, get on a bus, stuff himself with food and then throw up – these things have happened
- Some of my married friends are envious of my “time off” when their father has our kids. When I have them though, it is full-on, no buffer, no break, no back-up.
Where do you find support?
- ALLY – Autism, Living Life & You support group
- Single friends who don’t have children
- Friends who “get it” and support me, accept me
- Close family
- I have to compartmentalize to create time for myself – which was impossible for many years. I used to hate when people would tell me to “be sure you make time for yourself”.
- Have found wrap services and support groups unhelpful
- My child’s aggressive behavior prevents me from using respite
- Local online groups
- Other moms of kids with autism who understand when it takes me a week to reply to an email or need to cancel at the last minute
- I am deliberate about carving out time to do things that make me feel good
What have you learned/gained from single parenting?
- More aware of using positive parenting – finding ways to connect vs. angry/punitive reactions
- I’m more mindful of daily interactions and successes
- More aware of dollars well saved and spent on therapies and investing in my child’s future
- That I have strength and courage I didn’t know I had
- That it isn’t the end of the world even if some days it feels like it
- That it’s okay to ask for help
- To thank people for their knowledge and support
- That it’s good for me to pay it forward with others
- I have developed excellent advocacy skills
- That I can’t do everything myself!
- To let go of lots of things that would have seemed important to me before
- To prioritize
- To get through a day on very little sleep – over and over again
- That lots of what I think I ought to do for my children turns out to not be crucial. Family dinners went out the window a long time ago!
- I’ve gotten to know some amazing people, other parents who are making it work (or at least surviving) with a sense of humor and hope intact. I never stop seeing this as a miracle, honestly, because I know how close to the edge we all run, all the time.
- Some skills I didn’t know I had –in terms of supporting others emotionally through hard times or communicating about this life when I’ve had the opportunity – to groups of students going into a helping profession
- I appreciate the unplanned, unpredictable moments of quiet that emerge in the chaos – when folding clothes or cooking
- I’ve learned to roll with the punches and live in the moment
- The positives and not so positives for my other child
What tips might you offer to new single parents?
- Sleep when you can, where you can
- Don’t sweat the small stuff –so much is small stuff
- It’s okay to buy disposable so you don’t have to do dishes
- Don’t be afraid to seek counseling
- Don’t speak ill of your ex –kids hear everything!
- Our kids sometimes feed off our emotions whether they can articulate it or not – my child feels my pain and my joy
- Read! Knowledge can be empowering
- Read! A good novel can be a much-needed escape
- Remind yourself that you are not a bad parent and that there are reasons your child is struggling. In fact, you go above and beyond!
- The diagnosis can be scary but it also helps to understand why your child does what he does
- Reach out to at least one support group or other parent of a child with autism – those conversations will keep you sane
- Learn about IEPs from Wrightslaw
- Sign up for DDD even if you hear there are no paid services
- Get help in navigating health insurance when it comes to therapies
- Start by realizing autism is a forever thing and you have to pace yourself. There is no urgency
- Redo your To Do List to cover the absolute basics and include finding an hour to yourself – not doing laundry or dishes or making appointments for your child
- Get rid of anyone in your life who causes additional stress. Real friends are the ones who “get it” and you don’t have to explain to them
- Don’t volunteer for anything unless you know it will actually feed you in a significant way
- Focus on what your child does well
- Don’t force friendships or a lifestyle that isn’t consistent with autism
- Focus on what you can realistically handle
Is there anything else you want us to know about single parenting?
- It’s okay to date and do things for yourself. In fact, you’ll be a better parent if you do
- Autism is all consuming, but you can learn to weave times of pleasure in with all the work
- Make time for your other children. Sibshops at Seattle Children’s are great!