Laurel Reheiser vividly remembers how she spent Thanksgiving weekend a few years ago. She didn’t overeat and overindulge the way so many of us do. No, Reheiser intentionally spent the holiday vacation completely alone. She needed a break.
The Corinth mom has three boys — a 13-year-old son and 11-year-old twins — all with autism. The stay-at-home mom’s days are spent shuttling her sons to and from daily therapy sessions and home-schooling her oldest. So when her husband offered to take the boys to Florida for the holiday break, Reheiser jumped at the chance for some solitude.
All moms, but especially those with children with special needs, must take time alone, time to meditate or de-stress. They have to make it a priority. Because if they don’t, relationships suffer. When moms neglect their own well-being, spouses, friends and siblings can feel “short-changed,” says Dr. Marsha Ring, a family therapist in Dallas.
Ring compares the importance of self-care to flying on an airplane: “In the event of the loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will come down, and who do you put it on first?” she asks rhetorically of the flight attendants’ instructions. “While the correct answer is yourself, mothers should not feel guilty about breathing the air first. A mother needs to take care of herself so she is able to take care of her family.”
So how does Mom carve out this essential self-care time when she already feels like she’s spread so thin and there are only 24 hours in a day?
Build a network. Seek support from mom- or parent-only groups that target parents in similar situations. Reheiser, for instance, has found that being a part of an autism moms support group has been hugely beneficial. “It’s a way to bond with other moms who understand,” she says. (See the sidebar below to find a group that’s right for you.)
If local group meetings don’t fit into your already packed schedule, join an online community such as AUsome Moms, a Facebook group for moms with autistic children, that has more than 1,000 members in Dallas-Fort Worth and provides a place for moms to listen to and support one another, plus trade ideas, experiences, references and resources. To find a local group online, try searching your child’s diagnosis and Dallas-Fort Worth under the groups tab.
Schedule your time. Just as you never miss your child’s therapy appointments, you shouldn’t skip “me” time for yourself. Put it on the calendar, and make it part of your weekly routine.
Reclaim lost time. Use that time when you’re waiting for your kids at a therapy appointment wisely. Bring comfortable shoes and take a 30-minute walk, for example. Or find someplace quiet and journal or read. Take advantage of every free moment you get.
Relinquish some of the control. It’s OK to let Dad help. Similarly, if other family members or friends offer assistance — by watching the kids for an hour or carpooling to school — let them.
Find a caregiver you trust. For moms who have physically or medically fragile children, the stakes are different. “It can be challenging to find someone that I trust, especially now that the boys are older,” Reheiser says. Sometimes her mother helps out; otherwise, she searches websites such as Sittercity and Care.com for baby-sitters with experience with kids with special needs. You might also check with the local school’s special education departments for qualified caregivers. Or see our Directory for a list of respite-care programs in your area.
Stop judging yourself. It’s OK to get a manicure, see a movie, even take a vacation sans children. Don’t let your inner guilt or judgment from others prevent you from doing something just for you.
Raising a child with special needs is demanding, but taking time for yourself means that you’re better equipped to care for your family. Being fulfilled as a person helps you be a better parent. Without self-care, unhealthy feelings of stress, anxiety and desperation can trickle in. So this season, take a lesson from Reheiser’s mommy playbook, and give yourself the gift of some time alone.