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Diana Whitworth Nelson, photo courtesy of Korena Bolding Sinnett

Mom Next Door: Diana Whitworth Nelson

this mom of three talks adoption, special needs & learning differences

Diana Whitworth Nelson may have been born in Arizona, but she got to Texas as fast as she could—and had important life experiences across the state before settling in DFW. She grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, where her parents published a newspaper, then moved to Dallas to attend SMU.

After graduation with a degree in journalism (it runs in the family), she took a job in south central Texas—as did, coincidentally, the man she would marry. “We were on very different paths, living in two different cities,” Nelson says. “Stars aligned in the summer of ’97 to bring us to San Antonio and to the same company.”

Becoming a mother wasn’t as easy as finding her life partner. Nelson and husband Joel, who moved back to Dallas, tried over the course of a decade to have children before turning to adoption. Once they made that choice, their first child, a daughter named Edie (formally Edelmira, after Nelson’s mother), was home quickly. Two siblings, from the same “tummy mommy,” followed in the next few years.

RELATED: Welcoming a Child Through Domestic Adoption

But after yearning for parenthood, they were plunged into something unexpected: parenting children with special needs and learning differences. In trademark fashion, Nelson adapted and embraced what was before her. “We thought there was one right way to raise kids,” she says. “Now we realize there are three right ways to raise three different kids.”

Fast Facts

Age 46. “Yikes. It shocks me to say that out loud.”
Hails from Born in Arizona; grew up in the Rio Grande Valley
Lives in East Dallas (Forest Hills)
Occupation Publisher of Raymondville Chronicle & Willacy County News
Alma Mater Southern Methodist University
Significant Other Joel, her husband of 21 years (“also shocking”); research technology professional
Kids Edie, 11, Hugh, 9, Bea, 7. Edie has ADHD. Hugh has autism spectrum disorder. Bea has dyslexia.

One-on-One with Diana Whitworth Nelson

DFWChild: You had a tough road to motherhood. Tell us a little more about how you got to the point when you finally brought your children home.
DWN: Joel and I were on the same page about having a big family and starting early, because we wanted our kids to be close with their cousins. I have older brothers and he has an older sister, so we were born playing catch up. After we were married a couple of months, we started playing “Catholic roulette.” (Laughs.)  Then we tried everything from acupuncture to IVF. And what is it they say about the best-laid plans? After 10 years, it was still just us and the dogs.

Diana Whitworth Nelson, photo courtesy of Korena Bolding Sinnett

It had been all that time of shots and disappointment with no real diagnosis of why I couldn’t get pregnant. We considered using donor eggs, and Joel’s immediate response was, “I don’t want to make a baby with someone else.” That was exactly what I needed to hear, which led us to adoption. Sometimes the best-laid plans don’t go awry; they just delay. Our 10 years of “just us” were pretty amazing though. We worked, traveled, bonded and remodeled a house.

C: Is adoption something you were familiar with, or was it new to you?
DWN: Joel’s first cousin was adopted, so it was familiar to him. And when I was little, I had the sweetest aunt and uncle who couldn’t get pregnant. I remember thinking they were crazy for not adopting, and I vowed I would [if I dealt with infertility]. Failed fertility treatments were financially and physically stressful. I was tired of the treatments and ready to be a mom.

After we sat down at a Catholic Charities adoption seminar and I heard the speaker say, “If you want to be parents, you will be parents,” I finally believed that I would be a mom.

C: What was that process like for you?
DWN: We did the required home study; it wasn’t easy but not as intimidating as it sounded. We were approved within a few months and had our photo in a book of potential adoptive parents for birthmothers to consider. She picked us in a couple weeks and was due a few weeks after that. So after 10 years, it happened very quickly.

After we met the “tummy mommy” of our future daughter, we drove straight to Pottery Barn Kids and opened a line of credit. I remember that day as well as I remember Edie’s birth. It was a fun, mad fury of preparation. She reached out to us two more times to tell us she was pregnant.

C: Did you immediately know you’d adopt Edie’s siblings?
DWN: We always wanted four, a nice, even number. Hugh, who has autism spectrum disorder, is like having two kids though. When their birth mother called and told us she was pregnant with Bea, we weren’t sure we could handle it. But of course we brought her into our family.

C: How do you talk to them about adoption?
DWN: We speak openly about it. They know “my tummy doesn’t work” and that they have a “tummy mommy.” Joel and I were in the delivery room for all three kids, and the hospital treated us like any other parents and gave us our own room.

The children have met their birth mother, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen her. She moved out of state. In the beginning, as an adoptive parent in an open adoption, you’re a little afraid of a co-parenting situation. We very quickly realized that wasn’t the case. It’s typically the adoptive parents who want more contact.

C: When did you discover that your children have learning differences or special needs?
DWN: I knew Edie had ADHD early on. She got her diagnosis at age 6. With Hugh, I feel like I noticed from birth that something was different. He is non-verbal. Bea recently received a dyslexia diagnosis. She’s actually proud!

I do want to share that a positive aspect of our adoption—besides the obvious, that it made us parents—is that Joel and I never played the “blame game” for any special needs or learning differences the kids have. Because we aren’t their birthparents, I think it helped us not waste time in denial or wondering if our genetics or something I did during pregnancy caused autism. We got to skip that part and go straight into action mode.

C: You mentioned that your son is non-verbal. How will you and Joel handle his future?
DWN: Hugh has made amazing progress in his 9 years. For instance, we did not know if he would ever learn to chew and swallow food or use a toilet. But because he is mostly non-verbal and has developmental delays, we must be pragmatic about his future, especially when Joel and I are gone. We know his sisters will love and watch over him, but he will most likely need more care than they can give.

Like a lot of families in this position, we are on two housing interest lists, formerly called waiting lists. One is the Texas Home Living Program—TxHmL—and the other is the Community Living Assistance and Support Services—CLASS. It is widely known that it could be 15 years before you get a call to see if you need their services, so getting on the list while your child is very young is key, even if you do not need it later.

Another safeguard for Hugh’s future is financial planning. I assumed only wealthy individuals had trusts, but it’s not like that. I went to an information session at Weeks Law Firm, which specializes in special needs trusts, and it was an eye-opener. Hugh will need the support of Medicaid one day, and his housing and care will be costly. If someone like Hugh were to get a part-time job sweeping the lobby of a movie theater, he could not earn enough to support his care. If a grandparent were to gift him $2,500, he could be ineligible for government assistance.

A trust is a safe place for us to leave him money from our life insurance policies and make sure he has a safe living environment. It is also a place where a grandparent or family member could contribute. Hugh will not be able to manage finances, so his sisters and cousin will act as trustees and make decisions in his best interest.

C: Coming back to the present, how has having children with special needs and learning differences affected your view of parenting?
DWN: Infertility was a lesson in patience, and so is parenting children with special needs and learning differences. Hugh’s progress is extremely slow but steady. I am not blessed with patience, but I practice every day and appreciate every milestone he meets.

As parents, Joel and I balance each other out. I was not spanked, while he got the wooden spoon. My parents explained natural consequences and that worked for me. Our kids require a lot more structure, and we have to constantly strategize about how to motivate and how to provide consequences. And I’m a worrier, while Joel is a doer. We aren’t prepared for everything, but we’ve mentally prepped for a lot.

C: Do you feel like the situation causes any stress in your marriage?
DWN: I don’t think much has changed between us except that we are blessed with three beautiful, perfect children, and our challenges are different. Travel looks different—hello, Suburban.

C: Let’s talk about your career. You were previously the associate publisher for DFWChild’s Special Needs magazine and grew up in the industry.
DWN: Right. After my parents were married, my dad worked for newspapers across Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona, and my three brothers were born along the way. In 1974, I was born at the last stop in Casa Grande, Arizona, right before they got the opportunity to buy a weekly newspaper in Raymondville—which is down the road from their hometowns. My parents packed up the Suburban and the four of us kids, eager to move back to the Rio Grande Valley and family.

Side by side, they published the Raymondville Chronicle & Willacy County News until my mom died in 2001. My dad continued the work until he passed away in 2018. I grew up in a newsroom and had been working for Dallas magazines, including DFWChild, since I graduated from SMU—so it was a natural step for me to take over.

My very sympathetic DFWChild boss, Joy Niebes, graciously allowed me the flexibility to take on the responsibility of the newspaper and continue to work for her the year my dad was sick and then after he passed.

About the time COVID-19 hit, I was running out of steam with my day jobs and mothering my three kids, even with the support of my hero husband. I very reluctantly left the magazines three weeks before I was introduced to distance learning. It was a God thing, like everything in my life.

Now I am managing the newspaper from afar. I have not seen our employees in person or the office in over a year. The paper is celebrating 101 years of local journalism, and it is economically surviving the pandemic just as it did the Great Depression. Sometimes I peek at it through the Nest cameras just to feel like I’m there.

C: How did COVID-19 affect your family?
DWN: Once the shelter-in-place order came down, we turned our house into a school-slash-office. Our living room is Hugh’s classroom; Joel works out of the home office; each girl has a desk in a bedroom; and I am the floater with my laptop. It has been an adventure and a memory-maker.

I remember a horrific hurricane from my childhood fondly; my family was all nestled together for a few days playing cards and sheltering from the storm. Even though this has been a lot longer, I’m betting my kids will remember this year like that and have stories for their children.

C: Are the kids still learning virtually?
DWN: Hugh’s ABA provider BlueSprig and the girls’ school St. Thomas Aquinas opened back up this past fall. We have chosen to keep Hugh home because his allergies and asthma put him in a high-risk category, and his school has been awesome. They’ve allowed us to keep his therapist coming to the house every day for regular hours. Our fifth grader chose to stay online, but our first grader begged to go back. We are lucky that their school gave us the option.

C: A lot of people have felt very isolated this past year. Has it been hard on your family?
DWN: We have a few “pod families” we have relied on for socializing, who are as cautious as us. We occasionally visit with them, mostly outdoors, like we did for Halloween. The kids manned the PVC-pipe candy chute; the dads orchestrated a candy scavenger hunt; and the moms guarded the fire pit. Through all of this, I think Hugh is the happiest he has ever been.

Diana Whitworth Nelson’s Favorite Things

How She Unwinds
“A few years ago, I would have said a good book and exercise. These days, it’s a glass of wine, scary movies and remodeling shows.”

How She Spent a Pandemic Date Night
“The only date night we’ve had this year was to an intimate restaurant located in our living room. The sign said ‘Vito’s’ and we had lasagna—that’s the restaurant in ‘Garfield’ and of course Garfield’s favorite meal; he has been popular in our house lately. The ‘wait staff’ was unusually intrusive and performed loud, off-tune keyboard melodies. And we had to clean up at the end of the night.”

Favorite Restaurants
“At the moment, it’s ‘Vito’s.’ But I’m looking forward to visiting our favorite patios again, like Smoky Rose and Matt’s Rancho Martinez.”
Smoky Rose // 8602 Garland Road, Dallas
Matt’s Rancho Martinez // 1904 Skillman St., Dallas (additional locations in Garland and Royse City)

Family Activities She Loves
“We live to bike and walk the neighborhood and White Rock Lake, have a weekend family movie night—outdoors when it’s nice—and play card games.”

Where She Shops Till She Drops
“I’ve been spending too much time at outdoor garden centers like Ruibal’s, Lowe’s and Home Depot. And I’m a regular at Costco.”
Ruibal’s Plants of Texas // Multiple locations in Dallas

Her Approach to Life
“My parents taught me to be kind and try my best. I tell my girls that every day, and it’s a good reminder for me as well.”

Advice for Parents Who Have Kids With Special Needs
“Pray, be patient and have grace with your kids and each other.”

This article was originally published in March 2021.

Photo courtesy of Korena Bolding Sinnett