Friday, April 18, 2008

The Imperfect Parent: Mix special needs and stir

Perfectionistic Parenting is an excellent blog post found in Dana Sherman’s Kids and Character blog. In it, Dana encourages mothers to aim to be “good enough/successful” parents, rather than perfect parents. She writes:

“Good enough/successful parenting arises from the realization that you are human and you only need to try your best, not be the best. Perfectionist parenting arises from insecurity and fear of not being good enough. Separate what your child needs from your perception of what others think of you: other mothers, your husband, family members, friends, the media. What matters are what your child thinks, wants, and needs.”

The pressure to be perfect is often a “double whammy” for parents of children with disabilities. Parents of children with special needs have additional expectations from therapists, teachers, medical specialists and even parent advocacy and support groups. They are in our rear view mirror as we go about our daily lives.

I recently participated in a panel on disability in the family for a Family Diversity class at Washington State University-Vancouver. My friend and fellow panelist “M” said that if her family followed every recommendation from therapists and professionals, they would spend 20 hours a day of occupational therapy exercises, speech exercises and so on. She realized when he son was young that she must decide which recommendations to adhere to and which to jettison to make room for family time. With that realization, “M” became a “good enough parent.”

I struggle with being a “perfect autism parent” at times - no, make that almost all the time. The recent talk led by Dr. David Pitonyak's lecture on Dealing with Difficult Behaviors reassured me that making room for “joy” – my children’s and mine! – was an essential part of being a good enough parent.

However, without in any way intending to, Dr. David Pitonyak reminded me that I do not use Person First Language - the “politically correct” language within the disability community. Parents are told that we ourselves, as well as the rest of society, should portray our children as people first, not as defined by their disability. So, really, rather than calling Sayer an autistic child (a real “no, no”) OR “a child with autism” (which I do) I should be referring to him as “a child who experiences autism” (which I don’t).

Dr. Pitonyak quite naturally used this language, as did many of the parents who asked questions. As I listened I struggled not to feel guilty for my own semantics.Yet,parents with “typical” children don’t need to think about whether to say “clarinetist Susie” versus “Susie who plays clarinet” versus “Susie who experiences band.” By refusing to join the People First Language bandwagon I am being an imperfect parent – or, rather, a parent experiencing imperfection while mothering her child who experiences autism.

So, let’s all strive not be so hard on ourselves or other parents. Instead, we must embrace our good enough parenting abilities. I’d love to hear stories from others about the pressures they feel to be perfect parents, and how they have coped.


Pam said...

Hi Carol, yet another great blog. I do think it gets easier as we get older to go ahead and say, whatever I did wrong is already done so let's just move on and make the best of our situations. And to realize that some days we have much more energy than others and that is OK. Pam
PS. I have been in the practice of saying, "my son Geoffrey". I only add more if I feel the need to. Most people who see him in person get the picture pretty quick that he is different.

babs m said...

Wow...we're all on the same topic today in different forms! Thanks for reminding me we don't have to be perfect to be good parents. :)

Carol said...

I agree, Pam, that we tend to go easier on ourselves as time goes on.

And Barb, yes our ears must be burning! Anything I can do to chase away guilt is a good thing!

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Lisa Long said...

Carol, I love this. I too am guilty of calling my kiddos autistic. Then I followed Kathie Snow's "People First language" and got mad at everyone who did not. Now I am back to calling them autistic. Society does not say that I am living with weight issues. They say I am fat. So what the heck. People can say what they want. We know we are awesome parents with autistic kids who rock! :)

Carol said...


So glad you liked the post. I think that eventually we gravitate towards language that is comfortable for us. And, really, it's people's attitudes and actions that count in the end, more than their language, right?

Anonymous said...

It's interesting...I always use the term "child with autism" because I see my son as a child first who has lots of amazing qualities and he has a 'disability' (I don't like that term, but you get my drift). I have always said if you asked me to describe him in 10 adjectives, it would be about #8 or #9 as 'autistic'. I know I always 'figure out' my audience when I describe him (ie. society likes to say he's autistic, but with autism doesn't begin to define him). Weird, I know. I know that Holly Robinson Peete asked her son what he preferred and he said, "with autism" because autism (the 'disease' doesn't really define who he is as a person).

As far as being a 'good enough' parent, I know that is something I constantly struggle with. I am perfectionistic by nature (you'd never know by my house) and I have struggled with that for the past nine years and let a lot of stuff go. I try to be the best parent I can, and focus on the joys that my boys bring. I do my best and know that if I am stressed out in my perfectionism, they are stressed out, too. I always tell those who don't understand why we do so 'little', that I am doing the best I can.