“Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” —A. A. Milne
The perfect family is a myth. Some are more fortunate than others, favored with good health, strong family ties, seemingly effortless abundance, but practically every parent I encounter is facing some challenge beyond basic survival, be it medical, emotional, social, cognitive, neurological, mental, or physical. This has always been true, but today’s parents have more information, faster communication, and a literal world of options to help them remediate, rehabilitate, and repair themselves and their children.
So why does it seem that Gen X and Millennials are all engaged in DEFCON parenting? Because they are.
Today’s families face not just the usual diseases, disorders, and conditions, but new ones: superbugs bred through overmedicating; resurgent diseases, and new pollution- and chemical-induced illnesses—and, of course, increased awareness of organic causes for conditions, behaviors, and diseases. Speaking at a university seminar, I joked that parents need degrees in medicine, psychology, and education—just as a baseline. I didn’t want to scare off would-be and newbie parents from the joys of parenting, but no generation before has been as seemingly as “on call” as today’s parents, who are basically 24/7 baby monitors thanks to ubiquitous connectivity.
Some must be more “on call” than others—parents with health issues and those whose children are born with or develop one or more medical, emotional, social, cognitive, neurological, mental, or physical disorders. Conditions may be undiagnosed, may be comorbid, or may be both. They may require treatment, palliative care, or just our empathy: that child pitching a tantrum despite his mother’s calming efforts? He might be tired, or he might be dealing with a condition or demon beyond his or his parents’ control. The last thing that family needs is a disapproving stare.
If you are among the few families to have no diet or medication restrictions, to see doctors and dentists for regular checkups only, and to rarely experience so much as the flu, please know you are the outlier. There are millions of Americans who live as shut-ins surrounded by endless medications and aids, fearing a flare or a complication, or veiling the truth from those who don’t need to know.
They’re in a constant cycle of research to find answers, facing decisions for the next best drug, endlessly searching for breakthrough therapies, traveling for better or more affordable treatments, inching up the waitlist for specialists, and, too often, burying their children. They fall victim to insurance companies that refuse to cover the new diseases that have hatched in this generation. Medical professionals, extended families, schools, and even their own spouses may doubt a diagnosis and deem an advocate outright delusional when a disorder has yet to make the leap from medical journals to mainstream media.
Studies show that the mothers of children with chronic illness age faster than their peers, a sad fact proven by measuring their genetic telomeres and attributed to nonstop stress and overwhelming demands. Divorce rates of parents of children with disabilities are not higher than the norm, however; apparently, people pull together, and empathy, empowerment, cohesiveness, and strength can grow in response to challenges.
Whether a family is dealing with autism or asthma, leukemia or Lyme, oppositional defiance disorder or otitis media, families around us—maybe yours—battle every day with a broken healthcare system, uncaring insurance companies, emotional earthquakes, misplaced guilt, uncertainty, caregiver fatigue, and just plain exhaustion. Caregiving logistics for physical or mental illnesses are physically, mentally, emotionally, and monetarily costly, affecting not only the children, but parents, extended family, teachers, schools, social workers, and medical personnel. Be part of the solution, not the problem. People cope towards hope.
Commit to do better. Prepare yourself to become an expert, therapist, and empowerment coach, but don’t strive for perfection.
Just do what you can to make the most of life and togetherness. We are all perfectly imperfect. The symbiosis is real; as the saying goes, parents are only as happy as their unhappiest child. If you think you have an issue, attack it: diagnose, rehabilitate, work towards healing, recovery, and wellness—and don’t shy away from helping others do the same. Act: attend, address, accommodate, and adjust your expectations for positive changes in your children (and the children around you). And as with emergency oxygen on a plane, take care of yourself so you can take care of others, whether that means screaming in the woods, crying in the shower, meditation, a day off, time with friends, or an hour with a good book. Ask for help and give help if you can. As the African proverb enlists, it does take a village. Parenting is a team sport, and your team can be a partner, family members, paid caregivers, friends, therapists, doctors, churches, and teachers.
People often ask me for resources: physicians, psychologists, family therapists, educators, and other practitioners who can help them manage at home, school, and in the community. After decades in education and parenting, I’ve met many good people doing good work, and it is rewarding to bring people together. It’s also encouraging to see parent-to-parent referrals and recommendations on social media sites like our own North Salem Mom’s Facebook page. Reach out and find the support you need. It will get better. Trust the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”