Being a parent of a child with special needs - whether that means congenital heart problems, or life-threatening food allergies, or autism spectrum disorder - often means “more.” More doctor’s appointments. More medical aid hassles. More money spent. More meetings with teachers and school psychologists, and more situations where you must advocate for your child.
If you are having a hard time juggling work and special needs parenting, studies show you’re not alone. Alice Home, Professor Emeritus in the school of Social Work at the University of Ottawa studied 197 employed moms of kids with ADHD (many had additional disabilities such as autism). She found that 40 percent of these moms had switched jobs, reduced hours or refused promotions because of their intense parenting responsibilities.
Often, joining the workforce at all is impossible. Recently, 326 moms of kids with autism were surveyed in a study at Washington State University. Nearly three out of five of these moms had not taken a job because of their child’s special needs.
Whether you’re in the workforce or not, there are ways to keep your work skills and sanity strong. As the mom of two (now adult) children with ADHD, Home has both personal and professional expertise in this area - we asked her for advice about combining paid work and special needs parenting.
Ways moms of kids with special needs can stay in the paid workforce:
• Having someone for crisis situations: Families that cope well have extended family (or friends) for backup. Childcare or after school care that will work with the family and will call if something goes wrong.
• Work flexibility such as telecommuting or having compressed work hours.
• Working part time with benefits with the option for full time work later on.
• Having the option to “bank” hours and work them later if you have to leave work suddenly during a crisis with your child.
• Being able to be open about your child at work. Having a supervisor and colleagues that will work with you.
Tips for moms who are not in the workforce but want to stay employable:
• Attend career-related workshops to stay current and connected.
• Take courses Many can be done partially or fully online if you can’t leave your child.
• Keep learning Block out time each day for your own personal and professional development.
• If you volunteer with a disability organization, limit the amount of time you commit to it.
• Treat the volunteer work as a job Get letters documenting the volunteer work you do. (Some women, after establishing credibility as volunteers, get a grant to work part-time at a paid job with the organization.)
• Write down the skills you have developed while parenting your child (such as tutoring, nursing and advocacy), but be careful about what you include in your resume.
Ways employed moms can juggle paid work and special needs parenting:
• It’s OK not to be supermom. Use all the resources available to you. If you have the option of a reduced load, use it.
• Adjust your expectations. Depending on the extent of the disability, you may not be able to advance to the same extent. We always feel like we should be doing more.
Rather than thinking you always need to advance, you can see work as a way of achieving life balance.
Advice for moms transitioning back into the workplace:
If you have a partner, have a clear discussion about your division of labour.
Women tend to carry a huge load, special needs kids or not.
Write down parenting and home responsibilities and track what’s done - so if it’s not completed it’s their job, not yours.
Why moms of kids with special needs benefit from working:
Paid work prevents women from losing themselves.
It helps them realize parts of their identity outside of being a “special-needs mom.” Lots of women do this for mental health reasons - to have some balance in their lives.