by Melissa Dean
As mom to four children with special needs, I have made a lot of mistakes juggling family relationships. I wish I could say that the wisdom I share springs from the things I did well, but honestly, most of it comes in the form of hard-learned lessons after painful mistakes. Biblical wisdom, however, teaches that His grace is sufficient and His power is made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), so it is with faith in those promises that I offer these principles learned from my own failures:
“Freedom comes in getting out of the way and clinging to God.”
Prioritize and set limits.
We could devote twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to our children with special needs and still not do everything possible to help them overcome their challenges and maximize their potential. Choosing the most critical priorities and setting limits for how much time to devote to each child’s needs will prevent you from focusing exclusively or unevenly on the child with extra challenges.
Delegating some of the therapies, appointments, schoolwork, and basic care to trusted friends, caretakers, babysitters, extended family, or whoever is available can help you keep the limits you set. Likewise, outsourcing cleaning, laundry, and other time-consuming chores can provide more time for the relationships that cannot be nurtured by anyone but you. This can be done less expensively by employing teens or asking help of extended family even if it means the job is done less professionally.
Isolation is the enemy’s playground. Find time in your life for godly women who hold you accountable to God and yourself. Set aside quality time to spend with your husband and each of your children. Join a Bible study. Find a faith-based support group for moms of kids with special needs. Ask your extended family or a friend to check in with you every month to see if you are becoming too isolated. It is critical that you attend to ALL of your needs—physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual—in order to nurture those of your family, especially when that family includes significant special needs. That cannot occur in isolation.
Be active in a church family.
More than eighty percent of families of children with special needs do not attend church. There are many reasons for this: the church doesn’t know what to do with your child; your child gets sick every time he or she goes to church; it just isn’t worth the effort it takes to get there; no one there can relate to the complexities of your life. These are excuses for disobedience. Scripture tells us that we are all part of the body of Christ and all have a key role to play—that’s you AND that’s your child with special needs. If your church can’t accommodate you and your child, consider finding another church.
To nurture relationships in a family with children with special needs you must heed Paul’s words in Corinthians, “I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift.”
Recognize that your typical kids have special needs, too.
It is easy to see some of our children’s needs, but often the kid who seems fine isn’t. Take the time to talk to your kids regularly—and not just about school and chores but about their hopes, dreams, frustrations, feelings, disappointments, desires, and passions. Share yours with them as well. As they age, recognize the growth in maturity and allow your relationship to grow with them, being careful to be the parent they need and not make them the friend you need.
Embrace the freedom found in imperfection.
Having a child with special needs automatically makes your family “imperfect” in the eyes of the world. Embrace the freedom that comes with stepping out of the expectation game that plagues most modern families. Learn to slow down, be selective, and celebrate the little victories. Allow your child with disabilities to be a natural filter for the people activities in your life. Replace the pressure to compete with the world with a whole new perspective. Recognize that simply finishing can sometimes be more satisfying than finishing first and that what happens in an operating room or a therapy office can be more rewarding than the accomplishments in a classroom or on a sports field.
Keep the weeds out of your marriage.
Marriage is the hardest job you’ll ever have, especially when that marriage leads to parenting kids with special needs. The marriage is often the first thing to be neglected. With so many daily crises to address, it is easy to neglect one another or to fail to deal with issues that arise. Shoving significant issues under the carpet seems harmless, but over time you both start to trip over them. Then you suffer hurts and wounds on top of the issues you already had. Like anything important, marriage takes constant work. If you ignore your yard for more than a week or so, the overgrown grass and weeds will soon take over, choking out anything beautiful. You can no more maintain your marriage without weekly attention, nurture, care, and troubleshooting than you can maintain your yard by ignoring it.
Count on the promises of God.
You could follow every suggestion I and others wiser and more experienced than I make, but life will still be hard. Your kids will still struggle. Your relationships will still be broken. You will still fail. What matters is to whom you turn in your despair, on whose strength you rely, and whose promises you believe. If your faith is in yourself, your formulas, your husband, children, friends, or family, or the words and actions of others, you will be disappointed and hopeless time and time again. But Jesus Christ came as a ransom for you. (Mark 10:45) Everything in your world is held together by Him. (Colossians 1:17) He is a firm foundation on which to build your life. (Matthew 7:24-27) He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Hebrews 13:8) He has put the Holy Spirit in you to guide you in all truth. (John 16:13) He came that you might have abundant life. (John 10:10) Turn to Him. Rely on Him. Believe His promises. Freedom comes in getting out of the way and clinging to God.
To nurture relationships in a family with children with special needs (or any needs at all), heed Paul’s words to the Corinthians as translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message: “I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Homeschool mom, Melissa Dean, lives in Chesapeake with her family. She teaches AP English Language and Composition for Pennsylvania Homeschoolers, serves as a Master Teacher for HSLDA Online Academy, and is pursuing her doctorate in special education through Liberty University. This article first appeared in TVHE, Winter 2017.