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The Organizationally-Challenged Parent: A new look at what order really means

I just made my go-to eggplant recipe, given to me by an old friend. Here it is:

1. Buy beautiful purple eggplant in store.
2. Place eggplant in refrigerator.
3. Find eggplant a month later when it is brown and withered.
4. Throw eggplant away.

As you might have guessed, being orderly does not come easily to me. My lack of order has cost me dearly, and not just in unused eggplants. More times than I care to remember, I could not get out the door because some key item… the car keys, my wallet…was nowhere to be found. And while I’ve had a fondness for the look of order, yearning for the kind of spaces that grace the cover of magazines like Real Simple, achieving that in real life was, and still is, elusive.

But I had to take a second look at the idea of order when my son, who has autism, came into my life. All of a sudden, there was more to do than seemed humanly possible: visits to various specialists, developing a home-therapy team, and doctors’ appointments. And, overnight, stacks of papers sprouted up, with referrals and reports overwhelming every horizontal surface. I was wasting valuable time trying to put my hands the things I needed, and I felt overwhelmed by the growing to-do list.

So, I have had to rethink order. And while I continue to struggle with all the stuff that keeps multiplying in my house, I’m a little more organized and there is, at least, a system to the stacks that surround me.

But order is about more than the physical placement of things. Time and presence are equally important aspects of order. In finding balance for myself, and my family, my most valuable work around cultivating order is in trying to be more realistic about time, and striving to be fully present with the time that I do have.

When you have children on the autism spectrum, it’s easy to feel a sense of urgency about making every minute count. Our childrens' progress can seem like a now-or-never proposition. When my son was just diagnosed, I felt pressure to use every available minute to foster his communication and motor skills. He made progress, but in retrospect, the life of my family suffered. During those days, I often felt guilty and sorry for myself. My time with my son felt anxious, instead of relaxed and enjoyable.

Since then, I have a different perspective. I’ve come to think of my son’s progress in more fluid terms, believing that he will, in fact, continue to develop and to learn. When I can trust in his ability to keep developing, I put more emphasis on the quality of our time together than on getting to do all the things I might have wanted to accomplish.

So in contemplating order, I have learned a thing or two about keeping things simple. I try to have less on my to-do list. And, even more important, I try to cultivate a feeling of satisfaction with the things that I have accomplished, rather than scolding myself for not having done more. This attention to quality rather than quantity is a work in progress, but it has helped me keep my head above water. When I can feel free to enjoy being with my son, I have made a shift from surviving to thriving.