Every spring, I resolve to get rid of clutter: kitchen utensils we no longer use, clothes that don’t fit my kids anymore, old toys, catalogues…all of that stuff that only serves to get in the way of finding everything else. When I take some action, I am always amazed at how letting go of the unnecessary things frees space for new possibilities.

But that is only one type of clutter.

This spring, I want to take aim at another kind of clutter: internal, invisible, but just as oppressive. I refer to the negative judgments that take up a lot of valuable space in the heads of parents like me, parents who have children with special needs.

A mother at a recent workshop confessed: “I got home from work and I knew that I should be engaging my child in conversation… but I was exhausted and I just had to lie down.” She put her child in front of the television, and gave herself some needed time to rest. But she couldn’t quite forgive herself for the indulgence.

This parent Is doing so much to foster her child’s growth, but emphasized a moment in which she felt that she had failed. It wasn’t until later on in the workshop, when she talked about how she and her daughter like to cook together, that she, and other participants in the workshop, could recognize that she was being a little hard on herself.

And yet, this mother gave voice to something that many of us feel: It seems unconscionable not to be spending every available minute of our time in some kind of productive encounter with our children. Our kids, after all, benefit from intensive therapy. So we find ourselves scheduling and overseeing hours of visits by behavioral specialists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, developmental pediatricians, psychiatrists… the list never seems to end.

Most of the parents that I meet are more than up to the task of coordinating, advocating, and doing everything they can to support this process. But along with all this effort is the feeling that it is never enough. And there is an attendant guilt and feeling of failure that can shut us down, and make us feel unworthy.

Our kids often do need all this therapy, but more than that, they need us, with all our imperfections. When we weigh ourselves down internally with all the ways we feel we are lacking, we can’t be available to our children in an optimal way.

At a recent presentation, Dr. Marcia Mailick Seltzer, a researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, discussed her long-range study of adults with autism and their families. In this study, a majority of subjects with autism continued to make progress throughout their lifetime. But what stood out for me were the findings that correlated the children’s progress with their parent’s level of functioning. Dr. Seltzer found that a parent’s attitude of warmth toward their children correlated with highest level of improvements over the child’s lifetime, compared to parents who were critical or over-involved.

How does a parent cultivate an attitude of warmth? It seems to me that warmth bespeaks a sense of compassion toward our children. And we can’t really have access to that compassion unless we first have some towards ourselves.

If we can recognize our judgmental and critical thoughts for what they are, internal clutter, we might be able to free up some space for a little of that compassion.

Dr. Tamar Chansky, in her new book, Freeing Yourself from Anxiety, has a wonderful take on challenging negative thinking. Instead of focusing on “positive thinking,” which can seem unrealistic and forced, she coins the term “possible thinking.” Possible thinking allows us to switch gears from seeing only what we lack and instead, to conjure up a more balanced picture that includes the small steps and accomplishments we often overlook.

This spring, see if it’s possible to move some of the internal clutter aside and make a little more room for possible thinking. Here are just a few examples of “clutter” that I hear from parents:

“ I should be able to accomplish all the things I did before my child was diagnosed.” 

It can be really difficult to let go of what we used to do before our child’s diagnosis, especially if it defined our sense of competence. One parent recently admitted feeling less worthy because she didn’t volunteer at a recent school bake sale. This mom had already let go of many responsibilities as a result of her child’s diagnosis, and it was very hard to say “no” to this one seemingly minor request. But a part of her knew that this bake sale was too much for her to take on at this particular time. In the end, if we are drained and burnt-out, we can’t be there for our kids in more important ways.
We need to acknowledge limitations, not as a way to detail our failures, but to live as fully as we can within them.

“I don’t have any time for myself. I need to spend every available minute on my (child, house, job….)”
The airplane attendant truly has words of wisdom for us: “You need to use the oxygen mask first before you can tend to your children.” Our every-present to-do list is not such a great source of oxygen. Instead, we are better served by taking some time to do something for ourselves. A couple of years after my son was diagnosed, I decided to study piano again. Not that I had a lot of time to do this. In fact, I usually had no more than 15 minutes at a time, enough time to play only a few phrases of a piece. But those 15 minutes were vital; they reconnected me to a sense of joy and beauty, and that helped me retain my sanity on most days.
We deserve some time for ourselves, to make space for what makes us feel alive and nurtured.

“Every moment with my child counts. If I am not involved in something useful with him or her, I am wasting valuable time.”

Author Steven Gutstein talks about the unrealistic expectations that parents of kids with autism have, and the needless stress we feel as a result. He reminds us that baseball players are considered heroes when they bat .300, making just three hits out of ten. We don’t have to be perfect. There are going to be times that we are distracted, lose our temper, or are just too exhausted to be with our kids in what we consider the “optimal” way. But, even when we have these moments, we are usually batting way better than .300.
We need to be mindful of what we do give to our kids, and try to find activities that both we and our kids can enjoy.

When we can move some of that internal clutter aside and take care of ourselves, we are thriving. Here’s to a spring with a little less of that clutter.