Parenting expert Laura Marshak finds “genius moments” that inspire
Going Solo While Raising Children with Disabilities (Woodbine House Inc., 2015) is the latest book by parenting expert Laura Marshak. Marshak is happily married and a professor of counseling at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She teaches both school and community counselors in the graduate program and is also a licensed psychologist and founding partner of North Hills Psychological Services P.C. She works with people on a range of issues but specializes in working with parents of children with disabilities—both individually and in couples counseling.
As a current Solo Mom raising two young adults with disabilities, I know what it’s like to feel alone and isolated raising a child who is different, and like Marshak, I found that connecting to other parents who understand was the best thing I could do for myself. Some of those parents are still my best friends after 21 years of parenting!
What was the most surprising thing you learned in researching and writing your book?
When I advertised for solo parents to interview, I thought I was likely to meet some interesting people and learn a thing or two from each of them, but I was not prepared for how much I ended up prizing each individual’s story. I was also getting attached to many of them in the process. Bear in mind, some of these people just responded to my ad on Craigslist, so I was not looking for people who were exceptional in any way. The uplifting surprise was that mixed in with each life story were great strategies for coping that would be useful to others. This confirmed what I had hoped for but had been uncertain about, and I decided to structure the book to include what I called “genius moments” from each of them to tell their stories more fully.
What are the top three concerns that solo parents shared with you?
One of the main concerns is the magnitude of stress that needs to be managed on a daily basis. For example, a typical solo parent of a child with autism may be coping with meltdowns due to sensory overload, speech pathology and occupational therapy appointments, specialized diets, and the need to advocate with school systems and insurance companies. That does not even include worrying that a child may have no friends. Solo parents of children who are medically fragile may need to be vigilant about health crises and the risk of being at a distance if a child has a seizure or other complication. Since these concerns are always present, it’s important to find ways of limiting how much the stress affects you.
Another major concern is how solo parents can take care of themselves, have a social life, and pursue personal interests while raising a child with so many needs. Of course this involves wrestling with guilt and frustration.
The last is how to get the best opportunities for their children so they face less of an “uphill battle” in the future. I doubt I have ever met a parent who is not fearful of the transition into adulthood since the unemployment rate for persons with disabilities remains so high despite the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The greatest fear for parents of children with disabilities is what will happen to the child when the parent is no longer around.
What are the top three tips or strategies solo parents shared with you?
Let me touch on three interwoven strategies.
First, one of the top strategies is mindfully staying (mostly) in the present. This does not mean you don’t plan for the future but that you are careful to enjoy what exists in the present moment. I realize this is a good strategy for everyone, but it’s especially important when the future holds so many worries.
(Read about how grandmother Beki Sciacca learned this lesson while raising her two grandchildren on her own.)
Second is learning to decide for yourself what is valuable about your life and your child—especially if they both differ from the norm. This includes not buying into the notion of how your life is “supposed” to be.
The third strategy is learning to notice what is good. Research is clear that the practice of identifying the things you are grateful for, at least a few times a week, has a substantial positive effect on people. The strategy can be as simple as saying aloud five things that you feel grateful about that day or jotting them down in a notebook. This is a strategy I use a lot myself. For example, driving home this winter on my hour-and-a-half commute I found myself bone-tired, sick of work, and even more sick of traffic. That day, I talked to myself out loud and reminded myself that the inside of my car was nice and toasty, and I was going home to a refrigerator full of food. I added that, as aggravated as I was at work that day, how nice it was to have a steady job. Plus, what is nicer than knowing your dog will jump up and down in excitement when you finally make it home?
Can you briefly share a favorite story about someone you interviewed?
I have so many favorites, so I will just touch on one of them: Amanda, who chose to have a child without a partner. A botched prenatal testing procedure left her baby with a rare condition that included a contorted palate and very misshapen hands and lips, yet she managed her own strong emotions (including some distressing ones) while doing a beautiful job raising her son. Amanda struggled because, as she said, “kids can be mean,” and she knew her son was subject to being stared at and asked rough questions. But she prepared him with humor and strength to meet the world head-on. When he spoke of kids staring at him, she jokingly advised, “Just tell them your fingers were eaten by a lion.” She taught him to be outgoing, and he grew into a confident boy who did not hide his hands and often extended them for a handshake, explaining, “My fingers are a little different.”
Do you have a personal connection to this topic? And if so, can you share something about that?
I have both a professional and personal connection to the world of family and disability. I think I was originally drawn to study disability because I grew up with a serious speech impediment, and this made me aware of what it’s like to be different in ways that make it hard to fit in. After years of professional study and work in the area of disability, I learned even more at home with some of my own children, firsthand.
If you could give Solo Moms who have kids with special needs one thing to make life easier, what would that be?
Connections with other Solo Moms who “get it.”
If you are a Solo Mom seeking connection with others who get it, please join our confidential community of Sisters.
Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.
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