A Solo Mom’s suggestion to reduce the stress of holiday gatherings
Exclusion creeps in through the back door. First we find out about a football party our “friends” threw that we didn’t get invited to. Then we hear about our college friends’ plan to rent out a beach house next summer that doesn’t have enough room for our family.
Our kid doesn’t get invited to the whole-class birthday party. We don’t get invited to the dinner party because it’s “just for couples.”
We get used to being excluded, and, for many of us, we start to be grateful because then we don’t have to spend the whole time at these events keeping our child from running or humming, from grabbing or gabbing. We are happy not to have to childproof our friend’s house for our 13-year-old who still needs all the fragile stuff removed.
We Solo Moms who are raising a child with special needs get used to celebrating birthdays and holidays on our own. It’s just easier than dealing with all the judgment; breakables; and new, well, new everything.
Then the invitation comes from our parents who want to host us for Christmas or Hanukkah. Our siblings are going and bringing their families, and even our beloved aunt is making the trek. We know they love us and we love them, but can we face the holidays with our child?
Accept the invitation and then prepare. Write a letter ahead of time, and send it to everyone who is going. Make sure it includes:
- Your child’s strengths and interests
- Some general education about your child’s special needs
- The top-five accommodations your child needs
- Contingency plans
- What you need
Here is an example of what that letter might look like:
We are looking forward to spending the holidays together. As you know, Danny is an energetic boy. [strengths and interests] He wants to do what is asked of him, but he can’t always make his body and mouth do what he wants.
I am writing this so we can all have a wonderful holiday together and that means making sure that Danny and I are welcome in ways that work for us. Thanks in advance for your flexibility and understanding.
Danny loves doing things, so having art supplies around—such as pipe cleaners, construction paper he can tear, and glue—along with lots of visits to the park will help him burn off energy. [strengths and interests] We will bring his iPad with movies, games, and activities, but he will need to move, too. Bring your walking shoes and snow boots so you can join us at the park and on local nature hikes. [accommodation]
Danny has a medical diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, which means he cannot always control his impulses or his need to move (hyperactivity). [general education] He is not choosing to be disruptive, so I ask all of you to understand that he is doing his best and that judging him on behavior he can’t control will make him feel bad about himself. He loves you and wants to be loved. [general education]
Besides needing time every day to run and play, Danny is sensitive to certain smells and textures. I will make sure he has snacks and foods that he likes and that don’t have a lot of sugar. He may not eat what you serve. Although I won’t be a short–order cook for him, or expect anyone else to be, he may eat a lot of plain cheese sandwiches. Please don’t be offended if he won’t eat what you cook or has difficulty sitting at the table with everyone. I will expect him to sit for at least five minutes at family meals, but I will excuse him after that time. [accommodation]
If Danny gets too stimulated, I may take him in another room for a break, or we may go to the park. We also may not join the family in every activity. I know everyone wants to make it a happy time and that may mean we need to make other choices. [contingency]
Lastly, parenting Danny as a Solo Mom isn’t easy. I love him very much and can be protective of him. I would love to have some support on this trip, too. Maybe each of you can plan to have some one-on-one time with Danny so I can get a break. Going for walks, spending time at the park, sledding, building things, or just listening to him talk about his interests (e.g., zombies, dogs, construction, big equipment, and video games) will be a gift to everyone. [what you need]
I also want to say that I am open to your questions and concerns. Please ask if you want to know more about ADHD or Danny or our lives. Our family means the world to us, and we don’t always feel welcomed and included by other groups, so thank you for opening your heart and home to us.
Laying it all out hopefully changes the negative attitudes that some people may have toward you and your child. Communication helps temper judgments with some understanding. If it doesn’t, it might be better for everyone not to spend the holidays together. I used to visit my parents after Christmas so we didn’t have the added stress of expectations and changes in routine and food, along with the visit to someone else’s city and home. You can also consider staying in a hotel to minimize the family time and have a place you can control for breaks and rests.
No matter what you do, I hope that the holidays are merry and bright for everyone.
You can find more helpful articles about solo parenting a child with special needs in our Kids with Special Needs resource section.
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.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.