Saving Your Sanity: Tips for Mothers

By Maureen Bennie

Parenting in North America is an isolating experience. Most families do not have extended family living with them or near by to help with childcare. We live in communities where we barely know our next door neighbors let alone the people three doors down. A typical family has a father at work all day while the mother is either at home with the children or working outside of the home for part of the day. Single parent households are common too, usually lead by the mother. Take any of these scenarios and add looking after small children in isolation with one or more of the children having autism and you have a mother who is feeling overwhelmed, down – possibly depressed.

Receiving an autism diagnosis is just a small part of the journey a mother takes with her child. Grieving is a part of living with an autistic child and the grieving process occurs over and over again whenever there is a transition or change. I know this is true of myself. Even though my son’s diagnosis is over two years old and my daughter’s is a year old, I still have periods of sadness. My most recent bout has been over my son transitioning into a new school setting for the fall. Trying to find the right school program for him has been an agonizing challenge.

How is a mother to survive these constant trials in the world of autism? Over the past two years I have found certain things helpful in combating the blue days. Here are a few ideas to save your sanity.

· Create a strong support system. It is important to have friends or family members you can count on when the chips are down. Surround yourself with friends who are accepting of your situation and share your parenting values. I have a circle of friends who are single, married with typical kids, or have a child with autism. Each person gives me something inspirational. I arrange to spend time with friends both alone and with children for social interaction. Family members give the unconditional love and support.

· Use respite care. As mothers, we often feel guilty about leaving our children with someone else, especially if a child is difficult. Everyone needs a break and it is important to take time for you. You don’t need to plan something fancy every time you want to have time away from the children. I like to go to friend’s house, walk, read a book in a coffee shop, look at the new books in the library, go for a sail, or write in my journal. None of these activities cost big money. I used to worry how my children would cope with someone else and the truth is, they behave better when I’m not at home – typical kids! Take a look at my “Desperate for Respite” article to find ideas on how to find good childcare.

· Allot some time in the day that is just for you. For some moms this may be after the children are dropped off at school. For me it is 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. after the kids are in bed. I don’t do housework; just something I enjoy doing. This can be a leisurely bath without someone banging on the door, writing a letter, reading a novel, calling a friend, or watching TV. Do whatever makes you happy. Use your special time to nurture yourself and recharge your batteries.

· Exercise and eat right. Yes, we’ve all heard this a hundred times but being physically healthy is important in order to have the energy to face the day to day challenges of special needs child rearing. I’ve never been one for exercising but since starting to exercise regularly I’ve noticed positive changes in my mood and increased energy. I sleep better too. Try to find something you enjoy doing or something that the kids can do too. We love family bike rides. The kids ride in a burly cart and love looking at the sights. Yoga has been a personal lifesaver for me because it involves clearing your mind of troublesome thoughts. Whatever you enjoy doing, try to make time for some exercise at least three times a week.
Stay away from fast food/junk food eating. Try “investment” cooking where you
prepare large portions of food for freezing such as spaghetti sauce or soup. Try to eat a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Keep your pantry well stocked with the basics. There is nothing more stressful than having to make an emergency trip to the grocery store with the kids in tow.

· Look after your mental health. Too often we neglect how we’re feeling emotionally. If you are having trouble sleeping, notice an increase or decrease in appetite, feel overwhelmed, out of control, down, anxious, unmotivated, or find yourself sleeping too much you may be depressed. See your family doctor if your mood does not improve. Join a parent support group to talk with other families who are experiencing the same concerns you have raising a child with autism. Most large cities have an autism society or association that provide parental support.

· Try a new activity. They say variety is the spice of life so why not add something new to your roster? Join a book club, play a community sport, try a cooking class, sign up for painting lessons, see live theatre, train for a half-marathon – the possibilities are endless. I have a friend who plays in a badminton league at her local club. I discovered yoga seven months ago. It is the little things that keep us going.

· Pamper yourself. A beauty treat is great boost and makes you feel good. Try a facemask, deep condition your hair, take a bubble bath, paint your nails, or color your hair. I had my first manicure and pedicure two years ago while on a respite break and they are now a part of my monthly routine. A massage can take away stress and tension. A beauty treat can be a nice boost to your day.

· Take a “break” from autism. Mothers tend to want to do everything possible for their children. We read books about autism, attend lectures about autism, surf the Internet for information about autism, go to autism conferences, and talk with professionals and other parents about autism. While all of this can be good to do, doing it all of the time will drive you crazy. Take a break from autism to learn about something completely different. I make a point of reading Oprah’s magazine and book selection every month for a reading diversion. I subscribe to the Globe and Mail to keep up with national and world news. It’s amazing how many people on this earth struggle with problems.

Taking time out to care for you is not selfish but necessary for self-preservation. Dealing with the issues around autism is both emotional and draining. Looking after your health and well being is good for the entire family. It takes great amounts of energy to face the challenges of raising a child with autism. We all need a little bit of escape even if it is only for a few hours during the week. Forget about the guilt of being kind to you – in the end you will be a better person for having taken the time to develop your own interests and creating a few personal diversions.

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