As I shared last week, bluegrass redhead's recent series on the science of parenting got me thinking about who I am as a mother and to what extent parenting advice applies to my situation in raising a son with a rare disease and multiple disabilities.
Sarah's series kicked off by asking How much time should I spend with my kids? - a loaded question for any parent - and cited recent studies to make two important points:
1. Mothers currently spend more time with their children than at any other time in history. And yet we still feel guilty for not dedicating more time to our kids.
2. Studies show no positive effects from spending a greater quantity of time with children. Rather, quality of time seems to be the determining factor.
The point here is to remind us that mommy guilt is often unfounded. Our kids do not need our perpetual presence and get equal (if different) benefit from alone time and time with others. As Sarah points out, "Just because I feel like I'm not doing enough for my kids doesn't mean I'm actually failing my children."
But what about MY kid? The one who can't move from one place to another on his own? Who can't yell for me when he needs something? Who can't play independently or with other kids in the typical way? How can I apply this knowledge to my own situation?
First, we should note that the more-time-does-not-equal-greater-benefit finding only held true for ages three through eleven. Why not before and after? I think Sarah wisely links this increased need for maternal attention to the intense emotional and physical needs particular to those times.
Do you see where I'm going with this? On one hand, this is a truth that is not true for me. Collin will likely always need more help with his physical needs and more attention for his mental and emotional needs. And, not to toot my own horn, but I'm the expert in all of those things. Which means lots of together time for me and Collin.
But on the other hand, this truth is still true for me. Because I'm not the only one who can meet Collin's needs. And I shouldn't be the only one.
From a purely practical standpoint, it is crucial for multiple people to be adept in caring for Collin precisely because he requires more and specialized help. And that's not going to happen if I never give anyone else a chance to do it.
From a mental, emotional, and social standpoint, it is necessary for me and Collin to spend time apart. Other people see things in him I miss. They try things I wouldn't try. When he gets 'alone time' - which, in our case, means time undirected by me - he gets a chance to explore his environment and physicality and thoughts however he chooses. And in spending time and energy cultivating my own skills, interests, and relationships, I grow into a better version of myself. By spending less time with him, I become more for him.
When my husband first started making me leave the house for vacation days, I would literally stand on the stoop with tears in my eyes until he shut the door. Left to my own devices, I would never leave Collin's side. I know where that comes from - fierceness of loyalty, of protectiveness - but that doesn't mean it's the best or healthiest choice. As I have listened to the friends and family who encouraged (and forced) me to strike out on my own and give Collin some space, my relationship with my son hasn't suffered in the least. It has thrived.
My educated guess is that this study from the Journal of Marriage and Family was made up of typically developing children. In a way, I wish that distinction was clearly outlined, because it just isn't the same for those of us with medically and developmentally complicated children. But I also recall Shauna Niequist's words, remembering that "[Parenting} all comes down to close observation, willingness to take advice, ability to try something new when all the old things have stopped working." And with that in mind, I'm able to see the wisdom revealed in this bit of research: that whatever the challenges and however it might look in a given situation, it is both possible and important to make time for independence.
Next time: if quality of time is more important than quantity, what does that look like in a daily life that is infused with the challenge and complexity of rare disease or disability? Hint: it doesn't involve therapy.