At some time in their lives, most parents will question themselves, wondering if they are doing everything “right.” Am I mom enough? Was my child breast-fed long enough? Am I strict enough or too strict? Am I helping my child live up to his or her emotional and intellectual potential?
And most parents will, at some point, find themselves comparing their parenting styles with other parents’, whether in TV shows, at PTA meetings or just at the grocery store. It doesn’t help when the cover of Time Magazine features an “attachment” parent breast-feeding her 3½-year-old son, inciting a worldwide debate over whether that’s appropriate or not.
Comparing your own parenting style with others’ is natural, experts say. But don’t go overboard.
And don’t sweat the small stuff.
That message comes courtesy of Laura Rossi Totten, a New England author and publicity specialist, and several local moms agree. These moms have kids with special needs and say they’ve learned some valuable parenting lessons from their experiences.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is one point in Totten’s “Special Needs Mommy Manifesto,” a list of things she’s learned from being the parent of a child with special needs. She wrote the manifesto last month, indirectly in response to the controversy caused by Time Magazine’s May cover featuring a woman breast-feeding her large toddler.
‘Mommy War’ controversy
Totten has two children — one with special needs and one without. Totten’s children are 9-year-old twins, a boy with Tourette syndrome whom she refers to as J, and a “typical” daughter, M. “Typical” is a common word used by parents of special needs children to refer to kids without special needs.
At first, Totten didn’t want to respond to the controversy on her Huffington Post blog, “My So-Called Sensory Life.” She didn’t want to perpetuate the “Mommy War” she was seeing in the media. But she said she couldn’t ignore the question of where special needs parents fit in to the picture.
“We are always trying to teach our children acceptance, being open minded and not judging people,” she said in a phone interview. “But judging is exactly what we’re doing when we get into the mommy wars.”
She started to realize that parents of special needs kids had a lot of positive lessons they could share with the rest of us. Hence, her manifesto took form.
“I really learned quickly to not try to compete with other moms, comparing myself to other moms,” Totten said. “I just don’t have room for that stuff.”
Parenting choices are as diverse as we are, Totten said. She thinks some parents, especially young and inexperienced ones, are especially susceptible to the 24/7 news cycle through which a dire parenting warning surfaces almost daily. She said parents need to keep in mind that every child is different, has a unique personality and learning style and that what works well for one parent doesn’t mean it’s the only way.
“There really isn’t a right or wrong,” she said. “If the child is being harmed or there is something dangerous going on, then it’s time to speak up. But if the kids are happy, healthy, safe, loved, who are we to judge?”
Some local parents of special needs kids say they can identify with Totten. These parents have an unspoken affinity with each other that seems to run through the community of parents with kids with special needs.
They understand what the others are going through.
“I think that we have to uplift other parents and not tear each other down,” Lori Wathen said. She is the PTA president at Robin Hill Public School in Norman, where her son, Reis, is a second-grader.
Reis, 9, has Down syndrome and is thriving in his second-grade class with typical students.
“We take so much pride and so much joy in those smaller accomplishments because it takes our kids longer to get there,” she said.
Wathen rejoiced recently when Reis finally graduated from pullup diapers to big boy pants. Her peer parents told her it would happen, but Wathen had been worried.
A tight-knit community
Since the day Reis was unexpectedly born with Down syndrome, Wathen said she’s immersed herself in the local community of parents of children with disabilities.
She is the historian for Down Syndrome Association of Central Oklahoma (DASCO) and has worked for the last three years at Sooner Success, an organization that provides information and resources to families raising a child with a disability. She also coordinates “Sib Shops” in which siblings of children with special needs can meet other kids in similar situations.
“I feel like in this position I am able to give back to what was given to me when Reis was born,” she said.
When Reis was born, another mother immediately came to Wathen’s side to offer support and information. That mother was Lisa Hancock, of southwest Oklahoma City, who then was a neonatal nurse at Norman Regional Hospital. Hancock has two daughters in their 20s — Heather, 28, has Down syndrome and Jennifer, 25, is typical.
“Special needs parents want to help each other. We want to share information,” Hancock said.
The dynamic between typical parents versus special needs parents is “just different,” she said.
“I think sometimes parents of children without disabilities might withhold information because it might give someone else an edge.”
Parents of typical children tend to be more competitive with each other than special needs parents, Hancock said.
Of course, not all parents of typical children have this attitude, but it is more prevalent among parents of typical kids than parents of kids with disabilities, she said.
“We’re out there to help each other navigate through,” Wathen said. “We want to make life better for each other.”
“We want to have small moments of triumphs and gifts,” Totten said.
Finding the gift in every day, even if it was a tough day, was what got Totten started writing her blog.
“If it’s a tough day, we want to be able to find the good in it.”
Lessons for all
What can parents of typical kids learn from parents of special needs kids?
“I think as women and mothers, we need to come from a place of sisterhood,” Totten said.
Don’t take corners and fight over parenting styles, she advises.
Identify the things that are really important to you as a parent and let other parents do the same.
“We don’t sweat the small stuff,” Wathen adds. “We have bigger things to worry about rather than if we’re breast-feeding for too long or whatever.”
“There’s a lot of big stuff you need the energy to battle. Pick your battles. Some things aren’t even worth fighting for.”