What is one of the first things that people ask you when you meet? After they learn your name, they ask you what you do. What is your job? Do you work outside the home? I have never really liked these questions because they imply that if one is not working outside the home one is not really working. Hmmm. Ask anyone (mom or dad) who has a child (neurotypical or not) about raising a child and they will tell you that it involves plenty of work. This work is not 9-5 with a lunch break, or even a potty break. This backbreaking labor of love is 24/7 for at least 18 years. For those of us with kids on the spectrum it goes on for a lifetime.
In a former lifetime I was a middle school teacher and I loved it. Dealing with 6-8th graders on a daily basis is grueling work, but work I found to be very satisfying. By the time Mr. Boo came along I was firmly established in my career. I got pregnant with him while I was teaching 8th grade and in graduate school. I took a year of unpaid maternity leave to be with him and to finish my MA. It was probably one of the best years of my life. I did not realize that the shadow of autism was on the horizon and I was reveling in my studies. I graduated with high honors in July of 2003 just as Boo was learning to walk. I felt ready to return to the work force but not full time, so I took a part time substitute teaching job for a special education teacher who was going on maternity leave. I had not taught special ed before and I fell head over heels in love with it. One thing lead to another and the part time job became an almost full time job that lasted over 12 years. Along the way I picked up a certificate in Gifted and Talented and began teaching GT as well as special ed. In the middle of this I had a second child and Boo was diagnosed as being on the spectrum. It was a lot to juggle at once but I was young and full of energy and hope. Thirteen years later I look back at that time and wonder how Robert and I survived at all.
Fast forward 12 years. I decided that one master’s degree was not enough, I needed two. I wanted to get an MA in Special Education, so back to school I went. It was not a good decision. I was working, I was sailing through my classes with a 4.0, I was trying to be the best mom I could be, and I was utterly fried. I stopped working for a time to come to terms with the anorexia which has dogged me since 1990 and went into full time intensive treatment. I continued to pursue my degree with grim determination. Boo was now a teen, bigger, stronger, and with more complex problems. I was about to begin student teaching in a local high school. One early morning in January of 2016 I was driving to treatment. Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue I had a moment of clarity: I could not carry all of this. There was no way that I could both teach special ed full time and be the mother to my children that they needed me to be. I know some amazing women out there who are both special education teachers and mothers to sons on the spectrum. They are my heroes. I had dreamed of doing that same thing for the last 11 years. In a stunning moment of clarity I realized that this was not to be. This brought both heartbreak and relief. I cried for the better part of two weeks. All the studying and working in the world was not going to make the autism go away.
As I said, I cried for two weeks. Then, I began to pull the pieces of my life together. I dropped out of school, the first time in my life I had ever voluntarily dropped out of anything. I focused on my eating disorder treatment and I focused on my family. My relationship with Mouse began to blossom and Boo, feeling the tension leave our family, began to relax as well. May 17, 2016 I completed intensive treatment for anorexia. I continued therapy on an outpatient basis and focused on my family. As spring stretched into summer I began to wonder what I could do as a part time job. I had no desire to return to the classroom. That part of my life was over. I needed a relatively flexible schedule that would let me meet the needs of my now teenage children. I decided to become a nanny. I have always adored babies and little people and this seemed a good way to spend a few days a week. I thought I would only do it for one year, just to put a toe back in the working world and see how things went. As it turned out, things went very well. The schedule was flexible enough for me to meet Mr. Boo’s needs. It was easy to get away from work for IEP meetings, therapies, etc. It was a better fit than I had anticipated and so the year passed.
I took last summer off to spend with Boo and Mouse and we had a wonderful time. Last week I began a new nanny job for a infant and a toddler. The work is both joyous and exhausting. There are many things I love about being a nanny, but one of them is that at the end of the day I am done. There are no lessons to plan, there are no papers to grade. My time is my own until the next morning. I am not too tired to pour my energies into my own offspring.
When I look at the path of my career I never once intended to be a nanny. To get through school I have been a waitress and worked retail. I have worked in various social service positions helping the homeless. I have been a teacher since 1997. I have more graduate hours, degrees, and certifications than I can shake a stick at. All of this seems overkill for the job that I now hold, but I don’t really care because for the first time in my life I am learning balance. My children and my spouse are happy. I am happy. The babies that I tend are happy. My employers tell me that I am doing a good job. Last year I read an article about working women. Roughly, it said that most women only make .70 or .80 cents for every dollar that men earn, even if they are equally qualified. For working mothers who have special needs children, the data is even more grim. These women make about .53 cents for every dollar that men make. It is not that we are not qualified or hard working, it is not that we do not want to be included in the work force, but we have a more than full time job at home as well, and this job demands that we have flexibility in other areas of our lives.
In our society there seems a tendency to pit “working mothers” against “non working mothers”. Is this really necessary? All mothers are working mothers. Some of us work inside the home. Some of us teach. Some of us go to the office every day. Some of us are nannies. There are no medals given out for who works the hardest. The reward that you get is when you see that your family is happy and thriving. I would like to find a way to stop the mommy shaming. It is so easy to point fingers at those that work outside the home versus those that work in the home. Breast or bottle, cloth diapers or disposable, all of these areas are rife with contention. Why don’t we just admit that we are all in this endeavor together and lend a helping hand instead of pointing a shaming finger? To quote a bumper sticker I saw recently, “We all do better when we all do better.” Whether we have a child on the spectrum or not, all mothers are working mothers.