When Parents Need a Vacation…without the guilt

Terry Matlen, ACSW Health Guide
  • Today I dropped off my twenty year old daughter, who has ADHD and a variety of challenging disabilities, to the camp bus stop here in southeast Michigan. She'll be away for 23 days and 3 ½ hours, which equate to 555 1/2 hours (but who's counting?).  This is her fifth year attending the special needs program that our wonderful, local camp developed for the dozen or so "special" campers that arrive each summer.  Five years ago, when Mackenzie made her maiden voyage, I was a total, emotional wreck, worrying how she'd fare and whether she'd even keep it together long enough to get through the bus ride, or whether I'd get a phone call within hours to come pick her up.

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    For three weeks, I was practically tethered to the phone, waiting for that call to come. It never did. It turned out that my daughter had the time of her life.


    The following year, I sent her again, still with a good dash of trepidation, worried that she'd have trouble getting through the session without having meltdowns bad enough to warrant her returning home. Nope, wrong again. And again and again.


    Then it dawned on me that perhaps...perhaps I could begin to enjoy those 555 ½ hours of peace and quiet in my home. But did I dare? What kept me from relaxing and bathing in the glory of <gasp> free time and more importantly, stress-free days and nights?


    Those of you with challenging children might know what I'm talking about. We get used to things being a certain way: the commotion, the crying and whining. The researching for answers to their problems. The guilt. The anger and frustration.  The messes in our house and car. The phone calls from teachers. The daily bedtime/washing up/grooming reminders and fights. We as parents begin to define ourselves by our children's disabilities, challenges, conditions, or whatever you choose to call raising a child with differences that needs extra attention and care.


    Once that ball of energy is gone- whether it's for a few hours, a few weeks or when that time comes - moving out- what do we end up focusing on? Ourselves? Our partners? What a novel idea!


    It became clear to me that I had been neglecting many facets of my life because of the tremendous amount of energy that has gone into parenting my special child. After kissing her goodbye and waving her off, I suddenly noticed, for example, what my husband was wearing and that he'd had a recent haircut. When I returned home, I saw the piles of "stuff" left behind by my daughter that I'd long given up trying to tame and no longer even noticed; it had simply become part of my daily landscape.


    But then I began to think about myself and what life would be like had things been different, had my child been a typical child rather than one with disabilities. Would I have traveled the world? Found a different career path? Had a third child? Certainly I would have been less stressed and wrung out.


    Now, faced with 555 ½ hours of (more or less) stress-free time, I have the luxury to come and go as I please. I can eat when I want to in a room that is blissfully quiet. I can travel a bit here and there, without having to find a companion to watch my daughter. I can go to the movies on the spur of the moment!  And I can stay up as late as I want, knowing I won't have to supervise her early in the mornings.


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    Parents with children who have special challenges are a special lot and are dear to my heart. We are typically misunderstood. Our vocabulary consists of words like stimulants, anti-depressants, behavioral consequences, rebound, moodiness, insomnia, "off-the-wall", oppositional, IEPs, time out, sensory overload, etc. Our days are filled with doctor and psychotherapy appointments; speech/language and occupational therapy sessions; tutoring, social skills classes and teacher meetings, endless phone calls to professionals, insurance companies, schools...and more. 


    For a while, I felt guilty having 555 ½ hours to myself. But now, I can wave goodbye to my daughter, turn and enjoy the next 3 ½ weeks of quiet and freedom.


    Can you find time away from your challenging child and take time out to recharge and reconnect with the things that are important to you...without feeling guilty?  

Published On: July 22, 2008