Yesterday I had a meeting with my first “client” in about 11, yes that's right, ELEVEN years. He’s not paying me much (who would after being out of work for that many years LOL), but I had a productive and satisfying discussion with him over coffee and bagels at a gorgeous rustic coffee shop in the Santa Ynez Valley (where they filmed the movie Sideways). On the surface I am helping my client Greg to write a business plan for a gourmet food market and deli. But really, I am helping him to sort out his next steps in life, providing him with a framework and sounding board for making decisions about his career, inheritance and family dynamics. It is thus rewarding work despite the low paycheck, and through it I am re-discovering my talents as a consultant, analytical thinker and communicator.
As I drove home alone from the meeting, a smile on my face, I took in the stunningly beautiful day. The air was crisp, the sky bright blue and the colors of the surrounding foothills, ranch and vineyard country were straight out of a Renoir painting. Then the change in my energy levels hit me. I was inspired, energized, pumped up, hopeful, optimistic, satisfied. I had clarity of thought, the likes of I have not had in a long time. I felt a real sense of accomplishment. I recalled that in recent months I had been feeling this way more and more and it felt really good. Contemplating why this was, I then realized that over the last 8 years, I had forgotten what it feels like to be “useful”, for lack of a better word. I have always believed that raising my children well is the most “useful” thing that I can do in life, but that does not mean I have always felt “useful” doing so. In fact, most times I feel like I am “useless” when parenting. The “useful” feeling that I had forgotten is the one that you get when you are contributing in some way to society, by using your brain and talents, the intellectually stimulating and productive kind of useful (and no, raising children is NOT intellectually stimulating no matter how you slice or dice it).
I am well aware now, although this was not always so, that the first few years of dealing with Finbar’s autism, coupled with raising his infant brother nearly sucked the living energy out of me. I was in survival mode for several years. The talents that I spoke of earlier were pushed aside after Finbar's birth and then they were ultimately buried 6 feet under with no hope of resurrection after he was diagnosed with autism and his brother came along. After that I put all my mental time, energy and talents into Finbar’s “recovery”.
In my darkest moments during the last 8 years though, I did contemplate going back to work. In many ways it would have been easier than staying home and raising my children amidst endless hours of therapy and worry. I always came to the conclusion however, that my place and priorities needed to be with my children and more to the point, helping Finbar get along in life. Now, I can’t imagine how things would have turned out if I had not been actively working with his teachers and support staff as I was, if I had not learned the behavioral techniques to get him to speak and respond, if I had not been there to hear him express himself when he felt like it and then take that information and do something with it to help him. We would have never been able to pick up and go to Colorado for therapies that had a remarkable impact on him. I just HAD to be there, so much so, that (hope I don't offend anyone here) I honestly don’t know how both parents of a child with autism, low or high functioning, can work full time and expect good results for their ASD child. Isn’t it hard enough to do so with typical children? I know that having a spouse at home is not a choice that many feel that they can make, but I always want to suggest to people that if they have a child with autism, to stop (working) and pay attention, at least for a while. This is the only shot you have. They are young and they need you.
That said, as my child improves, now at age 8, and I can begin to let go of my worries just a little and think about myself more, I can understand why work is preferable to many and entertain the thought of it myself. Just doing a small project such as Greg’s business plan has opened up many avenues for intellectual creativity and a sense of purpose that is different than what I can get from raising my children or even trying to find a cure for my son's autism. The thought of being able to be valuable and useful to someone other than my ASD son and his brother motivates me once more so I am literally digging deep to uncover my 6-feet-under talents again. I am taking courses, networking, applying for jobs, taking a leadership role in the PTA, and I keep working on my book because my writing class is urging me to publish it which energizes me too. A year ago, I was NOWHERE on these things. I wasn't even blogging anymore. If I managed to squeeze in a yoga class and a girls night out here and there back then, I was on fire. Now I need more.
The lesson here is that if you have a child with autism or any other special need, as your child improves, you improve. When they are doing well, you are doing well. You are one in the same. The most "useful" thing that you can do is to take the time to take care of your child first and make sure that they get to a good place, because you really are taking care of yourself in doing so. And in doing so your child WILL get to a better place and so will you. And you will become useful to others once again.