Why Parents of Kids with Special Needs Can Make the Best Employees

One mother shares why employers should give parents like her a chance


I’ll never forget that early afternoon in October 2010. I was attending an important meeting with my company’s senior management. They had asked me to present my findings on student retention, and I was thrilled at the recognition of my hard work as well as the opportunity to share the best practices I used with our at-risk student population. I was also looking forward to the weekend, since I was scheduled to attend my first residency for my doctoral program. My four children would be with their father, so I wouldn’t have to worry about finding a babysitter who understood our family’s special needs. I had secretly decided that joint custody parenting was the best thing ever: When I had the kids, I could devote myself to them, and when I didn’t, I could indulge my inner workaholic with no guilt.

Then my phone started to buzz. I recognized the numbers: my 11-year-old son’s school and the county sheriff’s office. My son had been out of the psychiatric hospital for a little more than a week. I knew that all my plans were about to change.

“I’ve got to go,” I whispered to my boss.

“You can’t! What about your presentation?” he whispered fiercely back. I showed him my phone, the six missed calls.

“That’s the sheriff’s office,” I told him. “I think this is serious.” I passed him my thumb drive and asked him to make some excuses to the higher-ups. When the dust had settled a few weeks later, and my son was released from juvenile detention, I was suddenly a full-time solo parent to my older two children. No more worry-free weekends.

Work was my safe place, my solace, the space where I felt I had some control and measure of success in my life.

My son has bipolar disorder. On that October afternoon, we didn’t know that; we just knew that his behavioral episodes (a polite way of describing manic rages that left holes in walls and bruises on bodies) were escalating. You may have heard of Emily Kingsley’s lovely essay, Welcome to Holland, in which a mom describes the thought shifts that occurred when she gave birth to a child with special needs. Another mother of a young boy with autism, Susan Rzucidlo, wrote her own version of that essay. It was called, Welcome to Beirut.

That essay, with its kidnappings, bullets, and bombs at unexpected moments, summarizes what it’s like to parent a child with mental illness. Now imagine that you’re a single mother, the sole economic provider for your family. You have a demanding job, four children, and you have to get one of those children to court, therapy, the psychiatrist, probation officer, occupational therapy, on opposite sides of town, at times that are convenient to them and not to you. You can appreciate why, for several years, the only time I ever felt completely at ease was when my son was in juvenile detention or the hospital.

Many parents are unable to balance their child’s complex needs with the rigid standards of the traditional workplace environment. But for me, work was my safe place, my solace, the space where I felt I had some control and measure of success in my life. I needed to work, to provide for my family, of course, but also to provide meaning in my life. And I would argue that parenting a child who has serious mental illness has shaped me into the model employee, for the following reasons:

  • Nothing, and I mean nothing, fazes me. A mother of a child with a serious mental illness or developmental disability has seen it all — screaming, hitting, calls to police. The biggest workplace drama will never compare to the daily dramas I and other moms (and dads) like me endure at home.
  • I can coordinate complex projects with ease. You know those workplace aptitude tests that ask you to schedule employees or client visits based on a set of complex conditions? I ace those tests. As the mother of a child with mental illness, I’m a project manager for my child’s care, observing symptoms, coordinating specialist visits, medications, occupational therapists, and talk therapists. And I keep that information organized, accessible, and up-to-date, on an Excel spreadsheet, with pivot tables. OK, maybe I am exaggerating about the pivot tables.
  • I am generous, empathetic, and don’t take things personally. When people let me down at work, I am always inclined to take the high road. After all, I know how hard it is to manage my home life. I also know my son never means the horrible things he says when he’s having a behavioral episode. It helps me to keep my perspective with my colleagues.
  • I am focused on maximizing the “bang for buck” in everything I do. As a parent of a child with a mental illness, I watch every penny. Even with insurance, my child’s treatment is expensive, and I am always looking for ways to maximize my return on investment. I take that value mindset to the workplace.
  • I am loyal. My organization graciously gives me a flexible schedule and excellent health benefits. Because I feel valued, I don’t mind putting in 50 or 60 hour weeks when necessary.

I am grateful to my current employer for appreciating the value I bring to our organization and for recognizing that I sometimes need a flexible schedule to take care of my special needs child. I think more employers should take similar chances on moms of children who have mental illness or developmental disabilities.

Let’s be honest: Our society gives way too much credit to face time — workers who are in the office at 7 a.m. and don’t leave until after 8 p.m. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With technology, moms of children with mental illness can work literally from anywhere. I send emails from the psychiatrist’s waiting room, write articles while my son is at occupational therapy, and take phone calls (hands-free!) while driving him across town to his therapist.

I haven’t had to miss a meeting in a while. But I know that when I do, my boss has my back. I wish every working mom could have it so good. And I wish every organization could realize how much moms like me have to contribute.

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