I'm excited to share a modified excerpt from my new book (for digital release in February 2018) for autism moms, maximizing professional productivity while doing special forces parenting. To get an advance reader copy and other resources, click here.
3 year old resolutions...
It's 2018 and I've just about lost my motivation to work on those resolutions. To be honest, they are a little boring because they were the same ones from last year. And things are even worse than they were then! I'm less fit, less disciplined and there's more on my plate now than last year this time. Plus, last year I only had 2 teenagers. Now I have 3! If I couldn't do it last year, can I do it this year??
These thoughts can cause all my energy to leak away, and I'm tempted to binge watch some Netflix instead of doing the 10 minutes of daily exercise that I promised myself (and all of Facebook land), that I would do! Fortunately, I'm beginning to remember that this whole line of reasoning is messed up and guaranteed to take me to a dark place. As an autism mom, my energy tank is often on E, and it has little to do with my character or intellectual prowess. I live on high alert 24/7, and am really skilled at handling chaos and crisis at the drop of a hat. That gives me some pretty awesome super-hero level skills, and it also makes me more vulnerable to burnout. Autism chose me, and I responded to its call. So I have to be wise about living well and embracing powerful contentment. For me, this is about managing my energy and motivation.
Psychologists say that motivation is the energy to act. When you think, “I am exhausted”, is it the same as saying “I have no energy to act”? If so, what causes that? I know you are rolling your eyes, since the answer appears obvious. All your energies are being used dealing with autism. But is that really what causes your exhaustion?
So how do we create energy? Well, according to middle school science, energy can’t really be created, but it’s transferred from one form to another. When we are healthy, we can create all the energy we need. When we don’t create the energy we need to act, we can become quite unhealthy. The perfect example of this cycle is in our physical bodies. We need air, sleep and food (to name a few) and when we meet these needs, our systems that use air, sleep and food to create energy work well. If we don’t get these needs met, our energy can drop so low that, even if we get the air, sleep and food, we can’t use them well. In the physical body, we have to monitor ourselves so that we keep the cycle of meeting our needs to get energy going. Once the cycle breaks down, we will need an intervention to get it moving smoothly again.
We don’t only have physical needs, though. We have psychological needs. And when these needs aren’t met, it’s hard to maintain our energy to act. The self-determination theory argues that humans have three basic psychological needs:
- To have connection and care in relationships
- To feel effective and competent as they navigate the world around them
- To choose, and be whole heartedly behind their various actions
Before talking about these needs a bit more, I should mention this: I often feel guilty about not feeling motivated, about feeling so tired. After all, isn't God my Source? Shouldn't the spiritual disciplines be energizing? Well, that question is for another blog post, but I take courage from the story of Elijah, depressed and on the run. When God encountered him, He gave Elijah food and settled him to sleep (1 Kings 17). After a few rounds of food and sleep, God reasoned with him, and helped him adjust his thinking. When I'm battling overwhelm and I turn to my Father, exhausted, He's been saying, Take a day for yourself. Pay attention to re-energizing Faith. So, about these needs...
The Need to Connect and Care for others
As a mommy, one would think this need is always adequately met, with the amount of caring that we do! Not so! This need isn’t only about caring for children, but about the relationships we build with family, friends, colleagues and others, and the ways those relationships give us opportunities to connect and give and receive care. It’s a two-way street. We need to both give, and receive care for this need to be met. All our relationships have different nuances and characteristics but they all serve to meet our connect and care need. What happens to many autism moms and moms of children with special needs is that group of people we relate to reciprocally begins to shrink. It did for me. I became deeply focused on caring for my son and people didn't understand our life.
Some of the normal activities that maintain friendship connections occur while hanging out with people, after church and events. But I wasn't able to hang out as I used to. It takes planning, energy and just more effort to plan to have child care and support so that I can have dinner with the girls. The sleep deprived mommy who is struggling to problem solve the daily emergencies, and handle the resulting effect on work and everything else, may just not have time for anything extra.
Many organic relationships grow from lunch time and after-work associations, slices of time that many special needs moms use to problem solve and meet with a therapist by phone. Then, if you are somewhat introverted like I am, deep, meaningful, one to one connections are the most meaningful types of relationships. These deep dive conversations don’t usually happen in 2 minutes in the elevator. I definitely lose my desire to connect with people if I fear the gathering will be full of surface "party talk," especially when my deep dive relational tank is heading to empty. So, our relationship circles shrink and we can find ourselves undernourished in this area.
The need to direct your own actions
The need to direct your own actions and be fully behind those actions is a really important and tricky psychological need. When you have a child with medical and other developmental needs, it's hard to feel like you're in control of your actions. For much of Jaedon’s early childhood, I lived in response to what doctors, teachers and therapists said. The ability to control the quality of care, education and therapeutic support for our child seems as illusive as the unicorn. In response to what I faced, I became therapist/teacher/mommy at the drop of a hat. This constant rapid-fire response to demand sometimes felt completely out of my control.
Night after night of 3 to 4 hours of sleep, especially when that sleep was interrupted often, helped create my feeling of being completely out of control. For my sanity, I had to take some control back! So, I would stay awake or work until I was sure I could have a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep. I also took control of my time by watching endless hours of Netflix after J had gone to sleep. I just wanted pockets of time that I owned completely, to do exactly what I wanted to do, even if it was watching TV and browsing Facebook. I also started crocheting and knitting because yarn obeys me! (yes, a little bit of a control issue, I think...)
Directing your own actions, no matter how small, meets a basic psychological need that you have. Finding small ways to do this will increase your motivation to act in more significant ways. You may need to start small, to rebuild your energy reserves, so that you can tackle some of the other areas in your life and work that feel outside of your control.
The Need to Navigate Your World Effectively
This need is about knowing that you can do a good job and feel effective doing it in your environment. But, when your environment is changing all the time, it’s hard to feel competent. Perhaps this is why so many parents of special needs kids live with an overactive stress response and may even show symptoms of post traumatic stress. This feeling of incompetence can overshadow management of the various developmental challenges, advocating and negotiating for services for your child while navigating simple household tasks like paying bills on time. Add the struggle to feel competent in a professional space and successful in relationships and the disorienting feeling of the bottom falling out is a daily occurrence. Yet, having experiences that help you show your competence and expertise can help build our needed sense of significance and accomplishment that’s separate from the daily outcomes of our children.
More Energy to Act
When you are meeting these needs in healthy ways, you will probably spend more time doing activities that you are interested in, that you enjoy action or that reflect your deeply held values and beliefs. If this is true, then you will also be more creative, solve problems more effectively, be more contented and emotionally balanced. Our psychological needs, like our physical needs, are God given. Honoring our bodies as His temple means caring for the needs of the temple, including your psychological needs. So it's not selfish to create more joy with friends during an ongoing season of night wakings and tantrums. Neither is it selfish to eat when you are hungry.
Meeting your needs in healthy, God honoring ways sends a message to everyone looking, especially your children, especially your special needs child. The message is that even though it may be hard, and the deck is stacked against meeting these needs, you will push through to be healthy, so that you can offer your best personal, parenting and professional gifts to those you are here to serve. And as a start, you might be better able to tackle those new years resolutions, no matter how many days have passed since the last time you thought about them!