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3 Tips for Coping With COVID-19 as a Single Parent of a Child With a Disability

It was a Sunday afternoon in mid-March that I found myself parked in the driveway of my now ex-wife’s house. I had just dropped off my son after having him for the weekend as it was my time with him according to our parenting agreement. I no sooner put the car in reverse and began to pull away that I heard the declaration come out of the Illinois governor’s mouth on the radio during a COVID-19 briefing. All restaurants, cafes and bars were to be closed indefinitely at the end of the day on Monday, and this sent immediate concern racing through my body. Without hesitation, I pulled over and called my ex-wife, informing her of what I heard. You might not think that such a proclamation would generate a feeling of worry or fear, especially because grocery stores and pharmacies would still be open, and delivery service continued. But when you have a child with autism, mass closings of this nature are more than just a minor inconvenience, as my son very much enjoys his outings, especially being at home for two weeks now that schools were closed. When he is stuck at home for such an extended period, a break to go to one of his favorite restaurants for lunch or dinner is a nice way to provide some normalcy now that his routines have been upended. Now with nowhere else to go except for essentially, outside, which in our case is a lucky break since he loves being outside so much, an added layer of complication has just been introduced. Children like ours don’t just “do better” with routines and structure, they require it, thrive on it, and find peace and security with it, and so adding to the list of closed locations is not a welcome sight. On top of all of that, my son now transitions between two homes and we have just begun to introduce that as part of his routine, however now his transition will come with a strict reminder that we have to go straight to mom or dad’s house and no stops in between.

This is just a mild peek into the world of quarantine when you are not only the parent of a child with a disability, but more specifically, a single parent of a child with a disability. I want to be very clear, as the dynamic I have with my child and soon to be ex-wife is overall a healthy one. We are both in our child’s life and are very supportive of each other as parents. That is not the case for many of you, as there are plenty of single parents reading this for whom the other parent is not present in your child’s life, and your relationship may not be healthy. I want to express my sensitivity to those of you who find yourselves in situations even more challenging than mine right now. But in the same way we as parents of a child with a disability deal with a whole variety of issues that are not always specific to each other, we also need to realize that there are factors present in this time of quarantine that we will just understand better. It is with that sentiment that I want to share some ideas and perspective on this time as a new single parent of a child with autism and how I, and more importantly, we as a family still, are coping.

In late March I did a live webinar with the key ministry team on this very topic, and I presented some approaches to dealing with this time in a positive way. I defined the approaches as my three “C’s,” and they were communication, coordination, and  compassion. In the webinar, I went into specific detail about what each of these were and examples of how to apply them. This will essentially be a summary of what I discussed at the webinar. Again, some or all of these may appear different or not apply in the same way as to everyone, however I do believe that there is truth and value for all of us on some level.

1. Communication.

The most essential tool we have at our disposal is the ability to not only communicate, but to communicate well during this time. This includes not just your co-parent if they are present, but also your close family and friends, neighbors, church members, etc. Begin by thinking about who are those people who you really need to keep the lines open with, and who you can contact immediately in the event of an issue or emergency with your child. Of course, in a time of uncertainty like this, one doesn’t just need to keep good communication with others only in the case of an emergency, but also for more practical everyday reasons. Who can I ask if I need certain grocery items and I can’t get to the store because it is either too challenging to travel, or more importantly, you don’t want them exposed to anything? What is the best way to get a hold of people, as while cell phones are the automatic response to that, if for some reason service is down how else can I reach someone (e.g. landline phone?). Lastly, we want to consider when is the best time to reach out to someone, in other words, you may want to let those important folks in you and your child’s life know that you will be reaching out to them in the case of a particular event. In the situation I described above, I reached out to my ex-wife when I was aware that the closing of the businesses might affect my son negatively if he didn’t have anywhere to go to. This may look differently for you, as you may consider if your child has a meltdown due to the quarantine, who can you reach out to for help or support, even if it’s something as simple as your child hearing the voice of someone they know and trust that can calm them. If you legitimately have an emergency of a medical nature for example, then those people will also be essential to you getting help and support when it is most critical.

2. Coordination.

Going hand in hand with communication is coordination, as this is something that is necessary for any good support plan in a time like this, as we want to not only consider who we will be communicating with, but also how we will coordinate with them. You may have people you can reach out to, but how will you best use them and for what kinds of situations will you call on them for? A good example of this in my own life is the fact that while my son and his mom are both home because all schools are closed and my ex-wife is a teacher, my office is also equally closed and I am technically working from home for now. Since I am home anyway, and I did not feel it was ultimately fair for my ex-wife to have my son by herself the entire time, I suggested taking him one extra overnight and keeping him the whole next day at my new apartment. In this way, he is getting an extra break from being in the same environment for as long, and it makes certain that neither parent is getting too overwhelmed with caregiving duties. You may not have a co-parent in your child’s life, or one that is so agreeable, but could you possibly make a similar arrangement with the family or close friends you will be communicating with anyway? Is there anyone who is willing to provide a respite situation or allow for some time to visit another home, provided that there are no concerns over virus spreading? This can also be helpful even if you are maintaining strict quarantine guidelines, since you can also be coordinating virtual playdates or check-ins with family or friends, and this is something where online conferencing like Zoom can be very helpful.

3. Compassion.

This is most important when remembering who we are to our children, to the people in our child’s lives, and as representatives of our faith. As challenging as parts of my separation have been, I was reminded because of the current crisis that regardless of hard words said or ill feelings shared, my ex-wife is still the mother of my child and therefore, family. It was that remembrance that brought me to stop the car that day and call her up about the restaurant closings, or share the news with her, or ask if I can be helpful by taking my son an extra day. This level of compassion may be hard to think about when dealing with ex-spouses, and for some of you again, this may not even be a remote possibility for very legitimate reasons. But compassion, like forgiveness, is not something that necessarily requires personal interaction to engage in. It is, however, a state of mind that I think we will all benefit from in the days and weeks to come, as it may allow us a state of mind that will get us to think of the other person as well as ourselves, and maybe even put them first sometimes. If we can come out of this crisis having intentionally practiced compassion in our daily interactions, think about the quality of our relationships and our society when we come out on the other end.

This is a time like no other in our collective lives, and as challenging as your life may have been prior to this event, as a single parent, as a parent of a child with a disability, or as a single parent of a child with a disability, it has now increased tenfold. It may seem overwhelming most if not all of the time, however if we can remember to communicate with those important in our lives, coordinate with them in terms of what your needs are, and have compassion for those who may have hurt you in your life, then you will be well equipped to get through even this, not by the skin of your teeth, but with victorious grace. Be willing to allow others to reach out to you, and in the same way, whenever possible, reach out to others and ask about their needs, and then together we may overcome the challenges of today.

How are you coping with co-parenting during the COVID-19 crisis? Tell us in the comments.

Follow this author’s journey at facebook.com/johnsspecialneedsblog.

Photo credit: Dreamer Company/Getty Images