A mom from a support group I lead recently posed a concern to the group. (While permission was granted to use her story, all names and situations have been changed to maintain confidentiality.) She said, “I hate it when jealousy takes me over. How do I not feel jealous of my sister and her family as they travel to Paris and snorkel in Key West this summer, while we are sitting in what feels like a dark cave. I was dealing with it OK until I talked to her on the phone the other night. She wasn’t doing anything wrong; she was just telling me about how much her family enjoyed their trips. Ugh!”
This is a valid concern for many parents raising children with special needs, particularly autism. Many of us cannot travel easily, or at all, with our children, so summers can be emotionally difficult. Many who can travel need to do so with backup plans and quick-exit strategies. I don’t think our family has had an actual “vacation” together since we evacuated to the Georgia Mountains for Hurricane Frances in 2004. That evacuation was mandatory.
Anyway, here are four suggestions for sparring with the big green monster of jealousy.
- Stay off of Facebook for a while. Social media are a convenient way to connect with loved ones we don’t see every day, but for the autism mom, it can be an incubator of envy. People post about their kids’ latest accomplishment, upload pictures of the cake they just baked (that your kid can’t eat because he has 23 different food allergies), and brag about their kid’s little league team that will be traveling to Japan. And the vacation pictures … the beach, the mountains, Hawaii, Paris … all the places you’ll never go as a family. It’s enough to make you really frustrated and increasingly depressed. Pay attention to your reactions. The minute you feel yourself feeling jealous or frustrated, close that laptop. Stay away from it for a while. And remember: if they traveled with kids, some of your friends may not have had as good a time as they seem to suggest.
- Identify the beliefs that are keeping you stuck. Here’s the bottom line. We’re going to come in contact with “normal” every day. So we need coping skills. When you catch yourself feeling envious, separate the feeling from the person you are envious of. That support group mom was not frustrated with her sister; she was frustrated with her own situation. Her sister was just the vehicle for the beliefs that came up in her head. Try to identify the belief you’re holding onto that might be perpetuating the jealous or negative feeling. Some I’ve heard in my office (and personally experienced) include: (1) it’s not fair; (2) this wasn’t what I signed up for; (3) we’re not a REAL family if we can’t _____; and (4) everyone else’s families are having more fun than we are. Once you can identify the belief that’s keeping you stuck, you can examine it (how much do I really believe that?) and then you can change it (it feels like we’re not a real family if we can’t spend a week in the Hamptons, but taking vacations is not what makes us a family). Enlisting the help of a therapist may be needed to do this effectively.
- Get together with other “special” moms. Humans were not designed to exist in isolation. This is especially true for parents of children with complex needs. We need one another to lean on, complain to, and laugh with. The women in my support group report that they most appreciate knowing, when they share with the group, that they won’t be judged or misunderstood. They have others who “get it.” Having others who can relate takes the edge off, allows you to laugh about it, and reminds you that you’re not alone.
- Take time for self-care. When feelings start to become overwhelming, it’s a signal that you’re in need of a break. Not a trip-to-the-supermarket-without-the-kids break, but a true, several-hours-long-with-no-responsibilities break. I realize that’s often easier said than done, but sometimes we are our own worst enemy. Acknowledge that you are just as important as the people you take care of. If you have limited access to childcare and the only time you have is at night after the kids are in bed, leave the laundry and other chores until tomorrow and do what you want to do rather than what you have to do. Think outside the box. If you can get away for a night or two, even if it’s to a local hotel with a good book or to a movie you’ve been meaning to watch, do it! Build it into your budget. Being intentional about our self-care time is one of the antidotes to being jealous of others. Become more aware of what helps you recharge. If taking this time results in overwhelming feelings of guilt and discomfort, it may be time to seek a therapist who can help guide you through.
Above all else, remember that these feelings you’re having are valid and real. They need to be recognized as such. It’s not easy to raise children with special needs, and every so often we need to allow ourselves the time and space to grieve the life we thought we would have. These feelings don’t make you a “bad person.” If you can give yourself permission to feel these feelings and let them run their course, they will dissipate much faster than if you fight them.
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