Leaving the safe harbor

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

It’s time for an adventure. Maybe not an Everest climb or paddle down the Amazon, but for someone like me whose idea of a great Friday night is Indian takeout and a Midsomer Murder on the DVR, it’s kind of a big deal.

In a few weeks, my husband, the kids and I will be moving to Europe. Sweden to be precise. My husband was born and raised there. It’s where we met, a long, long time ago. It’s where we got married and started our life together. After 18 years of living in the US, we’ve decided it’s time for Sweden again.

I’ve made this trans-Atlantic move twice before. Before kids. Before a career. Before owning a home. Before turning 40. Before turning 30 even. It was an adventure those times, too. But this one seems so much more adventure-y, in that terrifying-and-ludicrous way adventures do.

There’s so much more to lose and miss. That’s a good sign; it means that I have much to be grateful for: a wide, rich network of extended family, a few deeply rooted friendships, a blessings of rewarding work and sheltering home, and schools in which my children grow and thrive.

“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.” -Lewis Carroll

It’s no surprise, given how much I am leaving behind, that people are curious about why we’re going. Frankly, I spent a lot of time being ambivalent about it myself, and that confusion likely telegraphs itself from my heart to the outside world.

I wasn’t even going to try to explain, assuming no one would understand since I didn’t. (And honestly, how do you tell your family that you’re moving to be closer to family? Try it.) But a family member encouraged me to make the effort. So here goes.

No single explanation will really suffice. Instead, there are many. We are leaving family and friends here, yes, to be close to family and friends who we have missed for a long time. There’s the opportunity for the kids to have a day-to-day life spent with cousins and aunts and uncles—and for me to see four of the world’s most perfect sisters- and brothers-in-law more than once a year. My heart smiles when I think of that.

Less certain but also appealing is the possibility that if we play our cards right, we have a chance for a somewhat less crazybusy life. Sweden’s work policies tend to be a bit more compatible with raising a family, and I do look forward to that. I say “less certain” because I’ve long suspected that crazybusy is my default setting. Here’s hoping for a re-boot!

The explanation I’m less comfortable giving to my friends who don’t have kids with special needs (but which my special needs friends seem to get before I get the whole sentence out of my mouth): I’m thinking about the future. It’s hard to explain. Whether it was a brilliant move or a foolish one…I’ll let you know in 20 or 30 years.

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” -John A. Shedd

A woman at a special needs conference two weeks ago overheard me telling a friend that we were moving to Europe. “OMG, you have a special needs kid and you’re moving to a different country?!?” The challenges of figuring out the ins-and-outs of new education, health care, and disability systems, finding new schools, new jobs, new doctors, new insurance, establishing all those new relationships with the school bus dispatcher and the pharmacy assistant, not to mention selling a home and packing—it’s exhausting and overwhelming to think about.

But I am grateful in knowing that I’m ready to try. Two years ago, it would have been out of the question. Today, I’m game for anything. I always dreamed I’d have adventures. Why shouldn’t we now? The wonderful thing about learning new skills like advocacy, collaboration and creative problem solving is that they are global. I’m bringing them with me. Thank you to all my wonderful teachers.

“Travel is not really about leaving our homes, but leaving our habits.” -Pico Iyer

We leave in one month. We’ve decided to take a boat. It’s the Queen Mary 2, and apparently you’re not allowed to call it a cruise, or some butler will come out and dump you in the ocean. It will be a wonderful chance to decompress between a busy period of leaving and a busy period of arriving. Or it will be a disaster, a family of four including one little boy who can’t sit still or drink tea without spilling among 1,700 very English English people. May God protect their shuffle board games. Either way, it’s a mode of transportation in keeping with our keen sense of adventure and desire for the romantic gesture.

In the mean time, there’s the leaving. The packing and the decluttering is so luscious that it deserves its own post. The tossing of the years of stuff. The unsubscribing from catalogs and email newsletters. The decluttering of the beliefs about who I am, what I am capable of, and what life will be life.

“Definition of ‘adventure’: extreme circumstances recalled in tranquility.” -Jules the Kiwi

More news to come on these extreme circumstances, or this adventure, for sure. Until then, it’s time to go pack a few more boxes.

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Bushwacking: Four stages of becoming a family leader

Tomorrow morning I’m going to lead a round table discussion for special needs parents on using advocacy skills for systems change, also known as family leadership. If you’ve known me for a while, you realize how ironic this is. A handful of years ago, I was anything but a leader. I was so reluctant to take on the role of special needs mom that I wasn’t even a follower. But now here I am. How did this happen?

Blazing a new trail

The first few years of parenting my child with complex special needs was like stumbling along an unmarked trail in the woods. I went in circles, covered in scratches, stumbling into poison ivy.

Then after a while I crossed paths with some more experienced hikers and started figuring stuff out—which mushrooms are edible, how to navigate using moss growing on the north side of trees. I had to let others know these gems! And so I stopped, turned toward the direction I just came from, reach out a hand to help those behind me could catch up.

Until finally, I knew the woods well enough to see that the trail was never going to take my family where we wanted to go. Even if it was marked, even if it was cleared. So I started blazing a new one.

A path toward leadership

While most people think that leaders are born to lead, that’s not always true. More often, they’re grown. This growth pattern is an expansion: an addition of skills, experience and expertise that allows us to help ourselves and eventually help others. Fellow special needs parent Eileen Forlenza calls it a progression to leadership. I’m not so sure it always moves forward; a new situation arises—a new symptom, a transition—and we feel like beginners again. But even so, if we step back far enough and squint, this pattern of growth toward leadership can be discerned.

Stage 1: Becoming ready to advocate

In all of the stages of family leadership that I’ve read about I’ve never seen this one included, yet it’s the most important. For many people, including me, it can be difficult to get in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t mean that we are neglecting our children; when I was in this phase, I was probably at my busiest and most stressed. I just couldn’t allow myself to get immersed enough to get to the heart of what my child really needed. It took several years of learning stress management and coping skills to have the courage to move into advocacy meaningfully. (At the same time, I often find myself back here as if I’m learning this for the first time.) Some activities of this stage:

  • Becoming accustomed to unexpected demands
  • Letting go of our expectations
  • Working through issues that prevent acceptance
  • Some useful skills: self-care, stress management, self-reflection
  • Taking care of other acute situations, i.e. financial, legal, emotional

Stage 2: Advocating for your family

In this phase, we learn to advocate for our own families. Some things we focus on:

  • Understanding the diagnosis, the symptoms and the treatments
  • Knowing our rights
  • Learning about resources & info via listservs, magazines, e-newsletters, trainings
  • Navigating the system and coordinating all aspects of care
  • Some useful skills: research, listening, organize information, cooperation, understand medical, educational and legal concepts

Stage 3: Advocating for our community

At a certain point, we learn enough about how to get our own child’s needs met but become sad or angry thinking about how many other families are still struggling. In an effort to pay it forward, we often engage in activities that aim at making it easier for others to make progress. And so we spend time:

  • Giving feedback: participating in surveys, focus groups, advisory councils, calls and emails
  • Sharing resources & information with other families via listservs, magazines, e-newsletters, trainings
  • Helping others navigate the system
  • Some useful skills: writing and public speaking, telling your story, supporting and coaching others

Stage 4: Advocating for system change

With more knowledge and experience comes the realization that the existing medical, educational, legal and society systems are simply not adequate to meet the needs of all people (especially our special kids), and yet they should be. At this point, we want to not only help other families make progress, but change the nature of the system itself. We start focusing on:

  • Lobbying politicians and representatives for change
  • Participating in the design, implementation and evaluation of system change
  • Mentoring others for leadership: A great leader doesn’t create followers; they create other leaders
  • Making the system easier to navigate
  • Some useful skills: lobbying, understanding systems, developing programs, mentorship, collaboration

Becoming a leader can feel intimidating. It requires new skills and courage at every step. It can be helpful to notice that leaders aren’t “born with it,” but are called to it. We can learn these skills. If we’re lucky, we have support and friendships for companionship along the way.

Some parting questions: Where are you on your path toward leadership? Notice how you can be at many places at once. When do you feel most like a leader? What made you ready to advocate? Who are the mentors who encourage you to lead? What skills do you want to learn so that you can be more comfortable leading? How can we support each other?

Never doubt that a thoughtful, concerned group of citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
Margaret Mead