“…And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus…” Hebrew 12:1b-2a
I recently became a runner. At age 48 I decided, having never run farther than about a half-block, to sign up for a marathon. It started with an 8-week pre-training training, followed by actual marathon training. Coincidentally, we celebrated the 16th birthday of my son, who has a rare genetic disorder, on my first day of “real” training. I have learned so much about myself, both physically and mentally, through this training process. As I gradaute to longer run I realize that parenting a child with special needs is just like a marathon. More importantly, I now understand that just as I train and prepare to run, us special needs parents need to prepare for our marathon.
Here, my top 5 tips for success in the special-mom-marathon:
Get a group. I just happened signed up for the Marathon with a team. Team World Vision sent me the training schedule, added me to several Facebook Groups, organized weekly group runs, and supported me every step of the way. I made lots of new friends who were in the training with me, and also some new friends who would be running their 7th or 8th Marathon. I can truthfully say that without that high level of support and accountability there is no way I would have stuck through the bad days. An epidemic in the special needs parenting community is isolation. You can survive like that for a little while, but if you’re marathon-ing this thing, you just won’t make it without a solid support group. Groups encourage each other, offer assistance and support. A group can be two people, or twenty or two hundred. You need a group.
Fuel. Did you know that marathon runners carry fuel (food) with them on the race course? They acknowledge that their body is going to use all of it’s resources along the run and will need to re-fuel before they finish. They also have extremely specific meals they eat or avoid the night prior to a long run. Nutrition is probably the most underestimated key to marathon parenting. When typical kids are in that stage where mom has to chauffer them everywhere and keep a close eye, momma can to survive on fast-food drive thru and candy bars at the check-out line. That’s ok, eventually momma will get back to the gym and grilled chicken as her kids become self-sufficient. Marathoners need to be running strong after mile 20. My special guy is 16, and I still have days where drive-thru or NO food seem to be my only options. But I need my heart, lungs, muscles and bones to last alot longer than most and that means I have to be much more careful of how I fuel. Nutrition for you is as important as it is for your child. Physical and mental health must be well-fueled.
Rest. Marathon runners know that sleep is the key to their body’s performance the next day. They listen to their body, so the night before and after a 18 mile run you will most likely find them in bed at 9pm. Parents of newborns can make it through those weeks and months of no sleep because eventually their baby IS going to make it through the night. I know special needs parents who haven’t slept through the night in 12 years. Get some sleep. You must allow your body and mind to rest, in order to perform at the level your child needs. Do whatever it takes to get some sleep every so often.
It’s all in your mind. I think the one thing about running longer distances that took me by surprise was how mentally challenging it was. I assumed that the struggle would be physical. My legs get too sore to move, so I stop running before I cross the finish line. That never happened. What happens frequently on longer runs is that my mind says: “this is too far/hot/long/awful, let’s stop running now”. My legs can keep going, my heart and lungs are still pumping, but my mind is trying to shut it down. Without minimizing the severity of your situation, can I suggest to you that perhaps your biggest struggle is in your mind? Training my mind to not throw pity parties or be angry about my son’s condition took a while. But eventually I succeeded in shifting my perspective and realized (as sadly cliche as this is about to sound) “it could be so much worse”. If I shut down negative thoughts and welcome a new grace every morning to get through that day, I’ll make it. Don’t let your mind be your enemy.
Embrace the marathon. For the first few weeks of marathon training I woke up every Saturday morning thinking “oh my gosh I can’t possibly do X miles today”. And then every Saturday when the long run was complete and I was still alive, I felt the most overwhelming sensation of joy. Maybe a runner’s high? I just know that eventually my Saturday morning mentality shifted so that I woke up anticipating that joy at the end of the day’s big run. I began to embrace the fact that I was going to eventually get to 26 miles, rather than fear it. My first years as a special parents were no different. I woke up worried each morning, and approached each milestone missed, or specialist update with trepidation. But eventually I began to recognize the profound joy within the journey. I was able to see that I experienced depths of emotion, faith and love that most typical parents won’t ever know. I now embrace this role and cherish this special blessing that I’ve been gifted. I look forward to every step of the way as a new treasure that will surely unfold before me as I embrace this marathon.