Friday, July 19, 2013

The Having It All Project: Allison Andrews, PsyD

Another Twitter find, possibly through Having It All Project participant Carla, Allison is a mother, a writer and a psychologist who works to support the parents and families of quirky kids. You can see her website, read her latest blog post, or follow her on Twitter. Here's how Allison is having it all.
Briefly describe your life and what you think makes it unique.
I am not sure that my life is particularly unique. I am raising two amazing children and trying to juggling work, parenting, relationship stuff and all the chaos that entails. If I were to pick something it would be that I was raised in a family with a special needs sibling and I am raising my own quirky complicated kid, and professionally I work to support the parents of special needs and quirky kids. I think that professionally this does give me a particularly unique perspective on the challenges parents and families with special needs children face. I am in it too--up to my eyeballs--and I have been since I was a kid. Personally, as a parent it means that I have lots of thoughts and feelings about my family's experience when I was a kid, what went well and what did not go so well. I bring all of that into my role as a mom. I think a lot about how to make my own family a place where everyone gets what they need. Professionally when I talk to parents, I think a lot about how the whole family is doing, especially the parents and I think about what kinds of supports are needed so that everyone can thrive.

What are some of your favorite tips and strategies for coping with the chaos?
I am a big proponent of letting go and simplifying. I am not particularly good at letting go so I figure the universe is bringing me the challenges I need to grow as a person. In the past couple of years when things have been hard in our family life I have tried to put that philosophy into action. I have let go of a lot of outside non-work related commitments and I am learning to say no and not feel guilty. I try to keep things simple with my kids and create routines and clear expectations and let go of stuff that is less important.

I think that when things are really chaotic I try to slow things down and really focus on the present moment. This is a flavor of in the moment mindfulness that I find very helpful. I try to practice being where I am instead of ten steps or ten years ahead of myself. I think parents of children with special needs (including me) tend to spin out of control with their worries. Generally, as a group, we can make ourselves a little bit crazy. All parents do this, of course, but when your child is struggling, or not hitting developmental milestones that other children get to pretty easily, it can bring anxiety up to a whole different level.

As someone prone to worrying and anxiety, I find being mindful to be an incredibly powerful way to ground myself. Of course, it is easier to say than to actually do, especially when the present moment is a hard moment. But they are lots of wonderful moments too. I do not want to miss them because I am stressed out.

I think it helps to be married to a guy who knows it is in the interest of our entire family for me to get some amount of self care. He encourages me to go to the gym because I am just a much nicer person when I do that for myself a few times a week. Even though sometimes because of work schedules he cannot always be around, I know that he gets its and he gets me and I know I do not have to be alone with the stress and worry. That helps a lot when things are tough. Also I am really lucky to have a couple of friends who I can call up and complain to about some of the more absurd parts of life.

And when things are really hectic I am a big fan of cereal and pancakes for dinner. The kids are always on board with this and it is not a lot of work for me. Everyone is happy.
Please share a moment where it all broke down, and how you got through it.
I think every day brings its own little breakdown moments. Each day I try to pick and choose my battles. I try to stay consistent and I try not to let myself get overwhelmed.

I think the hardest time for us was when my daughter was in preschool and kindergarten. She was struggling on every level and we hadn't yet figured out what exactly was going on in terms of her sensory and learning issues. There were a lot of meltdowns and all my buttons were being pushed. At times, I was digging in my heels in ways that was making life harder for everyone. I was not letting go. I had ideas about what it meant to be a "good" parent. But I had to really let go of some of that in order to be the parent my 5 year old daughter needed right at that moment.

Food was a big issue for me and a place where I was stuck for a little while. It is a really good example for me of letting go of conflict in the moment but not letting go of a bigger vision or hope for the future. I really wanted to be really strict parent and insist that she at least try her veggies and only eat what we made for the whole family. But as I learned more and more about sensory issues and my daughter's needs I just let it be and backed off. We had a long period of time where she only ate off-white food or would have cheerios (that was always our back up food) when the rest of us had something else. But I also made it a priority to engage her with food in a different way. So we did things like plant a garden, and I kept offering a variety of foods but took away expectation that she try them. Slowly over time she has really expanded her palate to include fruits, veggies, fish, and a whole lot of other things that I would have never thought possible. Though she still has our off-white food days. She still eats a lot of cheerios.

Do you have any balance role models? Anything you try to avoid because it wouldn't work for you?
I admire so many of the moms and dads that I see around me. People are juggling so much. I am especially in awe of some of my friends who are raising quirky, high need children. It is a lot of work. While I think that all parents struggle and all children present a myriad number of challenges, there is a particular type of anxiety and stress that comes from parenting a child that is out of sync in some way. Parents of quirky kids get reminded all the time how their kid does not fit in. It can be an emotional and a logistical roller coaster. Also, since I have become a parent I also have a lot more empathy and understanding for my own parents. Particularly for my mom who I think bore the brunt of raising a very challenging child (my sister) in a time with far fewer supports.

I have also come to realize that even though I want to "have it all," I have to do that on my terms. I cannot "lean in" and have the power job, at least not right now in my life. But the solution for me isn't not working or not being in the game but trying to create a model of work that make sense for the reality of my life. I really admire people who are doing work they love but on their own terms.

Think back to your 18th birthday. How is your life different from how you expected it to be then?
I do not think I had a very good sense of who I was at age 18 or what I wanted in life. I think the 18 year old me would be surprised at how happy I am being married and being a parent. I was not, like many of my friends, someone who was absolutely positive that I would have this type of life and that I would have children, though now it is hard to imagine it any other way. This is the path I was meant to be on and I am grateful everyday that I get to be a mom to my two children, and I am so grateful that I can do work that I love in a way that allows me to be very involved with my children.
Relate to what Allison is saying? Leave her some love in the comments. Read other posts from The Having It All Project here. Want to participate? Send me an email at!

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