Special Needs Dads (Pater Specialibus Necessitates) are an interesting breed; I should know, I am one, and one of many ‘hats’ I wear is that of Founder of ‘The Dads’ Fire Circle’ (https://thedadsfirecircle.com), a place for Special Needs Dads to gather.
Now, Special Needs Dads come in all kinds; there are the Dads that are able to be involved in their child’s life full-time, Dads that work away from the home but put in time with their children when they are back, Dads who may only see or have access to their children every now and then, as well as Dads who, for all sorts of reasons, are no longer on the scene.
What I’ve noticed in many cases where Dads are involved with their special needs children a lot, is that these Dads will try to be the strong one. The one who keeps going. The one who holds it all together. Now that in no way underestimates the amazing Special Needs Mums out there, many of whom really are the strong ones holding it all together, especially if they are a lone parent, but some Special Needs Dads can have a mindset that is all about holding how they are feeling in, and keeping on going even when they are empty.
The thing is, though, that keeping on going when you are empty doesn’t really work long-term does it? Have you ever been driving a car when the red warning light comes on to tell you that you are low on fuel? I have a habit of just seeing that as a casual ‘first alert’ and carrying on, knowing there’s probably another 30-40 miles of petrol in the tank at least. My wife says that I drive on petrol, then on fumes, then on prayers. I have literally rolled onto a petrol station forecourt as my car has stopped… twice. I’ve got away with it… so far.
It’s a bit like Special Needs Dads who keep on going, ignore the warning signs, think they are fine, right up to the point where the engine stops. And for some, it’s not a convenient stop like I’ve had with my car, it can be a physical or mental breakdown that can be very serious indeed. Some never fully come back from it.
Maybe you are reading this and thinking… “Hmm, that could be me.” Or maybe you are reading this and thinking… “Hmm, that’s my partner.” Either way, I want to set the guys out there, the Special Needs Dads, a self-care challenge (hey, if being strong and holding it all together is your thing, you’ll probably love a challenge!) And like any good challenge, it comes in three parts!
Part 1 – Think
Start to think about self-care. Just letting the words “self-care” circulate in your mind for a while will be a good prompt to think about how much you invest in self-care at the moment. For once, be honest with yourself; on a scale of 1-5 where 1 is ‘Endlessly Exhausted’ and 5 is ‘Pampered Prince’, where are you? I’m speaking to a lot of 1’s and 2’s here, aren’t I?
Part 2 – Act
So, if you’re a 1 or a 2, what are you going to do about it? Just keep going until the engine stops? What good are you to your family then? You need to maintain your ‘engine’ if it’s going to keep running (OK, enough of the motoring metaphors, with the ‘challenges’ this risks turning into Top Gear!) What does it look like for you to be able to spend some time recharging? Is there a hobby you used to love but have let slip? Did you used to do some sport or exercise but have fallen out of shape? When was the last time you went out for a beer and a catch-up with a mate? The guys in ‘The Dads’ Fire Circle’ have been talking about this stuff recently, and sharing what they have been doing to get some self-care going.
Is it easy to get back into good habits? No, it takes commitment, it takes willpower, it takes teamwork with partners, family, friends, support networks, to free up a bit of time. If your response is to sigh and say “I can’t do this, I haven’t got the time/energy/strength, I don’t have the support” then you are almost on empty, you’re a 1 or 2 on the scale, and you might not have many chances left to sort this out. It’s time to act.
Part 3 – Share
When you’ve done some ‘thinking’ and done some ‘acting’, share about it. If you use social media, post about what you’ve been doing; if you speak to other families, tell them about the changes you’ve made. One of the myths out there is that Special Needs Dads don’t get to do self-care; we can bust that myth for others by sharing what we are doing.
For me, some favourite self-care time is using my hands, restoring things (don’t worry, I’m not going back to motoring metaphors again!). Over the past few weeks I’ve carved out some time to restore big things (including an old wooden front door), and small things (including my Grandad’s old wood brace/drill, see the photo with this article). I’ve constructed a mini wildlife pond that is now home to several frogs; I get endless joy from watching them hopping and swimming around in it, knowing that a few weeks ago it wasn’t there. I’ve shared all of this on social media and it’s been really encouraging to see the response, including from other Special Needs Dads who have been sharing what they have been up to as well! Some of what I’ve been up to, and what other Dads have been up to, has involved their children too; it doesn’t have to be entirely solo.
So, Special Needs Dads, are you up for my three-part challenge? I hope so, and if you do ‘think’ and ‘act’ then when you ‘share’ why not also share with The Dads Fire Circle too? Our website was earlier in this article, but you can find us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/thedadsfirecircle I would love to see what self-care you’ve been up to. Maybe I’ll get some tips back from you!
Take care (literally!)
Content and images © Mark Arnold
Article first published by Firefly on 28th September 2020
Three Things Special Needs Dads Need To Know