There’s no shortage of advice for how to give things up for Lent, how to read extra books for Lent, and how to eat simpler foods for Lent. But parents of children with special needs can’t use much of that advice. Instead, we have to resist these opportunities to overcommit by seeing them for what they are to us: opportunities to overextend our resources.
This Lent, resist the temptation to overfunction.
You’re a person who probably spends most of his or her time caring for your children or fretting over how to meet their needs. For you, overdoing it a bit is normal and often necessary.
Don’t add anything to your to-do list unless it feeds you.
How can you tell what will feed you? Look for what will lower your stress and build up your most important relationships.
Some examples of how to evaluate and address common Lenten pressure points:
- Caffeine. Giving up coffee might not be good for you. It might wreck the fragile balance you’ve brought to your days. Having coffee or tea with a friend or spouse once a week, though, might lower your stress and build up important relationships.
- Fasting. Changing your family’s food routine in a dramatic way might be a recipe for disaster. Consult your priest as needed, and consider ways you can be kinder –starting with kindess to yourself and people in your household. If the goal of fasting is to learn about the unending love of God, look for ways to apply the love even if your family’s needs make ordinary food changes impossible or inadvisable.
- Almsgiving. It might help to ignore requests from organizations during Lent. Almsgiving is meant to be between two persons, so ignore organizations without guilt this season. Instead, focus on small, real ways you can help someone like you. Can you afford another weighted blanket like the one that helps your child sleep? Donate one to a foster home or domestic violence shelter. Do you know another parent in a special needs family? Send them a card in the mail. Focus on the personal aspect of almsgiving, whether you are able to give money or resources to relieve another person’s suffering or take a few precious minutes to let another parent know you’re thinking of them.
- Social media. Maybe the people who announce that they’re leaving social media for Lent have already vacated your timelines. If not, make sure you have an email address or other contact option for the ones you’d like to keep in touch with. Social media is one of the best technologies for breaking the social isolation that comes with special needs parenting. If you want to limit screen time or be kinder or mindful or read only notifications, go ahead. But be realistic about your unusual schedule and heavily demanding family life. Will you be able to talk to friends without social media? If not, you will probably want to keep your accounts up.
- Attending More Church Services. It might seem scandalous at first, but I’m going to suggest that you try to go to a few of the extra evening services without your children. See if a trusted friend or your spouse can stay home with the kids for a few nights during Lent so you can go and soak up the beautiful prayers without dividing your attention as much as usual. Trade childcare duties with another special needs parent or your spouse so that each parent gets to go to a service or three without the children. This doesn’t mean you should neglect taking the kids to church in general. It means that all those extra services in Lent are an opportunity to feed the parents.
- Going to Church in Lent With The Kids. The Sunday service will probably be longer by at least a few minutes. Prepare for the longer service by reading the Gospel at home before you go to church in case you have to walk the kids around more. Consider making a quiet activity to give the children during the extra prayer times. (My Church Bag Tour has some ideas.)
- Reading More Books. Reading a book with friends sounds lovely, but when it’s a daily habit or on a tight group schedule, special needs parents frequently fall behind and drop out. If you want to add reading, try finding times when you can read aloud from a beautiful book. Parents can feed each other by reading aloud in this way. Audiobooks might help, as well. If you join a reading group, tell the group leader ahead of time that you will probably not be able to keep up. That way you don’t feel guilty when your kids need you more one week and you don’t get to the assigned reading. Discussion time when you only listen can help you when you get a chance to read the book later.
- Silence. If you cannot maintain silence in your home because of your children’s needs, find a few minutes when you can be quiet on purpose. It’s hard when you feel the weight of responsibility to help kids with complicated communication needs to talk, but intentional quiet for 5 or 20 minutes at a time won’t set your child back. If you decide to be quiet in the middle of the day, you might use a visual timer (like this one that I love–affiliate link) to let the kids know when you’ll be back to speaking.
- Prayer Routines. Some people will encourage you to add a simple 45 minute prayer routine to your day in Lent. Those people aren’t familiar with special needs life, so it’s best just to thank them and move along. Prayer is a great practice. But you need to be fed, not to fall asleep reading prayerful poetry. I recommend praying in a way that your kids can see, too. Even if you’re not used to doing so, go to your holy icons or wall cross and say out loud that you need help. Just ask for help. Let the kids hear you and see you do it. Say “thank you for helping us,” and walk away to go about your business. Add that routine of walking over and praying in that place, and you will give yourself a gift. You will start to let go of your burdens when you ask God for help, because you will have a physical routine along the lines of dropping your prayers into a spiritual key hook or dresser, the same way you put your keys and wallet in the same place when you get home each night.
- Prayer Lists. Another way to pray that doesn’t ask you to overfunction is to go to that prayer corner and tell God you’re there, no matter how you feel. Offer whatever you have –exhaustion, frustration, anger, inadequacy, brokenness, sadness, regret, repentance, joy, mixed feelings, ambitions, jealousy, crankiness, laughter, gratitude, grief, fear — all of it, no matter what you’re feeling, to God as if God is listening. That will help you know that God is listening, and that will help you listen for God, too. If someone asks you to pray for them, offer yourself to God like this first. Then tell God about the person’s needs. Ask God to help. Then let it go.
Be kind to yourselves. God loves us. God is with us right here amongst our still-not-potty-trained sticker charts, our occupational therapy tools, our instructional posters, our special feeding equipment, our sensory regulation tools, our stacks of books and games, our hopes, our rocking chairs. Ask for help. Build relationships. Do what feeds you. Resist the temptation to overfunction.
Good Lent to y’all!
Want to learn more about practical, concrete ways to pray and grow in faith? Follow this blog, or come hear me in person at the Ancient Faith Writing and Podcasting Conference this June 13-15.