How 3 Moms Have Built Thriving Careers While Raising Kids with Special Needs
On average, Mia Durairaj’s identical twin toddlers have eight to 10 appointments every week. “This punishing schedule can sometimes make it difficult to find long stretches of critical thinking time that I need to get work done,” Durairaj said.
However, she’s still created a thriving communications consulting firm called Little Octopus, LLC, which specializes in maternal, newborn, and child health and nutrition.
The creative name comes from theoctopi volunteers crochet to comfort babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. Durairaj gave birth to her girls at just 28 weeks, leading to an extensive stay at the NICU.
Durairaj has built her fulfilling career using several intentional strategies: She finishes work early, so she’s not scrambling as deadlines loom. She doesn’t overcommit, which sometimes means she has “to say no to great work or volunteer opportunities.” She also makes sure to accept work that plays to her strengths as a writing consultant, and declines work that isn’t a good match for her skills. And she’s formed a strong support system of caregivers she can call on when work commitments come up. Her support network includes her in-laws, family friends, and a paid nurse.
For instance, recently, Durairaj had a meeting in another city, which meant that she’d be gone for the entire day. Several weeks before the meeting, she turned to her caregiving network. “Luckily, I was able to get childcare coverage in advance which allowed me to focus and enjoy the road trip and my work.”
The Power of Flexibility and Shifting Definitions
For freelance journalist and teacher Amy Silverman, the most helpful tool in building a successful career and raising her 16-year-old daughter Sophie, who has Down syndrome and a heart defect, has been flexibility. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can't Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love and Down Syndrome.
“Shortly after my daughter was born…, I was ‘promoted’ from writer to editor at the newspaper where I worked. At the time, I did not think of it as a promotion—I was mad, I wanted to keep writing. But I kept things flexible and in the end, it was the best thing that could have happened for me, my family, and career,” Silverman said.
Being an editor meant that Silverman would have a desk job, which meant an easier schedule. She was able to discover and mentor young writers. From time to time, on quiet, deadline-free days, she’d bring Sophie with her to work. She’d also regularly bring her work home. As she writes in Working Mother, “No, it’s not fun to field calls while you’re packing lunches, but if that means I can take off an afternoon to attend an IEP meeting, I’m all over it.”
Similarly, Silverman has shifted her definition of a “’fulfilling career’…a lot, and in healthy ways. I don't have to be on Oprah (thank goodness, since she went off the air years ago) to be a ‘success.’ My book doesn't have to be a bestseller. I don't have to make a million dollars.”
A Variety of Fulfilling Careers
There are many ways to create a successful, satisfying career. For instance, some women channel their experiences raising a child with disabilities into their work. While creating the content for her e-course Mindful Return's Balancing Career with a Special Needs Baby, Durairaj spoke with Maria Dellapina, CEO and founder of SPECS-4-US.
“Previously an optician, she created her company after trying to find properly fitting glasses for her daughter with Down syndrome. Flash forward a decade later, she has a thriving business and is a well-respected speaker and advocate in the special needs community. I loved how she found an existing gap and used her skills and knowledge to solve this problem for so many families affected by Down syndrome. She's my kind of leader,” Durairaj said.
Mary Susan McConnell, mom to 8-year-old Abiella, who has cerebral palsy and microcephaly, is the host of The Mama Bear Podcast, a place for women raising kids with a diagnosis. She recently finished her doctorate in special education and is in the process of creating products for parents raising kids with disabilities along with developing an inclusive curriculum for children (such as this free coloring book).
To help her create this dream career, McConnellstarted by imagining the life she wanted—and “paying close attention to women who were raising children with special needs while simultaneously pursuing their own endeavors. I sought them out and asked all the questions.” McConnell has seen women build brilliant careers by focusing on their creative pursuits, such as writing books, teaching online and in-person painting classes, and selling their art in galleries and on their personal websites. She’s seen women build new businesses, such as consulting firms and online coaching programs, to have more freedom. And she’s seen women arrange caregivers so they could work at their more structured 9-to-5 jobs, while talking openly and directly with their bosses about needing to leave work more often.
Connection is Critical
McConnell stressed the importance of making “connection with other moms in the special needs community a top priority,” because connecting with another woman who gets it “is a life-changer.” “Building that village is worth every ounce of energy you can muster.”
Where can you find these connections? McConnell has connected with moms at clinics. She’s asked others if they know anyone in the area whose family looks like theirs. She’s attended functions for women raising kids with disabilities. McConnell suggested checking with your local community center, school, or clinic, which likely hosts events for families with kids who have disabilities. “Also, take a moment to intentionally speak with the other moms in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices and clinics,” she said. She usually asks moms if they’re on Facebook or Instagram, which takes away the pressure of getting a phone number. Durairaj’s e-course, the only one of its kind which she created with Mindful Return founder Lori Mihalich-Levin, also offers a private, supportive community to students.
Creating Your Own Thriving Career
Some moms of kids with disabilities might wonder if they can actually have meaningful careers, too. Durairaj wants you to know that you can. Yes, she said, it’ll “take lots of imagination, negotiation, and flexibility to make it happen. However, there is a way to carve out work that is lucrative and fulfilling while still being the kind of mom you want to be in your off-hours.” Silverman wants moms to know that “it gets easier.” “Even if your kid doesn't get easier, you will figure out strategies to find time for yourself to get stuff done. The life you thought you'd have will morph into the life you have—and all you can do is work every day to make it even better.”
Today, we’re fortunate to be able to carve out all kinds of professional opportunities thanks to “non-traditional spaces and schedules,” McConnell said. She encouraged moms to “dream up what you want, and then reverse engineer your world. What may originally seem like a fairy tale, may in fact be a possibility for you.”