Parents and Isolation: What’s a Teacher To Do?

This Sunday’s New York Times will feature a beautiful “Modern Love” essay by Hannah Brown about the challenges of dating while raising a teenager with autism.  Brown’s perspective is nuanced and needed, and it should be a catalyst for numerous discussions about the intersection of  gender roles and parenting expectations, about romantic realities, about work/life balance, and even about the need for better transition planning and respite care as kids age.

And yet, there’s one line that I just cannot get out of my mind.  Regarding the limited opportunities to meet potential dates for women with children with special needs, Brown writes:

“So online dating becomes the only option, since most of us rarely see any adults but the therapists, generally female, who work with our children.”

…since most of us rarely see any adults but the therapists, generally female, who work with our children.

That sentence chills me, and it hits close to home.

When I worked as an in-home therapist for young children with autism, my co-works and I were instructed to keep as much professional distance as possible between ourselves and the parents we saw each day.  That meant no chatting, no answering personal questions, no making friends.  It made perfect sense in the context of the job.  It was a scientific study.  We needed to remain professional and controlled so that the study would work and so that more kids could be helped.  And it was a great and important study, and I watched the kids grow and do great and important things.

And yet… that wasn’t enough.  The isolation I felt and that I felt in the parents I saw each day was too much for me to handle.  I left the study early, and eventually became a special education teacher, where I had the autonomy to connect with parents in ways that more fully addressed their individual needs for inclusion, engagement, and warmth.  I wasn’t always everything that parents needed me to be, but at least I could try.  It was the happiest job of my life.

…since most of us rarely see any adults but the therapists…

And yet, Brown’s words still chill me.  Teachers and therapists can’t be enough to fulfill the need for friendship and connection in parents’ lives.  What needs to change in this situation?  What can be done?  How do we address the needs of the whole child, and thus the needs of the whole family, within the boundaries of time, resources, and professionalism in which we all work?

I don’t have the answers, but I wish I did.

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