Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Happy Mama Conference, and why it was cool

First off, I'd like to note that every single airport on the planet is nicer than Newark. It's dingy. It's unpleasant. It's impossible to find an outlet even if you go up to the people at the gate and nicely ask where one is, because they don't know either, and you're bothering them. Also, my flight was delayed both ways. Foo on you, Newark. The nice thing about being an aspiring writer, at least, is that when your flight gets delayed by several hours because of rain, you can just crack open the laptop and get some extra writing time in. Once you find a working outlet, that is.

(Raleigh-Durham airport? So much nicer. Sparkling clean and friendly and I had a fried oyster sandwich at one of the restaurants. And tons of outlets.)

Things obviously improved when I got to the conference. About 64 women attended, which (says Happy Mama's Facebook page) is a jump of 20 or so from last year, which is pretty good, considering this is only the second year of the conference. This is how every single conversation went:

"So where are you from?" (All over. I met a mom from Texas, two from Toronto, one from Philly, one from Boston, several North Carolinians and one from the South by way of England, and I do love listening to English accents. One other mom from Jersey. Absolutely no one made Jersey jokes.)

And then immediately after: "And what are you dealing with?" Meaning, ADHD, ASD, OCD, ODD, PDD-NOS, Fragile-X Syndrome, what? And then we would talk openly about our kids, and their diagnoses, therapies, medications. What was working. What wasn't. This is the conversation you can only really have with other parents who are going through the same thing, or close to the same thing, you are, and I had it over and over again all weekend. The ability to speak freely, without judgment: Totally worth the price of admission alone.

Also, all the moms were cool. Funny, and smart, and unafraid to fight for their child.

Some random things I picked up at the workshops:

From Vikki Spencer, aka The Mom Whisperer:

-- Don't parent out of frustration.

-- If you feel triggered to anger, stop and focus on your breath (ironically this is what I've been trying to teach kiddo)

-- She told us about a useful Sesame Street video in which Elmo learns how to "belly breathe" in order to calm himself down. I still have to show it to kiddo -- listen, if I'm blogging about the conference a week after the fact it's because I haven't exactly had tons of time and energy this week -- but if you're interested, here's the video. It's kind of adorable and I don't even like Elmo. (I do, however, like Common. So that's cool.)

-- Another way to teach deep breathing to your child is to have them lie down and put a stuffed animal on their belly -- they have to breathe to raise the toy up and down.

From Margit Crane, family coach and co-author/blogger at Good-Enough Parenting:

-- Setting the bar high for kids isn't effective, and intrinsic motivation (do this because you're supposed to) isn't necessarily better than extrinsic motivation (do this and you can receive XX reward). (The point she made, and I agree, is that getting paid to do your job is an extrinsic motivation, so what's wrong with using a similar motivator on your kids?)

-- She says there are three kinds of motivation: baby bird (shove it out of the nest and it flies), car (needs gas, but has basic needs met) and hothouse flower (needs special care and attention). You'll naturally do the "bird" things, need a little help on the "car" things and a whole lot of help on "flower" things, and that's OK.

-- She also suggests finding someone to be your "executive assistant" in order to get things done, while also being one for your child. (If your child happens to have ADHD, you have to do that anyway, as his executive function skills will be lacking. I've discovered.)

We had a few breakout discussion groups; in the first one I attended on social skills, a mom suggested this method of stopping your kid's interruptions: have him touch your arm to signal he has something to say, then touch his arm back to show you heard him and to ask him to wait another minute. I haven't tried it yet but I will. Another mom suggested the "social thinking" writings of Michelle Garcia Winner; I haven't explored them in detail yet, but her website is here.

I need to pause here and say that the slides the organizers had up on a loop at the front of the room were so. Funny. Here's my favorite. Because it has Ryan Gosling. The entire room paused to study this one. And then one of the moms announced: "He's hot." And everyone laughed.

(I fully understand if Ryan hates being an Interwebs meme, but it really is funny. And he really is hot. Just go with it, Ryan.)

Robert Tudisco of the Edge Foundation, which offers coaching for high school and college kids with ADHD, had some things to say on parent advocacy:

-- Every movement in the disability community -- CHADD, Autism Speaks -- was started by moms 

-- You must educate your child's school about the disability and show them how it affects your child

-- Communicate diplomatically and in writing, and don't be a slave to your emotion

-- Think like an attorney so you don't have to hire one

-- Consider: Who do you have to win over to get what you want? What services can you get for your child that don't cost anything?

-- Meet with your child's teacher separately before the year starts, introduce her to your child. One of the moms offered that she gives the teacher a packet every year explaining her son's strengths and needs, along with a flattering photo (and chocolate, although I'm not sure how I feel about that part. I like the idea otherwise, though, and am going to do it this year).

Margit returned to discuss surviving family gatherings, which was hilarious and I won't do justice to it here. And that was all the first day. Plus a yoga class and a spa session. Incidentally? Try not to schedule your spa session too close to the end of the yoga class. Or you will be running frantically through the hotel to change out of your workout pants and back into your skirt (because you hate shorts and refuse to wear them) so that you can catch the hotel shuttle over to the spa in time for your eye treatment. This probably negates the nice relaxing feelings you acquired from the yoga class.

Day 2, the big workshop was about "funding your self-care," the point of which being, you deserve to spend money on yourself every once in a while, and here are some simple tips to put money aside for that purpose. Vikki said she has her own change jar, which I thought was a fabulous idea, so now I do too. Perhaps that will keep me from spending it on the vending machine at work. (Really, it's been a long week.) She also noted we should "leverage" gift-giving holidays for stuff we actually want, instead of going "oh, no, you don't have to buy me anything." To that end, I'd like a new laptop bag for Christmas/Hanukkah, because the current one is beat up and the zippers stick (and frankly it's not that stylish). I only note this because I know certain family members are reading this blog.

The other breakout session I attended had to do with building a community of support, which is excellent timing, actually, because my friend L., whose son also has ADHD, reached out to a bunch of other area moms on the ADDitude boards and we're planning a get-together next month. At the breakout session, one suggestion I liked was, set a time and place to meet every month, so it takes some of the stress out of planning something.  Another mom suggested starting a special needs PTA, which actually has tips on here. A different mom was wondering out loud how to accommodate everyone in her group, since they're all several hours apart from each other. Now that's dedication.

"Dedication" was pretty much the overriding theme really. Everyone was there because they love their kids, and are trying to do right by them despite circumstances and lack of resources and prejudices and ignorance from others. If there was a bit of an "us against the world" mentality, well ... it can seem that way sometimes. But mainly, I think, everyone was just happy to be in each other's presence. To be around other women who get it, instantly.

Also, I had a fine time hanging out with cousin H. and her friend, who is cool.

... and the hotel gave us free drinks.

Ultimately, though, I came away feeling lucky. I only have one special-needs kid to contend with; some of the others had multiples (one mom I met has four kids with ADHD. I can't even imagine. I said to her, "And you still have a brain left!" She said, "You don't know me very well!"). DH and I have been pretty much in sync on what's going on with kiddo, and how to handle it, and what treatments to try; other moms clearly had spouses who disagreed with them, or weren't involved. Our family is across-the-board supportive, even including the medication issue; other moms talked about being judged by relatives. True story from the mom's view of ADHD Facebook page: The parents went away for a few days and left the kids with relatives. The relatives, not believing ADHD exists, refused to give the son his medication the entire time they had him. His behavior, naturally, worsened. When the parents came back, the relatives had the utter chutzpah to lecture the mom about her son's behavior. Completely ignoring the fact that they CAUSED the behavior by denying him meds, which incidentally is a pretty dangerous thing to do; you can wean someone off meds like that but you should not ever just stop cold. Which is something said relatives might have paid attention to if they believed that ADHD is an actual neurological condition. Or, you know, if they weren't idiots.

So yeah, we haven't had to deal with any of that and I am quite grateful.

It was a good weekend. I came home energized and loaded down with reading material (what? all the speakers were selling books), and if I come across anything in my reading that seem helpful, I'll note that here too. DH and kids had a fine weekend of library visits, pool visits and ice cream trips. How fine were the kids when I walked in? Kiddo was in bed (flight delay. Again. I hate you, Newark), and kiddette was playing with her kiddie tablet. She didn't actually look up. 

Which means I won't feel at all guilty about going again next year. Looking forward to it.

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