Part 1 of an interview with Laurie Wallin,
Author of Get Your Joy Back
Some studies report as many as one out of every four families in the U.S. has a child with a special need. Parenting is stressful even when a child doesn’t have a physical, mental or emotional difficulty. One can imagine the stress on special needs families. Laurie Wallin meets these parents right where they are in her new book, Get Your Joy Back: Banishing Resentment and Reclaiming Confidence in Your Special Needs Family (Kregel Publications/January 27, 2015/ISBN: 978-0825443398/$13.99).
Wallin strives every day to live out her message for families: that no matter the challenge, in Jesus they can have joy and confidence. Get Your Joy Back is full of biblical insights and practical strategies to help parents recognize and shed the resentments that leave them spiritually, emotionally and socially drained. Wallin sugar-coats nothing but addresses issues with honesty, humor and — above all — hope.
Q: Get Your Joy Back comes from a very personal place for you. Tell us about your family.
I’ve been married for almost 16 years to a man who’s a tech whiz with a wicked sense of humor and an Asperger’s diagnosis. That keeps us on our toes as parents of special needs kid because their challenges exacerbate his and vice versa. But the loyalty inherent in his wiring has also been an immeasurable gift and stabilizer for me as his partner in our family. We have four daughters, ranging in age from 6 to 13 years old. Two are foster/adopted with a half-dozen medical, developmental and mental health special needs. We daily attempt to balance our pre-teens’ mood disorders (as if pre-teens weren’t already moody), therapeutic appointments, communication with teachers and “normal” family stuff like sports, making meals, doing homework, brushing teeth, wiping up spills and my desire to lock myself in a closet and watch entire seasons of Downton Abbey in a single night.
Like most parents reading my book, we wanted to be parents but never sought to parent high-needs children. When we adopted our older two, the papers said the girls were healthy, rambunctious toddlers. Their special needs became apparent throughout the following two years, as did their resourcefulness, emotional depth and tendencies toward art and living-room tickling matches.
Q: You interviewed more than 70 families when writing Get Your Joy Back. What was the most common theme you heard while talking to them?
The most common response is that they felt misunderstood, by family, friends, church, professionals and even their own spouses. Being misunderstood leaves many feeling hopeless because they don’t feel sharing their needs or struggles will even matter.
Q: While you are very open about your struggles, that wasn’t the case for the majority of the parents you spoke to. Why do you think they had such a difficult time talking about their issues?
I believe it’s because as Christians we’re trained not to feel bad for too long because if we do, we either 1) don’t have enough faith, 2) didn’t pray enough or 3) must be the problem that’s bringing such trouble to our families. Somehow the unspoken doctrine, which many parents mentioned in their survey responses, is that you can struggle in church, just not too loud, too long or in ways we can’t explain away with Christian-isms.
After a while, parents get to a place where they don’t even acknowledge their hard feelings. They convince themselves they’re OK and nothing is too hard because they’ve grown accustomed to making it sound OK (read: Christian/faithful enough) to people they’ve tried to talk to before.
Q: You write about a life-changing moment at a conference. What was the topic, and what was said that pierced your heart?
The conference speaker was talking about forgiveness and the idea of Jesus telling Peter to forgive 70 times seven offenses. I suddenly perked up during that workshop and did the math: 490 offenses wasn’t that big a number for a mom raising two kids with disabilities that required emotional gymnastics on my part. Every week, I had to restrain them, fix items they’d broken, answer judgmental comments at store checkout lines, explain the girls’ backgrounds to offended moms at playgrounds, miss out on church activities because of their disruptive behaviors and face professionals with unrealistic expectations or disappointed demeanors.
Suddenly, 490 times wasn’t much. It made me mad at God, which opened the conversation in which he revealed that 70 times seven meant I needed to forgive COUNTLESS times. No matter what. Because that’s what He’s done for me. My conversation with God about each area of life in which that seemed impossible became the content for this book — a guide for parents like me who want to find freedom from resentment and get their joy back.
Q: You talk in the book about forgiving your child. Have you found that idea to be controversial in any way?
Yes, that’s bothered some people — mostly people who are still struggling with what we were just talking about. But also because the second we let ourselves say what we grieve about our child, we feel guilty for even thinking that. After all, it’s not like our child planned or asked for this or wanted to make our lives hard! We don’t realize that by censoring our emotions, we’re not being more spiritual; we’re being dishonest and short-circuiting the healing God will certainly bring when we take an honest look at the challenges.
Basically, any controversy I’ve encountered thus far hinges on the fact that typically, as westerners, we don’t understand healthy grieving. It feels so uncontrollable and so undefined . . . like a black hole. When it comes to our kids, that translates to “I don’t want to even THINK about my negative feelings about my child or her condition because then Pandora’s box might open and swallow me whole. My family needs me. I can’t take the risk to fall apart.” That kind of thinking robs us as parents of the joy on the other side of healthy grieving.
Q: You recommend parents not necessarily read Get Your Joy Back straight through, cover-to-cover; what’s the best way to approach the book?
The last thing I want is for parents to feel like they “have to” read this book a certain way. There are already plenty of areas of their life that they “have to” do things. This is FOR THEM, to support parents. So I recommend they read it whatever way supports them most. Perhaps straight through. Perhaps a chapter a week, like a devotional. Perhaps going to the table of contents and picking the chapter that speaks most to their current need and use it like a reference book. Whatever supports them in getting their joy back.
Q: What is the number-one thing you hope Get Your Joy Back does for special needs families?
I hope the book breathes joy and confidence into the deepest, weariest places in their hearts and lives and they leave it feeling recharged and hopeful in relationships at home and beyond.