Life really seems to pass in a blur, doesn’t it? One moment we were raising many young children and juggling a gazillion busy schedules, and now, here we are loving a season of spending time with young adults.
Having now raised children to adulthood, one of the questions that we increasingly get asked is, “How did you raise your neuro-typical children in a family with many children who have special needs?” I recently shared a photo of my son turning twenty-one on social media and got many messages asking me how we juggled the delicate dance of raising many children with different abilities. This question comes up very often when friends reach out to us needing encouragement—especially families just stepping out into the unknown of raising a child with needs or those who are deep in the trenches trying to find a healthy balance in their families.
I recently had a conversation with a mother who is raising three biological children and now feels called to adopt a child who has multiple needs. Her main concern was not whether she and her husband could care for their new daughter but “What about my other children? How will this affect them?”
We get it! With all of our hearts, we do. This is an area that I don’t think I have ever really shared on here, because I have always believed that we need to see the fruit of our choices before we can shout from any rooftop that what we did worked. But now that we have young adults successfully living their lives, I feel like I can share the way that worked for us—how we found a balance in our family with all of our unique challenges worked.
Does that mean that what we did will work for every family? Absolutely not! Every family is created by God uniquely and has its own way of doing things and has its own beautiful dynamics. Through trial and sometimes a lot of error (and grace!), we figured out what works best for our family. I am no expert in any of this. I can only share what has been successful for us in the hope that it may be an encouragement to someone else navigating a season of meeting many needs in their family.
For us, our older children were just entering their teenage years when we adopted our first two daughters with Down syndrome in 2010. Our almost-teenagers were becoming a little more independent, loved hanging out with their friends, enjoyed trying different sports, and were involved in many other activities. And we had just grown from five to seven children—two with way more needs than we were accustomed to as a family. Truthfully, like many parents who had walked this road before us and the many who now ask me the same question, our older children’s needs were very close to my heart as we navigated all of the changes in our family at that time.
I remember sitting in a cold apartment in Ukraine sharing many blog posts about meeting Hailee and Harper like it was yesterday. So many people wrote to me expressing the same thing. “Are you concerned about how adding these two girls to your family will affect your five other children?” I definitely was. But at the same time, I had such peace that passed all understanding. Way back then, my response was always the same. “I believe that having these two girls in our children’s lives will be an enormous blessing to our older children.” Though I had not walked it yet, and I could not see it yet, I just had a deep sense of knowing that God would be faithful to all of us in our obedience to adopt our daughters.
Because sometimes we have to take the leap of faith first and then trust God with every detail as we journey what He has called us to do. I am always reminded of the heroes of my faith who have gone before me. The pattern is so often the same in the Bible…obedience first and trust Him with the details later.
David, in obedience, picked up the sling and the stone first…and trusted God with the outcome.
Peter, in obedience, stepped out of the boat first…and trusted Jesus to calm the sea.
Hannah, in obedience, gave up her sweet baby Samuel…and believed that God would be for her.
Abraham, in obedience, willingly lay his only beloved son on the altar and trusted that God would be faithful no matter what.
From the moment that Hailee and Harper came home, Anthony and I felt a shift in our parenting. It was a change that came very naturally but also very intentionally. We made a decision in those early days of parenting our seven children that our older children would never be given more responsibility than they deserved as they grew up. And they would never lose out on anything that they would have done had the girls not come home. Though we knew that the way we did things would certainly look different, we were willing to adapt and adjust as we needed to.
We consciously made the decision to ensure that our “typical” children would, as much as possible, live the lives they would have lived had their sisters not had special needs. And it has been a conviction that we have stuck with all of these years. The absolute desire of our hearts was that our older children never felt like their needs, their desires, and their childhoods were lost in the constant busyness of us raising their siblings who required so very much more time than they did.
Now that our older children are young adults, it’s fun having conversations with them about their childhood. What is their greatest memory? What did they love? What didn’t they love? And you know, not once have my children ever expressed any bitterness, resentment, or ill-feeling about being raised in a family where Anthony and I split ourselves between their needs and the needs of our disabled children. They only speak of the good, not the hard. I believe that is because of the grace of God and our very intentional decision all those years back to go to the ends of the earth to ensure that they had a very typical childhood while being raised in a very atypical family.
Have we always gotten it right? Heck, no! We have had to get very creative and actually work hard to ensure that we had a healthy balance in the various seasons of our children’s lives. And, of course, there are things that I would love to go back and do differently. That’s just life.
Intentionally parenting our family this way has certainly come with some challenges, and there have been so many times when we have had to make sacrifices. When our older children were in school and playing sports and taking part in many different activities, one of us would always go and watch them while the other stayed home with our younger children. That meant we missed out on quite a lot of games and school events, which was hard. Our children never, ever complained about having just one of us there. Having either mom or dad on the sidelines was enough for them. When special occasions happened (graduations, high school speeches, etc.), we made an extra effort to try and find caregivers to help so that Anthony and I could both be there. And sometimes we would take two or three of our children with special needs with us to an event whenever it was possible.
As Connor, Kellan, Hannah-Claire, and Cade got older, it became so important to us for them to do some fun summer trips. Going camping and doing things with the whole family was great, but we wanted to ensure that their summers held amazing memories as they grew up—doing things that would not be possible had we taken our children with special needs. Beginning many years ago, Anthony and I alternated taking them away for a summer trip—whether it be local or someplace farther away, we made it happen every summer.
Those times away with our children have become some of our best memories. They got to spend precious time with one of us and still talk about the fun things that we did. Is it the best possible solution to just go away with one parent? Probably not. But for us, they got a fun time away, and Anthony or I had time to rest and make incredible memories with our older children. These are memories that they still reflect on with fondness.
Raising a family with many different abilities and needs certainly can have its challenges, and I can honestly say that finding the balance is not a one-size-fits-all deal. It takes creativity and a whole lot of prayer, and then it takes following the peace in your hearts. But for us, that one decision to be intentional about letting our teenagers have a normal life changed everything for our family and has turned out to be something that we are so grateful God put on our hearts all those years ago.
Our older children have had many opportunities to be incredible big brothers and sister and to help out when there has been a need. But being live-in babysitters is not one of the things we ever expected of them. They all adore their family and have such sweet relationships with their younger siblings. The moment they walk in the door, you will hear squeals of delight from little sisters as they announce their brothers’ arrival. These are the things that bring me great joy.
I certainly don’t have the answers to finding the perfect solution for all families. I will say that it takes so much trial and error, and often, so much shifting with the ebb and flow of the different seasons we walk through. But more than anything, it takes seeking God’s wisdom for your family and sticking by your own convictions. I know that some may differ with me on the way we have raised our family, and that’s okay. You do you and do what’s best for your family. We have given our older children many opportunities to become helpful, independent, hard-working, strong humans. And praise God, they have all chosen to become just that. We are ridiculously proud of the kind, caring people they have become.
Looking back on so many years of parenting our large family with many different needs, I am so eternally grateful that God has been so gracious in guiding us in all these things. And when I look back on the choices we made, I see an immeasurable amount of amazing grace as we navigated every stage and every season we have been through.
My advice to families trying to find a healthy balance in juggling so many different needs in their families? Turn off social media, quit doing what everyone else tells you is the “right” way to raise your family, be willing to sacrifice (a lot!) and adjust with the seasons of life, seek God always, and do what’s best for YOUR family…no matter what that looks like.
And more than anything, enjoy and treasure the years that you have them all home with you…it passes so darn quickly.
He will be faithful!