The 7000 Habits of Highly Imperfect Parents

The 7000 Habits of Highly Imperfect Parents

Imperfect parenting as seen through the eyes a CHImP.

If you’ve read many books on special needs parenting and blogs, you’ve probably noticed that many of the authors have lots of impressive initials after their name.

I, however, don’t.

In fact, I’d venture to say that I am more ADHD than PhD. I do, however, have extensive knowledge in the growing area of imperfect parenting. In fact, it’s because of this specialized expertise that I’ve decided to award myself a credential — I’m Gina Gallagher, CHImP (Certified Highly Imperfect Parent). This is not to be confused with a CHiP (California Highway Patrol person), which actor Erik Estrada made famous. (To clarify, he wrote tickets to motorists, while I write checks to therapists.)

What qualifies me for this esteemed distinction?

First and foremost, I have years of practical experience parenting my two special daughters (Asperger’s syndrome, non-verbal learning disability, anxiety, ADHD, dyscalcula, blah, blah, blah) in a world pre-occupied with perfection. Secondly, I have been told repeatedly that I violate the rules of perfect parenting by other parents and even my own special children. (“Mom! Today was school picture day NOT crazy hair day!”) Lastly, though certainly not of any lesser importance, I’ve have been known to “monkey around.”

I also have fieldwork experience as a speaker (along with my sister Patty) in the special needs community. This experience has helped me understand the commonalities among special needs parents. You might come to think of them as the 7000 Habits of Highly Imperfect Parents.

Here are just some of my imperfect findings:

Our imperfections are hard to hide. Some families can pretend they’re living perfect lives even if it’s not necessarily the case. That’s not so easy for many special parents to do. All you have to do is witness the warm hugs my family receives from the entire Pharmacy staff (“Look everyone! It’s the Customers of the Millennium”) or watch me use the jaws of life to pry an anxious child out of the house and onto the bus. My kids’ strange eating habits (they are often sensitive to tastes and textures) also makes us stand out. (“Dear Lord, thank you for these Thanksgiving peanut butter sandwiches we are about to eat.”)

Special parents usually don’t sweat the small stuff; we celebrate it. A few years ago during one of our speaking engagements, a mother of a child with autism stood up and proudly announced, “Everyone! I have some fabulous news. My autistic kid told his first lie today.” Upon hearing this, the entire group got up and cheered. Anyone outside the special needs world would have thought: “These people are nuts. What would they do if the kid stole something — host a parade?” But those of us in the know, understood that lying is a huge milestone for children with autism. It means they are able to see two different perspectives — the truth and the lie.

We’re opportunistic. If you offer to take our kids and whip them into shape, don’t be surprised if we give you directions to our homes. It’s so easy to make judgments about our parenting skills and our children from the outside. On the inside, it’s a different story. That’s why special parents are usually willing to open their homes to parents who think they can do a better job managing our children’s issues. (Please note while we will open our homes to these people, we will not pay for the massage or intense therapy session they will likely need when they leave.)

We have good senses of humor. With the day-to-day difficulties our children face, special parents really have two options — to laugh or cry. Many of us choose to laugh. Sometimes we don’t even have to look for humor; it finds us. For example, when Gina enrolled her daughter Emily, who is extremely sensitive to loud voices, in a new school, Gina burst out laughing when one of Emily’s teachers came up to her and said, “Hi, I’m Mrs. Yellin.” When we posted this story on Facebook, another mother commented, “I know how you feel; I was really worried about that math teacher, Mr. Meaney.”

We’re grateful. If you invite our kid to your child’s birthday party, we’ll give your kid a really good present. Many special needs children have great difficulty making friendships, so birthday party invitations are few and far between (full lunar eclipses happen more frequently). On the rare occasion when one of our kids gets a birthday party invite, we’re ecstatic and ready to show our gratitude. (“Honestly, Mrs. Gallagher, you didn’t have to give Susie an American Girl Doll. The pony was plenty.”)

Special parents are strangely connected. There seems to be an instant connection between parents of special children. This “imperfection connection” might be because we share similar worries about our anxious children (“Your kid’s favorite website is, too?) or that we are often alienated from and judged by society for the chaos in our lives. (“You mean telemarketers hang up on you, too?”).

Kindness makes us happy. As special needs parents, the one thing we appreciate more than anything is kindness and acceptance toward our children. For example, receiving a rare “good news” call from a teacher makes us giddy with excitement, and can set off a series of fortunate events. It might fuel us to actually clean the house, cook dinner, balance the checkbook, or even give our spouse a treat. (“No way! You don’t have a headache tonight?”) Our kids’ issues aren’t contagious, but the kindness you show toward them is.

We really don’t want to fight with school systems. There’s little doubt that the cost of special education has soared. In many communities, this has caused rifts between those with and without children with special needs, as well as rifts with school districts constrained by tight budgets. We don’t seek pleasure in battling school districts; we just want to put our children in the best position to succeed. So when you see us enter the school for a meeting in our battle gear, don’t be afraid; we’d much rather sign a peace treaty with programs that bring out our children’s strengths. (“OK, you give both our kids IEPs and we’ll agree not to have any more children.”)

We don’t want pity. When we tell people about our kids’ disabilities, they sometimes say things like “I’m sorry.” Or “you poor thing.” Or even, “I’m so lucky my kid is OK.” There’s no need to pity us when we have children who make us appreciate the little things in life, who show us how to love unconditionally, and find strength in ourselves that we never knew existed.

In short, raising special children is not easy. It’s the hardest thing many of us will ever do. I do believe, however, that my special children are gifts — gifts that this CHImP would never return, even though they sometimes drive me bananas.

Do you meet any of the qualifications to be a CHImP?

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