In this episode, Alissa shares her journey as a single mother raising 5 children, both biological and adopted through the foster system, and having a wide range of special needs, including physical, intellectual and emotional disabilities. She discusses how to stay centered in the tough times and how self-care is required before we are able to give to others, including our children.
Voice: Welcome to the Just Ask Mom podcast where mothers share their experiences of raising children with mental illness. Just Ask Mom is a Mothers on the Frontline production. Today we are speaking with Alissa, a mother of five children, including biological children and children adopted through the foster system. She works in Human Services helping other families with mental health needs as well as other special needs.
Tammy: Well, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, to get started.
Alissa: My name is Alissa Tschetter-Siedschlaw. I am a mom of five. I’ve been a single mom for ten years, although I recently got engaged.
Alissa: Thank you.
Tammy: Oh, that’s exciting.
Alissa: My children range in age from 24 down to 9. I have both children that are biologically born to me, and children adopted through the foster system, with a wide variety of mental health, developmental, behavioral, and medical special needs. I work full time, well, actually no, I’m part time now, in human services, helping other families. I also do professional theater, by contract.
Tammy: I didn’t know that. That’s really cool.
Alissa: You didn’t? I finished a contract recently and I have a Shakespeare contract coming up in the summer.
Tammy: Oh, how fun.
Alissa: Yup. That’s what my training was originally in, theater performance.
Tammy: Well, my next question – and you might have partially answered this – what are you passionate about? Tell us a bit about you, outside of, or before mothering.
Alissa: I am passionate about arts. I’m passionate about advocating for those who can’t speak for themselves. I was before this. I’m passionate about taking care of the earth, taking care of other people, treating people the way you would want to be treated yourself, trying to make a difference, and fighting against – whether it’s discrimination, or fighting against systems that don’t understand where loopholes are for people, or whatever. I’ve always been passionate about those political things and those kinds of things. I love lots of forms of art and exercise. I like to exercise. That is my medication. So yeah, those are the things.
Tammy: Great. Well, that’s awesome. So I want you to pretend that you’re talking to — In your case, you have five children, with multiple special needs, so I’d like you to pretend you’re talking to a parent with, maybe two or three kids that don’t have special needs. And try to give them some insight into what are the extra challenges.
Alissa: I think, it would be almost impossible to explain to someone else in that circumstance. What I would probably welcome them to do is come see a day in my life, or experience another family like mine. Because there’s a lot of things you don’t know until you know. A lot of very compassionate, very loving people, can say very callous things, because truly, – it’s never crossed their mind. They’ve never thought about the kinds of problems we might have before. So sometimes, I try to explain from a place of education – without being patronizing- sometimes, just even in gaining compassion, when I have one child that I adopted, who has a tremendously tragic story. There’s not many people you could explain such a rough beginning and not pull at their heartstrings, and then, say all the things that her life is like now, and how it is to go home to a child, who’s functioning much slower than her physical size, who might have a psychotic break, and bite you, and attack you. People have a hard time even wrapping their head around those things, so I kind of wish more people could peek into our lives, because it is such a hard thing to understand. I think it’s like a lot of things that might seem unpleasant to people. We all want to pretend that certain things aren’t out there. It makes you feel like you can survive. I know myself – there are times when you hear some horrendous child abuse story – we all want tp say, “No, that’s not, it can’t be. That’s not real.” Sometimes I think, our lives can look like that. I think it’s very scary to those who don’t experience that. I think it’s also why we so easily bond with each other, because so rarely do moms like us truly feel understood.
Alissa: Where maybe if I am in an IEP meeting and seem snappy and bitchy or something, other moms like me would get it and go, “You know what? You’re just cutting out the BS, because you’re tired, and you’ve probably been up all night and this is your third meeting of the day, and I get you.” Where, to an outside person, it’s like “Wow this mom is difficult to deal with”. I think so much of it would be welcoming somebody in, to see a picture of what it looks like. Because I don’t think it’s something most people can wrap their head around.
Tammy: It’s interesting you say that, because even if you had a video of it, it’s still removed, because…
Alissa: …because you’re not in it, yeah.
Tammy: I don’t know the neurology of this, I just know when my child has anxiety and I’m in the same room with my child, it starts to affect my body.
Alissa: Oh, absolutely.
Tammy: So if you’re in a situation like this, day in and day out.
Alissa: Well, it absolutely does. I actually think some of the best things, you know, you maybe ask what this in a little bit – but some of the best things I’ve done for myself, have to do with energy worth, and learning how to stay centered and calm, in the midst of chaos, rather than allowing yourself to snowball in the chaos. And realizing that chaos isn’t me, and it isn’t my own. And so, to be able to stay calm and centered in the midst of that, does reduce behavior of those around you, just naturally. It’s like tossing a pebble into a pond, and watching the ripple. If my pebble is a calm and centered and neutral pebble, it doesn’t get pulled into that. Because anxiety’s contagious.
Alissa: And it’s very, very easy for that to happen. And I would say, over the last six years, doing a lot of work, with my own therapist, with my own energy person, with a lot of alternative things like that, finding ways to do what I can do, because I can only do me when it comes down to it you know. And so, hopefully, my ripple is different. That helps reduce the amount of severity of my own reaction to the children.
Tammy: If it’s okay, I’d like to follow that up, because it’s one thing I notice, when I’m around the other moms, who go through this. I realize I’m drawn to them more than other people now. And part of it is like you say, they understand. But there’s something else, and it’s hard for me to sometimes put my finger on it. I think, in order to survive this, you have to do exactly what you said. To some extent, you have to center yourself. You have to understand that, if I’m going survive this, I have to not be carried away with it. And that’s a life skill that transfers everywhere else.
Alissa: It absolutely does. I think, in general a lot of moms like us tend to be overtly authentic. Which I love. For some people, that’s extremely off putting. Because I’ll just tell you flat out.
Tammy: [laughs] Yeah.
Alissa: You have a question you want to ask me, or somebody wants to discuss some topic. I don’t care. I’ll tell – because, I think, when you’ve gone through these kinds of things, it is just different. I do think there is an ability to be raw and authentic, in a way that I think is a tremendous life skill, that I have gained, from a very difficult experience. Yeah.
Tammy: Right. Well, thank you for that. That is really helpful. So you have five kids. And I know just having two, how difficult it can be, making sure the sibling is getting attention, and so on. What do you wish you could tell your kids? Like, and you could pick a few, if you want, like one of the time…
Tammy: That’s five intersecting lives and so many various complicated ways…
Alissa: Well, the one thing I do know that my kids know is that I would fiercely and vigilantly fight for what they need. Unfortunately, looking back, I feel like I have been more of an advocate than I have been a mom. That part hurts my heart. I didn’t have all of the sit down and play and do fun things together, or let’s go do some fun activity, especially when I had so many with so many special needs. Our activities were physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, behavioral therapy, treatment, med management. I grieve that – that I don’t think my children will look back and remember me as a fun mom. I don’t think they’ll have those memories. But I do think my kids would tell, “If you were in a pinch, who do you want in your corner? It was my mom.” So that part I’m proud of. What I’ve had to do – this usually does make me emotional – is let myself off the hook a bit because under the given circumstances, especially being alone for so much of it, I did the best I could, with what I had at the time. I apologize when I need to. I make the kids aware that I am a human, with faults, and I am so sorry, but I’m doing my best, and how much I love and adore you. I believe in a higher power, and God brought us together for a reason. And no matter what, even when I’m confused, and I don’t know what the reason is, or any of those things, I’m confident in that. I try to stick with that. That part can be, can be hard- I don’t think anyone has gotten the individual attention they may have needed. But I’ve tried to do simple things like take one to the grocery store. Even have one run down to the laundry just for a few minutes, here and there, I try to make sure everybody gets touched, every day. Especially when they get older, and they’re teenagers, that you get a hug goodbye and I’ll give you a kiss goodbye – that they feel physical love and affection from their mom. I think that they all know I wish I could have provided more.
Tammy: Your story is one that, almost of us, would resonate with, because we don’t talk about it very much, but I think we all also grieve, not only the loss of the motherhood we imagined, but the childhood be imagined for our kids. All of that.
Alissa: Exactly. Well, the other really nice thing is– and I don’t know why – I think I’ve always been a little bit of an odd duck, myself– I didn’t have expectations of what my kids would be. I didn’t. I actually think that has saved me a level of grief, that I know a lot of my peers have gone through. For the children that I adopted, there was this weird freedom from it. I don’t have guilt about their beginnings being crappy. I didn’t do it. And the neat thing about that is, I also know what they would’ve had without me and go, “You know, what? I’m doing pretty good because, you would have had worse.” It’s not that I still don’t feel like I wish I could give them more, but there is a sense of forgiving myself, when I know, okay, you know what? I know what your options were without me, so we’re doing okay. I do think I’ve grieved the mom that I wish I was. But I really want my kids to just be whoever they are. Especially with my adoptions. One of my children, they said she would basically be a vegetable. That is what I planned for. Anything above that is just bonus. So all of the issues she has today, when I look at her situation, this poor kid, I just think, this is just such a miraculous kid. I didn’t have expectations of her doing X, Y, or Z.
Tammy: That’s another thing. If we could transfer the rest of our lives, right? Just think about all of our relationships, all of our daily things, if we didn’t lead with expectations.
Alissa: I think, actually, that centered skill, being able to feel whole myself, it sets me up for much healthier relationships, because I don’t go in with expectation. If I’m here just to love you, then that’s all I’m here for. If you love me back, bonus. But I’m not here with an expectation of you offering me something in return. I view parenting much that way. It is our job to love them. It is not their job to love us back. That’s bonus. That’s gravy. That’s what we would hope for. But if they don’t, that’s not part of the journey. That’s not my job -to be your friend or to be liked by you. My job is to raise the best human being I can raise. My job is to love you unconditionally and with without expectation of being loved in return. Feeling okay with yourself, frees you that way, and helps your relationships be really authentic, really real, and you can have much deeper relationships, because you’re cutting out that expectation.
Tammy: I think that’s wonderful. So right now, at this moment, because every mom I talked to, including myself —
Alissa: A little different.
Tammy: — it varies from moment to moment.
Tammy: But in this moment, are you treading water? Are you drowning? Are you swimming? Where do you find yourself?
Alissa: If I’m doing swimming, as the most positive of the options, I think we’re mostly swimming.
Alissa: I think there are days we’re treading water. We aren’t sinking so much anymore, but I have had plenty of days where the goal was only to survive the day. In fact, I think, there was a decade there where I survived the decade – my goal was only to survive the day. I still probably have poor long-term planning, because thinking too far out causes me stress and anxiety, because of that. So sometimes I have poor planning – what are you doing in three weeks. I have no idea what I’m doing in three weeks. I’ll put it on my schedule. I’ll look the night before, because I will be overwhelmed otherwise. Over all I do feel like we’re at least always two steps forward, even though we take one step back. If you had told me five years ago we could be this good, I would have thought you were out your mind. So that’s exciting.
Tammy: I think it’s really good for people to hear. I know the biggest hope I get is when I talk to parents whose kids are now adults and they made it and they’re okay. And it was hard, but they’re okay. It just gives you so much hope.
Alissa: I think hope is one of the most pivotal things to hang on to, because your only option isn’t to sink. There are people out there. Are the resources what I wish they were? They are not. And do I see all kinds of holes, and all kinds of systems all over the place? I sure do. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. We had come a really, really long way. We had a lot of near tragedy along the way too, and we have survived. I’d like to get to a place — I don’t know if I would say we are at thriving as opposed to surviving –but we’re somewhere in the middle and that’s pretty dang good.
Tammy: That’s really good.
Alissa: So, yeah.
Tammy: You’ve already talked a little bit about your self-care routine, but if you want to say anything more about it or in those really rough moments – the survival techniques.
Alissa: I tell lots of people to remember to breathe. Literally. I don’t think we realize how often we’re holding our breath. The difference it makes in your physical body to remind yourself to breathe. My Mommy Mantra is, “This too shall pass.” Nothing is forever even in the worst of circumstance, this won’t always be like this. No matter what, this will change and I remind myself of that a lot. I try to exercise most days, not every day — but that does help. I also see a therapist for me. I do some energy work with an energy person when I need meds myself, I go get meds. It’s usually in the winter. I’m like you know what, I need some extra help because I’m struggling. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think remembering that, utilizing what’s out there to be the best who you can be. We also shouldn’t think that we should be a doormat. I’ll go get my nails done. I mean, maybe not all the time, but if there’s something that is splurge, you know, I — I’m on the list too. A lot of us forget that. I don’t think you can do the quality job you want if you’re cup’s empty.
Tammy: That’s right.
Alissa: I heard someone say once –and I loved it so much–they talked about when people say, “My cup runneth over.” And what they were saying is, “You know what? What runneth over is for me to give you. What’s in the cup is for me.”
Alissa: And so, if you think of it that way. I have to do my best to keep my own cup full or I’ve got nothing to offer, to my children, to others, to advocacy, to change, you know, I’ve got to do my best to keep myself whole and intact as well, you know, or it does no one any good.
Tammy: Thank you. This is just amazing.
Alissa: Thank you.
Tammy: I’m going to ask you one last question. Through all this, what’s your most laughable moment?
Alissa: One of my favorite moments, so, a little bit about my daughter – she is 17. She’s intellectually disabled. She’s probably functioning around seven and she has cerebral palsy. She has schizophrenia. She had a severe – grade 3 – bilateral brain bleed. She has hydrocephalus with a shunt. She’s meth and alcohol affected. She was three months premature and her birth parents are related. So, what basket a stuff to be given. But this is one of my favorite stories about her. I home-schooled her up until third grade. And then in third grade she went to public school. She comes home and she’s telling me the story about how she and the other black girls in class were having a discussion. I realized as she went on that she thought she was black and so I said, “Madeline, did you know you’re not black”, and she said, “What?”, and she fell straight over on to the couch in shock. Then she’s like, “Well, w-what am I?”, and I said, “Well, I think you’re Italian”, and she said, “I must have gotten confused.” [laughter] It was so cute. And another really cute one I have to say about my son who’s autistic. This was just his — the way he thought it worked. At 18, he sat down to come out of the closet as straight. He figured every kid – like each parent – you don’t know. And then, you wait until adulthood and then apparently each child needs to sit their parents down and explain whether you are straight or gay. I just thought it was the cutest thing that one he thought that there’s no concern about what you might be, but that, he better inform me.
Tammy: Right. That’s his job.
Alissa: That he is straight.
Tammy: To tell you at this age.
Alissa: Yes. Yes. So it was cute because he came out as straight.
Tammy: That’s great. Thank you so much.
Alissa: You’re welcome.
Tammy: Such a wonderful story.
Alissa: Thank you so much, Tammy.
Tammy: Thank you.
Voice: You have been listening to “Just Ask Mom”, recorded and copyrighted in 2017 by Mothers on the Frontline. Today’s podcast host was Tammy Nyden. The music is “Olde English” written, performed, and recorded by FlameEmoji. For more podcasts in this and other series relating to children’s mental health, go to MothersOnTheFronline.com.