**please note: in this blog I use gendered language to describe motherhood but I am aware that there are many non-binary or trans parents with ADHD who carry and birth children and are the primary caregivers to newborns who may also have similar experiences to mine. I have chosen to mostly use the terms ‘mom’ and ‘mother’ because I’m talking about my own experience, but am aware this may be problematic for birthing/caregiving parents of other genders and I hope you still find this article relevant and useful!
The other week, my husband mentioned that he was concerned that every time I had an opportunity to spend time with my toddler, I was passing her off to someone else. To him, to my mom, putting on the TV, whatever. I was initially very defensive because I felt like I was being called out or accused of being a bad parent. Since I have ADHD, whenever I initially feel defensive, I often have to take a beat to sort out my feelings. Is this RSD (rejection sensitivity dysphoria)? Am I reacting to information I may have mis-heard or misunderstood because I was only half-paying attention? Is this possibly activating my ever-present shame-pile of Thing I’m Beating Myself Up About, or is this a real, legitimate critique? Sometimes, they’re not mutually exclusive.
The thing is, it’s hard to be a parent with ADHD. So much so that in many of the ADHD support forums I am a part of online, I see people saying that they have actually made the choice not to have children because of their ADHD. That is mind blowing; think about it for a second. There are people out there whose ADHD is so crippling to them that they are consciously choosing not to experience a whole aspect of life that is so fulfilling to so many people. Let me be clear; if you are childless by choice, that is one thing and I respect you so much. But as a person who loves children and always wanted to be a parent, I am deeply saddened to learn that some people fear the impacts that ADHD may have on a child so much that they actually abstain.
Not only am I a parent with ADHD, I coach a lot of parents with ADHD. It’s not something to fear or bemoan – it’s something to work on, and we have the best reason to work hard; our kids deserve our full attention. Well, as often as we can manage it, that is.
Last year I posted a YouTube video on navigating your pregnancy with ADHD. I have another vlog to post soon about the first 6 months with baby, but I thought I’d put forward some of the things I’ve learned so far as the parent of an 18-month-old baby:
It’s not easy to answer the question of whether ADHD meds are safe for a pregnant or breastfeeding woman or not
We talk a lot about how to parent a child with ADHD rarely about going through pregnancy with ADHD. Not all doctors agree on the impacts of ADHD medication on the developing fetus and the risk associated with breastfeeding while on ADHD medication, and as a result, not all women will have access to meds even if they want or need them. While some doctors and psychiatrists feel that ADHD meds in the lowest dosage possible is okay, the research is still new enough and still inconclusive enough that some medical professionals do not feel comfortable prescribing stimulant medication to expectant mothers.
At the end of the day, some doctors and women may decide that being on ADHD meds during pregnancy and while breastfeeding is worth the risk. What do I mean when I say ‘risk’? ADHD, coupled with postpartum depression or the natural forgetfulness of the ‘mom brain’ (as well as sleep deprivation) could put a child at risk if the mother feels she may not be able to be her best self as a parent. There are a lot of ways this could manifest and I certainly do not mean to suggest that unmedicated ADHD mothers are inherently a danger to their child; only that for some women managing all of this, as well as the demands of a newborn, could be overwhelming. If you are a new parent experiencing postpartum depression or noticing that your ADHD is causing dangerous behaviours, please let your doctor know right away or talk to someone! Postpartum depression often goes unnoticed because of the shame that women feel about the unsettling thoughts that accompany PPD.
Here’s the thing; Shame is also really common with ADHD. We spend a lifetime trying to cover up, explain away or make up for our mistakes,and this means that women with unchecked ADHD who are new moms might be getting a double-whammy of silence-inducing shame. When my baby was first born I kept turning on the wrong stovetop element and walking away, or putting food on to cook and forgetting about it, which could have resulted in a house fire. I smacked my baby’s head on corners of cupboard doors I’d left open or tried to carry her upright and bumped her into walls because of my own lack of self-awareness around body space (being clumsy can be really common for ADHDers) – don’t worry, she was okay! I would go on outings completely forgetting extra diapers, wipes or snacks for her, and during my pregnancy I was so emotionally dysregulated that I had anxiety-induced insomnia and couldn’t sleep at night because I was up for hours anxiously fixating on social situations that had upset me. I caused so much drama as a result of my hormone-supercharged RSD that my sister-in-law literally still will not speak to me, 18 months later. I would obsess over stories of children that had died as a result of being forgotten in the carseat and wonder, could that have been me? I bore a lot of shame about my forgetfulness, clumsiness and seeming inability to manage simple situations. I lost friendships and important connections I had because I couldn’t keep up with the demands of everyday life, but I hid the truth from everyone because I was embarrassed and felt ashamed that I couldn’t manage.
I was fortunate in that although my ADHD symptoms were raging, my baby was a good sleeper which meant that my sleep deprivation was minimal and I did not suffer from postpartum depression. If I had had less sleep or did have PPD, I can’t imagine how I would have coped as a new parent. I would say that if a woman with ADHD who is pregnant or breastfeeding is struggling with more than I did, she might want to consider using medication to make sure she can safely parent her baby. Ultimately I decided not to, but I strongly considered it several times and would have found that to be a great option if I didn’t have as much support from family as I did to get through this challenging period.
New babies sleep a lot. I mean, A LOT! (except when they don’t)
Okay so disclaimer: we all know the horror story of that one new mom whose baby only slept for 15 minutes at a time and she basically didn’t get a good night’s sleep for a straight year and yes, that could be you. However, I think it’s more common that most newborns conform to the general guideline of needing to nap every two to three hours. Yes, you read that right; newborn babies, for the first three months or so of their lives, will nap EVERY TWO TO THREE HOURS. Then they go down to napping three times a day, and then two, and usually not one until after 12 months or so. That is a LOT of down time for a neurodiverse person. I structured my maternity leave a lot differently than that of my neurotypical new mom friends; many of them cleared their schedule, never committed to anything and pretty much just stayed home because, you know, napping and taking care of Baby.
During naptime, I studied and got my ADHD coaching business off the ground, socialized with friends, reorganized my apartment and learned to actually keep clean, and volunteered my time, taking my napping baby with me. They say you should sleep when the baby sleeps, and I did sometimes, but they don’t call it attention deficit HYPERACTIVE disorder for nothing; I had a lot of energy! Being cooped up in the house all day regulating yourself to remember to feed, change and care for a tiny human all day = A TON OF ENERGY YOU NEED TO BURN OFF AND A BRAIN FULL OF BEES. I had some challenges (like trying to keep up with responsibilities I had committed to with a nonprofit I volunteered with and ultimately having them think I was a total moron because I kept dropping administrative balls left and right and they couldn’t understand why) but getting out of the house, having social time and having something to keep my brain busy was SO important for me. In fact, I would say it helped me to stay focused on doing a good job caring for my newborn because it gave my brain enough “playtime” – a crucial self-management piece for any ADHDer.
Having gone through it myself, I would caution any ADHDer to not overcommit – if possible, don’t put yourself in roles where people are counting on you for results, but at the same time, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and keep engaging in activities you enjoy. Make sure to let friends and family know you need social time (if you’re extroverted) and find mom groups and baby-friendly activities to participate in. The local community centres were a godsend for me; they had baby-friendly programming that allowed me to get out of the house and often had swimming pools I could take my newborn to (always good for the achy post-partum body).
Playing with your kid can be boring, but regulating yourself to pay attention to them is worth it
Okay, back to what I started out saying at the beginning of this blog. “I hate playing with my kids,” one ADHD mom I was coaching told me, “it’s so boring!”. It’s easy to hyperfocus on your perfect, brand-new newborn because the ADHD brain loves things that are new and interesting. Not to mention that being a good parent to a newborn basically means feeding them, changing them and keeping them alive, which is relatively easy.
As your baby grows, however, they start to require more and more interaction. Around 9-12 months they may become mobile and start to be able to engage in simple forms of imaginative play. Although interacting with your baby is important from day one, I found that things really started to pick up around this stage. My baby wasn’t napping as much and was more actively wanting me to play with her – she wasn’t as easily “passed off” to dad or grandma for cuddles. I was fixated on keeping the house clean and building my business. I did the normal ADHD thing where you get distracted by passing fancies and impulses. But now I had a child who missed me when I didn’t spend time with her and who needed almost constant interaction. Her world is so small and the day is so long for her – she needs her mommy to talk to her, sing to her and play with her. Although I was cognizant of that fact, I also struggled with my distraction. I could be thinking about spending time with her and planning to play with her right after finishing the dishes – and then get distracted by the next mundane tasks and spend a few hours flitting about while only half-paying attention to her.
I don’t subscribe to the helicopter style of parenting that advocates being in constant contact with your child. I think one advantage that ADHD parents actually have over neurotypical parents is that we may be a bit more devil-may-care, which allows our child more room to explore and try things. A few scraped knees, a few mouthfuls of dirt – these are things that are actually good for kids in my opinion. I’m not saying it’s a great idea to, say, leave your child alone in the bathtub or unsupervised for long periods of time or anything, but hovering over your child and not letting them ever get into shenanigans isn’t a balanced approach to parenting either. I think my ADHD has helped me cultivate a more relaxed style of parenting. The flipside is that I do need to be vigilant to make sure that I’m not ignoring my child and that I’m still prioritizing giving her my full attention.
It’s not always easy; I’ll be honest. Playing with baby toys is fun for like, 33.3 seconds. When your child is doing something cute or funny it’s easy to be interested. When you want to do something else and they’re demanding your attention, it’s not always easy to disengage the hyperfocus and respond to their needs in that exact moment. From the outside, this can look like being disinterested in parenting or being uncaring. Neurotypical people can’t see inside our brains to know how hard it is for us to stop what we’re doing even if there’s a crying baby in the background, or to sit in the same place for twenty minutes and play with blocks and crayons. There are times I have to remind myself not to keep getting up and doing something else while I’m supposed to be spending time with my child, and that kind of self-regulation costs me. For this reason, I make sure to balance that out with lots of social time and me time. I’m also fortunate in that I’m Canadian which means I had a full year of maternity leave, after which I began working from home. I have endless compassion for women in the US who have to return to work only months or even weeks after their child is born; in addition to the struggles of self-regulation and managing post-pregnancy hormones AND ADHD, they have to throw working and being apart from their very young babies into the mix.
I would highly recommend that any parent with ADHD create as many support networks as possible. I often tell my clients that ADHDers love to “reinvent the wheel” because we hate asking for help and insist on doing everything ourselves, but now is not the time for that. Swallow your pride and do what’s best for your child – make sure that when you don’t have the attention span for them, that someone else does. Get grandparents, aunts and uncles involved. Make friends with the other parents at your moms’ or parents’ group and see if you can arrange playdates. In British Columbia where I live, there are free drop-ins for newborns and children through community centres, libraries and a school-based program called Strong Start, which even babies can go to. The more ways we can create attention for our children, even when we ourselves are not able to give it, the better for them.
Trying to force yourself to give more than you can or stay focused taxes your executive functioning system. This doesn’t just cost you energy, it might cost you emotional regulation, and the dark side of ADHD is being emotionally dysregulated. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read about parents on ADHD forums talking about snapping at or yelling at their children. Yelling at your child is damaging, as is taking out your anger in ANY form at them. Our children trust us to be safe people in our lives and we need to show up for our kids in every way possible. For me, that might mean not being with or paying attention to my daughter every second of every day, but the attention I can give to her is happy, positive and loving and I make sure that someone is there to give her love and attention at all times. If I pushed myself to pay attention all day long, I know I would be a grumpy, snappy mess and I want to minimize how often my child sees that side of me. Anger is a normal and healthy emotion and it’s unrealistic for us to expect to NEVER get angry at our children, but if you are a person with ADHD and you’re feeling emotionally dysregulated, you’re not in a good place to parent.
Get support (possibly in the form of an ADHD coach!), take meds if you need them, take breaks if you have the luxury to, and be kind to yourself. Parenting comes with a heap of guilt anyway, so realize that you have some different challenges that neurotypical parents and practice self-compassion.