By Mary Jane Mudd
As I walked toward the escalator, palms sweating and head down, I could feel their eyes on me. One set, two sets, three sets, possibly thousands of eyeballs under furrowed brows. I lifted my head to see nice, sympathetic smiles, a nod or two and a grimace of understanding, as if to say, “Those SOBs. Sorry, MJ.” I was one of 2,500 employees whose jobs were eliminated that day, caught up in the familiar drama known as THE. CORPORATE. ACQUISITION. A tearful colleague came up and grasped my arms, too choked up to speak. Although I was experiencing the same sadness and humiliation as anyone else in my shoes, my response surprised me: “Well, it hurts, but it’s nothing like the day Mackenzie was diagnosed.”
Such an odd thing to say at the moment, but how true. It was indeed a dose of very bad news when we learned that our seemingly healthy baby had a weird disorder called tuberous sclerosis complex, and that she would be mentally challenged, autistic and epileptic, among other things. A friend of mine says, “TS stands for This Sucks,” and I wholeheartedly concur. By the day of my downsizing, Mackenzie was 11 and her diagnosis was a decade old. Hence my first ah-ha moment of the combo businesswoman/special-needs parent experience: keep it all in perspective.
In the eight years since those weepy escalator goodbyes, I have read articles, posts and books written about how parenting experiences can be applied in the business world. Words like multi-tasking, productivity and improved people management are repeated ad nauseum, so there’s no point in noting them here. Still, I can’t help but step back and consider how the marathon of special needs parenting has made my career journey more enjoyable. Again, odd, but true. Does this equate to making me a better business leader or team contributor? I’m not certain, but I’d like to share a few key learnings, with the hope that you may be able to compare them to your own challenges and glean a pearl or two for yourself. After all, it’s all about how we look at it.
Parents of special kids have learned to navigate the world of the ARD (Admission, Review and Dismissal). Like a parent/teacher conference on steroids, these annual meetings (or more, if parents or educators request them) can either be a pleasure or a rip-roaring exercise in futility. The latter of the two makes some parents permanently angry, so much so that educators wince when they see them coming. Such was our experience during the “Great Rocky Balboa Period,″ when Mackenzie took to whacking at all of us when she didn’t receive essential things like, in one case, a “yellow dog” just because she saw one on TV. We tried for months to get approval for in-home behavior therapy, because the school had the ability to provide it, and a private shrink was too expensive. Back and forth we went, like square-dancing at the local dance hall: step right step, do-si-do, hand to your pardner and promenade right out the door because you aren’t getting in-home behavior therapy!
I went from being a funny, friendly, supportive parent to an I’ll-kick-your-a#!-just-because-you’re-standing-there parent, neither of which did me any good. Then a road-weary special needs mom told me to stop complaining and read the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). So I read up and became enlightened—what a novel idea!
At the next ARD, I came armed, not only with good intentions but with the knowledge of IDEA. By then I understood the school’s side of things—tight budgets, great demands—but also how I could respectfully, yet assertively, plead my case to get what I wanted.
Two days later, the paperwork went through and a lady named Miss Gladys started coming to our home to help us better understand Mackenzie’s behaviors and manage her outbursts. Things still get crazy at our house, but that’s usually by choice.
3 WORTHY LESSONS
1. Learn, baby, learn. Trying to achieve something in the workplace? Don’t just go to your boss with how hard you try or what you believe is fair. First learn everything you can about your organization’s vision, mission and fiscal situation. Determine where you fit in and how you can offer value. Pursue a mentor to help you navigate the political waters of your workplace and offer insights on career enhancement. Always remember that knowledge is power.
2. Have confidence. “If I have lost confidence in myself, I have the whole universe against me.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson. “If I do not display confidence, I am invisible to others.” –MaryJane Mudd (made it up on the fly). Here’s the thing: If you educate yourself on your topic, need or idea, you will be confident in bringing it forward. Not arrogant or overbearing, but reasonably assured that there is a basis for your opinion, whatever it may be. We can’t expect others to believe in us if we don’t believe in ourselves.
3. Value all people. Angry, kick-butt MJ achieved nothing with the ARD team, but the day I looked at all seven people sitting around the table—three teachers, two nurses, a school administrator and a psychologist—and sincerely thanked them for contributing 40–60 hours per week of their lives to kids like my daughter, they started to listen. I never took my eyes off my goals but also didn’t forget their essential roles in the motion-picture dramedy called “Mackenzie’s Life.” From this I learned that in all situations, be it work, committees, non-profit boards or even book clubs—every person has value and deserves respect. It’s amazing what can be learned, let alone achieved, when this simple truth prevails. It’s a different kind of “education” altogether.
I’m not so presumptuous as to think I’m the only person on the planet who’s BEEN. THROUGH. STUFF. I hope you can go away from this article thinking about how life’s unusual experiences have helped you approach situations a bit differently.