Mothers with ADHD are frequently bad at the very things that women are stereotypically supposed to be good at.
In most of the ways that matter, my friend Karen was a wonderful parent. She loved her children and demonstrated it daily. She hugged them, played with them, and read to them. She was neither permissive nor abusive. Instead, she used her children’s mistakes to teach them about empathy and kindness. Her kids were among the happiest and most loving children I have ever known.
One of her greatest strengths as a mother was her natural teaching ability. By the time that her daughter was 8, she knew all the parts of a combustion engine, the scientific name and classification of hundreds of animals, and could diagnose plant diseases at a glance. Karen taught herself and her three children German using library books, and together they wrote a fascinating series of children’s stories about a canine Sherlock Holmes.
In the end, none of Karen’s strengths as a mother mattered because they were completely overshadowed by the symptoms of her undiagnosed ADHD. She was easily distracted from the rather mind-numbing job of parenting small children. She sometimes lost track of one or more of her children in public or forgot to pick them up from school events. Her kids, who also had ADHD, sometimes lacked supervision because she was distracted and they were injured more frequently and got into the kind of scrapes that are unique to kids who are both highly creative and impulsive.
Perhaps Karen could have overcome all of that, but her undoing was the basic housekeeping work of parenting, such as cleaning, laundry, dishes, cooking, and paying bills. Her house was perpetually knee-deep in clothes, papers, dirty dishes, and toys. Often her kids went to school in clothes that were dirty, wrinkled, or inappropriate for the weather.
Like most people with ADHD, Karen especially struggled with time management. So she was useless when it came to enforcing homework assignments. She forgot important school events like picture day and field trips. Mornings were sheer chaos in their home, and the children missed the school bus as often as they caught it. In fact, her children were tardy so often, they became truant according to the rules of the county where she lived.
The truant officer assigned to Karen’s children dropped by Karen’s home one winter day when all of her children were home with the flu. He took one good look around her house and called Child Protective Services.
The CPS worker who responded to the truant officer’s call took Karen’s children from their messy sick beds and placed them into the foster system. Karen was frantic and heartbroken. She berated herself for being dirty and lazy, and she vowed to do whatever it took to get her children back.
But what the system required Karen to do to get her children back was not possible with her handicap. Not only did she have to keep a clean home over a period of time, she also had to fill out paperwork and show up on time for meetings, visits, and hearings.
ADHD is perverse in that the harder you try to pay attention, the less you are able. So at a time when Karen most needed to be able to perform like a person without any handicaps, her handicap became the most severe. She failed to meet the judge’s requirements for reunification, so she lost all of her parental rights and her children were put up for adoption. Three days after the judge terminated all contact with her kids, Karen tried to kill herself.
Luckily, the psychiatrist who saw Karen in the hospital following her suicide attempt recognized her symptoms as severe ADHD. She began treatment for the disorder, and bit by bit she began putting her life back together with the help of medication and therapy.
Three years later, Karen found out that her children had still not been adopted. Meanwhile, she had blossomed. She was doing better than ever in her job, had married a kind and stable man, and she became pregnant. Karen went back to CPS to see if there was any hope of reconnecting with her children.
Naively, Karen assumed that her diagnosis of ADHD and the success of her treatment would work in her favor. Like any reasonable person would, she assumed that CPS would be required to make the same sort of reasonable accommodations as any other government agency. What she did not know is that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not protect parents with disabilities. Many states have laws that allow children to be removed from a disabled parent’s care even if there is no abuse or neglect and the child is thriving.
Sharing her diagnosis only made things worse for Karen. In the mind of her caseworker, it branded Karen as a prescription drug addict. Even though her psychiatrist confirmed that Karen was not taking any kind of medication during her pregnancy, the social worker required her to take random drug tests including one in the delivery room when her baby was born. Karen was allowed to keep her new baby when it was born. But her reunion with her older three children had to wait until they aged out of the system.
As a mother with ADHD, I took Karen’s story as a cautionary tale, and I lived in fear of CPS until my youngest turned 18. Like Karen, I had difficulties with time management, housekeeping, and consistency. I was religiously compliant with my medication and therapy and I used every trick I could find to make our family run better. But I still went through bad patches when things would snow-ball out of control. I shudder to think what would have happened to my family if I had been scrutinized on a bad day.
Mothers with ADHD are frequently bad at the very things that women are stereotypically supposed to be good at. We are the ones who are supposed to remember to take the children for vaccinations and to the dentist. We are supposed to run the household, and that includes everything from keeping the house clean to remembering to feed our kids’ pets. Our inability to conform to these gender roles only increases the prejudice that exists against adults with ADHD.
Mothers with ADHD have three strikes against them. The first is that almost all of the research about ADHD is about how it presents in boys. This means that not only is there very little known about how ADHD works in adults, almost nothing is known about how it works in adult women.
The second strike against mothers with ADHD is that they are rarely prescribed stimulants, the kind of medication that has been shown to be most effective. In a study of 60 mothers with the disorder, only one was receiving the medication despite the fact that all of them reported experiencing serious problems with parenting.
The third strike against mothers with ADHD is the dominance of whatever genes are responsible for ADHD. It is the #2 genetically inherited condition after height (80%). In other words, the vast majority of mothers with ADHD will have at least one child with the same disorder. It is challenging enough to keep your own mess under control when you have the disorder. Kids who have ADHD need a lot of structure and help managing their symptoms. Sadly, the very help they need is what their ADHD parent is least able to give. Even with treatment, the challenges of being ADHD while raising ADHD kids is daunting.
The stigma associated with ADHD makes the challenges for mothers with the disorder even greater. For some reason, it is still socially acceptable to write off this disability as a figment of drug-manufacturer’s imaginations. Not only are they automatically labeled as bad parents because of their children’s symptomatic behavior, their own symptoms make it very hard to meet social expectations for parents.
I don’t know what became of Karen. We lost touch and my efforts to find her through social media have been in vain. I would like to think that her story had as happy of an ending as possible, that this Thanksgiving all of her children will be seated around her table.
But even if Karen is reunited with her children, they have sustained incalculable harm from being wrenched from their loving mother’s arms to come of age in our foster system.
Karen, her children, and women like her are why we cannot allow prejudice against ADHD to continue. No mom should lose her kids because her ADHD symptoms keep her from looking like a good mom. We need to demand protection for all disabled parents, and better research and treatment for women with ADHD. And charities devoted to child welfare should offer ADHD parents the kind of support that moms with the disorder need.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.