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The Moms Who Are Our Heroes

Raising challenging children isn't for the faint-of-heart

We hear a lot about hero moms, from political candidates telling their life stories on the stump to Academy Award winners pouring out tearful thanks. These stories are usually about mothers who raised successful children in extreme situations—their husbands had died, they worked in low-paying jobs (or several low-paying jobs), they lived in dangerous neighborhoods. Yet they managed to create loving, structured homes where their kids learned the values and discipline it takes to excel.

On this Mother’s Day we’d like to salute some less-heralded moms who are just as devoted, tireless, and, when necessary, steely: mothers of children with psychiatric and learning disorders. Professionals who work with children note that most kids can thrive with parenting that’s just okay; for kids with challenging disorders, it takes super-parenting to help them flourish. Not that we don’t think dads are important, but in most of these families it’s the mother who does the heavy lifting. And many of them do it with heroic focus, persistence, and selflessness.

For starters, moms are, more often than not, the first to detect that something unusual is going on with a child. Whether a stay-at-home mom or a working mom, they tend to be the most tuned into a child’s development and the nuances of his behavior, and to sense when something isn’t right. They’re the ones most likely to question the pediatrician or the teacher, and to be unconvinced when grandparents and friends dismiss problems with “it’s just a stage,” or “he’ll grow out of it.”

When it comes to diagnosis, moms are often the ones who won’t take the first answer they get, if it doesn’t really fit what they know, or isn’t working for the child. They’re the ones who do exhaustive research, searching for an explanation for a child’s complex symptoms and not giving up even when other people who care for the child—teachers, or doctors, or even spouses—don’t share their sense of urgency.

While mothers of typical children may have to push them to excel in school, these moms have to push institutions—insurance companies, the medical establishment, school districts—to provide their kids with the help they need. Getting a child with a psychiatric or learning disorder into a good school can be tougher than getting a kid into Harvard. These moms hire lawyers and navigate harrowing bureaucracies. They become advocates for their kids and networkers with other moms. They write blogs and launch organizations. In the process, they are sometimes transformed. A very forceful and articulate mom we know told us the other day that until she found herself struggling to raise a child with Asperger’s she was actually quite shy. We found it hard to imagine.

And then there’s the time-consuming, taxing, frustrating, day-to-day effort so many of these moms expend to get challenging children into their clothes in the morning and onto the school bus, to get them to eat, to manage tantrums and other disruptive behavior, to get them to doctor’s visits and therapy appointments, and to find play dates that won’t be a disaster for them. It takes not only tirelessness but toughness. A mom who recently went through Parent-Child Interaction Therapy to learn to manage a 6-year-old with disruptive behavior told me that before the training she had a hard time setting clear limits. She worked, and, like so many of us, when she was home she wanted her time with her son to be fun. She was reluctant to set clear expectations for him, and follow through consistently if he didn’t comply. Not any more, and her son is doing wonderfully.

One of the rewards of working at the Child Mind Institute is meeting these mothers, whom we admire enormously. They’re more Mama Grizzly than Tiger Mom, and they’re our heroes.

This article was last reviewed or updated on December 5, 2023.