When I made the decision to write a book that told my family’s story, I knew I had to do so in a way that was rooted in love and respect.
Yes, it was a story about struggle, but it was also about so much more than that.
It was also a story of family strength and resilience.
That’s what drew me to Restorative Narrative — a narrative style that emphasizes strength in the midst of struggle. Adopting this perspective allowed me to tell my family’s story and to share the experiences of the other families I interviewed for the book with respect and hopefully without causing harm. And that was the only way I was prepared to write this book: in a way that would not only be beneficial to some future reader desperately seeking answers within the pages, but also to the parents who had entrusted me with often painful and difficult details about their own and their children’s lives.
Tackling this subject matter in any other way was unthinkable. Imagine how it would feel to have your family’s experience framed in a context of deficiency and failure — how humiliating and soul-shattering that would be. I wasn’t prepared to do that to anyone’s family, let alone my own. Fortunately, it wasn’t necessary to do so. Restorative Narrative, with its emphasis on recovery, restoration, and resilience, offered a compelling alternative. It allowed me to write a book I wanted to write — one that was anchored on the premise of finding strength in the storm.
Honoring each family’s right to tell its story its way
What this meant, in practical terms, was honoring each family’s need to tell its story its way. Not only was it necessary to connect with the other parents I interviewed in a way that fostered trust, intimacy, and sharing — by going deep during the interview process and by allowing each family to be conscious and deliberate about what they were choosing to share: it also meant providing them with the final say about how their stories would be told as well as offering them a range of options in terms of privacy.
The first step, of course, was to actually find parents who were willing to speak frankly about their families’ experiences — who were willing to open up to me about what it is like to be the parent of a child who is struggling with one or more mental health, neurodevelopmental, and/or behavioral challenges (diagnoses that could mean anything from depression and anxiety to learning and attention differences to autism spectrum disorders). I was able to find these families by tapping into the vast network of personal and professional contacts I managed to build up over nearly three decades of researching and writing about parenting. We’re talking about relationships that are deeply rooted in trust. That foundation of trust is was what made this book possible. A number of the parents I interviewed told me that they wouldn’t have been able to open up to anyone but me. They wouldn’t have felt safe talking about their families’ struggles. They would have worried about being judged — of being labeled a bad parent or having their child labeled a bad kid. They would have worried about the potential fallout for their child or their family, if their identities were revealed. Bottom line? They wouldn’t have been willing to take that risk.
Honoring the trust that these parents placed in me meant giving them full control over the telling of their families’ stories. I allowed them to determine the format the interviews would take — whether they felt more comfortable responding in writing to a series of questions or whether they preferred to be interviewed by telephone (and to then be given the opportunity to review the edited transcripts of those interviews after the fact). And I followed their lead in terms of determining how much privacy they needed in order to feel comfortable being interviewed—if, for example, they were willing to share their stories using their real name or a pseudonym; and whether there were certain details about their child or their family that they wanted me to mask.
I also asked for their assistance in determining the scope of and setting the tone for the book. I asked them what would be helpful and what would be harmful to the parent of a child who struggling: what did (and didn’t) parents need to hear when they were in the midst of a crisis — when they were trying to make sense of a child’s diagnosis, for example. Time and time again, they emphasized the importance of weaving in messages of hope and resilience and of embracing the idea of recovery (which means striving for the best possible quality of life for your child and your family, while simultaneously continuing to acknowledge the reality of each family member’s struggles). They wanted other parents to know that children are resilient; that families are resilient; and you can learn how to weather the inevitable storms of life together.
The gift of time and emotional distance
Something else I learned while researching and writing this book is that time and emotional distance are a writer’s best friend. I would not have been able to write this book when things were at their worst for my family. The events I described in these pages have been too raw and painful for me to write about, let alone process, in real time. I wouldn’t have had the emotional distance to put individual events into perspective while I was doing the hard work of living through them.
Taking the long view — writing from the vantage point of more than a decade later — made it possible for me to write a stronger and more helpful book. I was, for example, able to adopt a more balanced perspective when writing about the supporting cast of characters in my family’s story: teachers, doctors, therapists, and so on. It was only in retrospect that I was able to see that the vast majority of the people we encountered under often highly challenging circumstances were, in fact, well-intentioned individuals who were doing their best to make things better for my family. They weren’t the enemy. They were at least as frustrated as we were by waiting lists and other system constraints. Their inevitable shortcomings (hey, they were only human) came to feel a whole lot less personal over time.
Allowing these events to percolate in my mind for an extended period of time also provided me with another far-reaching advantage. By the time I sat down to write this book, I knew how the story was going to end. So rather than writing a book that was steeped in worry and uncertainty — the emotions that I was living at the time — I was able to write a book that was rooted in possibility and hope; that was written from the vantage point of a parent whose children had weathered the storm and whose family had emerged stronger and more connected than ever.
That was the book I chose to write.