What unique challenges do single parents face when raising kids with learning differences?
In this episode, hosts Amanda Morin and Gretchen Vierstra talk with a single parent who’s “in it.” Rachel is raising her 10-year-old daughter, who has ADHD and other learning challenges. Listen to Rachel talk about the journey she’s been on with her daughter. Hear how she’s trying to manage everything as a single parent. Plus, get Rachel’s tips for how to use humor during challenging moments.
Plus, hear from another single parent: Raising an intense daughter with ADHD (Andrea’s story)
Amanda: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It." On this podcast, we offer perspectives, stories, and advice for and from people who have challenges with reading, math, focus, and other types of learning differences. We talk to parents, caregivers, teachers, experts, and sometimes even kids. I'm Amanda Morin. I'm the director of thought leadership for Understood. And I'm a parent to kids who learn differently.
Gretchen: And I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood. And today we're talking about what it's like raising a child with learning and thinking differences as a single parent.
Amanda: Of course, there are as many stories and different experiences out there as there are single parents. But today we're focusing on Rachel, who is a single mom by choice. She has a 10-year-old daughter who's been diagnosed with a number of learning challenges.
Gretchen: To preserve her daughter's privacy. We won't be using Rachel's last name. And we won't be using her daughter's name at all.
Amanda: And a quick note before we get started. There are a couple of curse words in this conversation. Nothing too outrageous, but you may not want to play it around those with tender ears who might repeat it in places you don't want them to.
Gretchen: We're so pleased to have Rachel with us for this conversation. Rachel, welcome to "In It."
Rachel: Thank you.
Amanda: Actually, Rachel, before we get into the nitty-gritty of raising a child with learning disabilities on your own, we'd love it if you could tell us a little bit about you and also about your daughter. Like what she's like, what she's into, what makes her awesome to you?
Rachel: Sure. Well, I'm 47. I lived for many years in New York City. And then, anticipating that I might become a parent on my own, I experimented with life in the country in western Massachusetts, where I have now lived for over 10 years. This is where I had my daughter, who is now 10. And my daughter is absolutely wonderful. She is, first of all, hilarious, which is a very important value of mine. Anybody who can slay me is an instant friend, and my daughter's very funny. For example, we like to sing popular songs pretending we are our dog, one of our dogs, in the voice of our dog. So that's just an example of — she'll bust out like a rap lyric, but in my dog's voice. She's very athletic. She's a very skillful skier. She likes anything propulsive: skateboards, scooters, skis. But that's her. And she loves fashion, by the way. That's another one.
Gretchen: How are the two of you similar, and how are the two of you different?
Rachel: Well, we're both similar in that we are pretty competitive. We have high expectations of ourselves. And like I said, we're both funny. Wait, did I say I was funny? I'm funny.
Gretchen: Oh, I we got that, right?
Rachel: Yeah. Like my partner — so I do have a partner now, though she doesn't live in Western Mass. But my partner says that when I cook, I'm not allowed to say that the food is good until the other people have said it's good, because I have a tendency to like take a bite out of what I've made at a dinner party and be like, "Oh, this is so good." And my partner is like, "Rachel! Let the other people say it's good." I just was reminded of that and I was like, and also I'm funny. Like, probably I'm not supposed to say that, but I think I'm pretty funny.
And, so how are we different? God. Well, you know, it's an interesting question week to week, because I feel like my daughter at the age of 10 is starting to go through that pre-adolescent developmental process — to use a very clinical word to describe a very dramatic event for girls. I find her changing before my eyes in some ways. I notice her becoming more risk-averse. I wonder if that is linked, almost like as a comorbidity, as they say, to her learning challenges. Meaning her consciousness, her awareness of her limitations is potentially shaping how comfortable she is in the face of uncertainty or dealing with failure, because she has a lot of pride.
She's also intensely stubborn. She's a — can't believe I'm about to say this on a podcast — she's a Taurus. So I'm like going to use her astrological sign. But she is, she's a bull, man, and and it takes her longer to come around. I have the emotional life of, like, a middle schooler, by which I mean, I pass through feelings very intensely and very quickly. So that's, I mean, yeah, there are a lot of ways we're different. She's also quite opaque about her feelings. So she's not a kid who's like, "I am feeling worried about my learning issues," right? It's more like, "I'm fine." And obviously still waters run deep and I'm only beginning to get insight into what's really going on there. Because I'm somebody who, for a living, teaches people how to express themselves and develop their emotional intelligence. I'm like, what do you mean you're not going to tell me how you feel every five minutes?
Amanda: Do you mind sharing with us the specifics of your child's learning differences and whether she has a formal diagnosis or anything?
Rachel: Sure. We recently had her second neuropsych evaluation. Her first was at the end of first grade, and the second was — we're now close to the end of fourth grade. And while there was not really a clear diagnosis, there were signs at the end of first grade. And now the diagnosis is subthreshold ADHD, the primarily inattentive kind. And that means, so far as I understand it, that she meets criteria for having that primarily inattentive ADHD, but she's — but not all of it. Enough of it to recommend trying meds. She's got very low working memory. She scores in the 19th percentile for working memory, which basically means, you know, taking in information and being able to manipulate that information in order to accomplish a task.
So for her, that could look like, you know, looking at a word and she's reading the instructions. It says, like, you know, underline the base word and circle the suffix and then write it down on the slide. And that's hard for her to take that information and use it, execute the task. She also has learning disabilities in math and reading comprehension, and she is showing signs of anxiety in the psychosocial piece, as well as other kind of attendant psychological concerns. And yeah, that was not the funnest reading material I've ever engaged with. Funnest, actually not being word. But even recounting it to you both right now, you know, I can feel myself sort of clutching and seizing my body, like, it's just it's not — not fun. So, yeah, that's all of it.
Amanda: There's nothing quite like seeing your child sort of reduced to a report on paper that doesn't say like, "And she also raps in the dog's voice and she also skis."
Gretchen: When did you first think there might be something going on with your daughter? Did you notice it? Did someone else notice it?
Rachel: I never notice anything. Can I tell you? I'm just like, this is my kid. Hey, sometimes she does this, sometimes she does that. Like, maybe because I'm an educator, maybe because I ran a residential summer camp for many years. I'm like, all kids are annoying pains in the asses sometimes. Like that's just kind of how I am. Like, I don't know. So I — maybe some people would think I would pick up on it fast. I didn't pick up on anything because I just sort of feel this like — kids are going to be kids. It was, it was my daughter's caregiver when she was 10 months old or 9 months old who said, "You know, she's not making a lot of speech sounds." And I was like, "OK, sure." And she's like, "Well, I think you should get her evaluated.".
So, you know, we called early intervention. They came, they found developmental delays in every category. I think she was 14 months old at that point. You know, I have mixed feelings about it. Before I got that second neuropsych, I would have told you, did I really need to call early intervention? Like, you know, she actually — the thing for which we brought her, speech, is the thing that she is strongest on now. When early intervention comes, you know, they earn their pay by finding problems. So it was tricky for me to get then a whole new report when my kid was not even 2 years old that was like every single category. It's like, "No, dude, I just want to talk about her speech.".
You know, I'm telling you this story because I think that we also are coming of age as parents in a world where there's a literal industry that is built to, yes, help your child, but also profits off pathologizing your child. And it's a kind of chicken and the egg thing. Like, of course, you want help for your kid, but you also don't want so much information that you begin to label them and treat them in a particular way.
So that was the beginning. And, you know, I didn't really think a lot of it after she began talking really effectively, you know, after she became an exceptional speaker. And I was like, all right, cool. She was just a little late. And then in first grade, a teacher suggested that she might need extra support and that she was having trouble following directions. And following directions, that's the working memory piece. And from then on, there was again, no diagnosis in first grade, but it was just clear that she was struggling, particularly in math. She was struggling to be able to provide salient details about passages that she had read. And then at the same time, I was like, "Oh, wait a second, I think I have this problem, too." And I started to learn more about the hereditary nature of this, and I was like, oh, right, like that weird feeling frozen in my brain that happens when I'm presented with information that feels overwhelming. Maybe that's what that is. So there's also this whole other parallel process of like, wait a second, me too? And you're almost like rethinking your whole, your childhood while you're watching your kid figure out theirs.
Amanda: I think a lot of people do that. And it's like, how do you reconcile doing both of them at the same time, you know?
Rachel: I mean, you get good therapy if you can, right? You make sure you have people to talk to. I do think it's one of the most important things we can do as parents is remember that our children are individual beings. And so I think it's very important not to try to superimpose or, you know, conflate our experiences with theirs. It always feels better to be like, "Oh, my kid's just like me." Because then we don't have to do the work of taking care of who they are, because then it just feels like we're taking care of who we are. That is one of the great challenges where I think we're biased towards wanting our kids to be like us because it's just so terrifying when they're not. So that's how you reconcile it, is you don't actually. You recognize that they're not to be reconciled, just that there might be parallel experiences. And if you can find compassion for your child, you should be able to find it for yourself and vice versa.
Gretchen: What kind of conversations have you had with your daughter about learning differences, and how has she been responding to this whole process?
Rachel: Well, again, there's a lot of opaqueness there. I wish I really knew. So one of my parenting policies is that I never lie to her. I'm very clear. And she, I think, trusts wholly that she is always being told the truth. And what I say to her is, if I can't tell her the truth, then I'm not going to say anything. Ninety-nine percent of the time we can live that way. So in this case, I've been very direct with her and I have said you have learning challenges when it comes to math and reading. And I've explained to her what working memory is. And I said, everybody has challenges and this is going to be yours. And here are some challenges I have. Here are some people in our lives. You know, this is this person's challenge and this is that person's challenge. This is going to be the thing that's hardest for you that I'm pretty sure of.
And I say to her also, like, you don't really want to have a life in which you don't have any challenges, because being able to deal with challenges is going to make you have a much happier and more successful life. It's the kids who don't have any problems right now who actually have it harder later. And that I can say it with great certainty, and research will back me up.
So, you know, I'm trying to frame it as being able to deal with difficulty is a muscle that we all have to flex and we're going to get you the support you need. And as she gets older, I'm also going to tell her that this experience of school is presented to us as a neutral structure, but is structured around the experience of a particular kind of learner. And that that's a systemic problem. And it doesn't mean she's defective. It means the system is. But she's not ready for that yet.
Amanda: Yeah, but she — I mean, it sounds like the two of you have like a really open dialogue about this. And I'm wondering how much of that do you feel like is because it's the two of you?
Rachel: I mean, probably a little bit is that. But I think it's just also like because I'm an educator and because I believe in treating children as people, like it's just how I am. And I also think that when you are raising a child on your own, you are more transparent because you do not have a partner to absorb the emotions and the angst that you invariably experience. You kind of leak — your feelings leak out more because you don't have that sponge of the other person.
And I don't want to assume that everyone who is partnered has a partner willing to absorb, but many do. One thing I've learned, you know, my therapist used to say to me before I understood this, she'd be like, just because people are married doesn't mean they're happy. Because, you know, I was always, like, single and like, you know, aching for a partner. And I would do this thing where, of course, you know, very black and white. Oh, everyone who's married is just, like, so happy. She's like, no, they just don't talk about it. But there is something about the way in which a dyad, a group of two, can contain things that a single person cannot. Or at least not this one.
Amanda: When you started this process, was there someone with whom you could have conversations so you felt like you had someone to bounce ideas off?
Rachel: I mean, the thing about being single for so many years is that I doubled down on my friendships. So I have a beautiful friend network. I also have a partner now who is an educator herself. You know, we can talk about it. But actually my daughter's — Jewish people don't usually have godparents, so let's just say like guardian — is herself a second grade teacher, now becoming a learning specialist. And she's just always been the person who, like, came with me to the neuropsych meeting the first time and sat with me, you know. When the psychologist said, "Did anything happen to you during your pregnancy?" — right? — and trying to understand what was wrong with my daughter, I just burst into tears. And there was my friend Maggie, like holding my hand, which P.S., it's just such a stupid question. Don't ask me that fucking question. Like, sorry, I'm going to drop an F-bomb. But like, do you know what I mean? Like I think I get why you're doing it, but maybe just like ask it in a, in a written assessment. It's just, it's such a mom-shaming question. Like, what does she think I'm going to say? I had a couple of margaritas one night when I was nursing? That's true. Yeah. You think that? Is that why? Like, I know that I'm going a little far here, but I just — my point is, like, the kinds of things that can happen to you in those conversations can be incredibly demoralizing. Yes, it is good to have someone with you. And also, we do live in a culture that invariably, you know, consciously or not, often blames the mother. I'm going to settle down now. Don't worry.
Amanda: No no, you're good. You're just going to get us riled up. That's what's going to happen. We're all going to have this conversation now. I feel it. I just feel it in my bones because I think about all the conversations that I had, you know, and this is my background, right? I actually — and I'm laughing a little bit when I say this — I'm a former teacher and early intervention specialist. And sitting — and even sitting in the evaluations for my own kids, having people say those kinds of things to me, I was just like, I know that you are trying to find a way to make this make sense, but sometimes it just doesn't make sense. So, you know, let's not put this on me. And side note, I just do not like sitting in meetings where people call me Mom. It's not my name. You know, like they say "Mom, did you ever...?" Know my name. You know, just please don't call me Mom.
Rachel: Oh, my God. I so agree with that. I haven't really verbalized that, but yeah, that's annoying.
Gretchen: You know, speaking of people sometimes being annoying and sometimes being super helpful. So in your circle of friends or in other parents you met along the way as you were finding out about your daughter's learning challenges, what was helpful from other folks? And what was not helpful?
Rachel: I think what's helpful is just like empathy. Empathy is always helpful. You know, I was just listening to a podcast about grief and loss by a woman who's written a new book about this subject. And she said something to the effect of, "It's OK to bring my mom up on Mother's Day." Her mother had passed away. "It's not like I forgot to think about her and your bringing it up is reminding me." I thought that was so funny. Like, I mean, funny and poignant. Like, you don't have to walk around the fact that I'm in pain about my child struggling. You can say, like, "Damn, that is really hard. I'm so sorry." And, like, "I love you and I'm here for you," or "And I just want you to know I find your kid amazing for these reasons." But don't feel like you have to either minimize your kid or pretend that this isn't a problem. It's a problem. It's hard.
Amanda: I'm going to circle back and ask just a couple of more questions about how this diagnosis has affected the way you parent — or if it has. And what sort of adjustments you may or may have not made along the way.
Rachel: Yeah, I mean, it's affected everything about my parenting in some ways. Like, you know, you always hear that saying, "Parent the child you have, not the child you wish you had." But that becomes extremely salient and painful, particularly for me as someone who grew up with a lot of messaging from my own family about achievement — conventional achievement — as a way to be valued and attended to and loved and given positive outlook on life. And so whether or not I subscribe to those beliefs intellectually, I was definitely engineered with them. And therefore they live with me and they will live on with me for a long time.
And so having a neurodivergent child means that I need to do deep work on trying to unhook from those messages. And it is an ongoing and for sure unresolved challenge for me, because that's deep, deep impacted messages that I grew up with. So that is an area of my parenting where I have to do a lot of work and I mostly feel like I fail. Another way it's changed my parenting is like I have to get really clear on how to manage my own anxiety and panic, because for me, my anxiety and panic can morph very quickly into anger because I'm — that's just where it goes. And I need to be really thoughtful about not allowing global fears about my daughter to then turn into anger that I take out on her.
So if she does, says, refuses to do, refuses to say something, that makes me be like, "Oh, my God, are you going to even go to college?" — like that kind of global panic thinking, then I can snap into anger very quickly. And then try to — and I'm sure I'm using my anger to assert control at a moment when I feel out of control. And all of that leaves her way, way at a disadvantage. Like, that's not helping her at all. That's me and my crap. And I need to, like, work on that. So those are two areas of my parenting where I am "in it," to use your eponymous. I'm "in it," and I'm sure I could go on and on, but I could talk for an hour of each about both of those challenges.
Amanda: That is so relatable to me — that like sort of spiral, that one thing sort of takes me down all of the places that it could go. And so I just I want to say out loud that you are not the only parent who is trying to to keep that tamped down and handled.
Rachel: Well, thank you. And I feel very vulnerable telling you, but I also say it in the hopes that maybe it will help someone else feel less alone.
Gretchen: Assessing your own parenting mid-cycle, right? It's so hard. And one thing I found myself saying, and I don't know if this is the right thing to say to my child sometimes, is just like "I'm going to make mistakes. And I just made one, and I'm here to come back and fix it and apologize to you." Because sometimes I feel like —
Rachel: That's the only thing we have
Gretchen: Yeah, that's it. That's all I can do is say "sorry."
Rachel: That's all we can do. Like, no, that's what we should all be doing all the time. Because unfortunately, if we don't apologize to our children, they assume that we are 100 percent behind our behavior. I think if there's one thing we must do with our children, it is apologize to them and say, "I need a do-over," you know. Or more than a do-over. I need to work on my shit. Or in Charlie's voice, "I need to work on my shit."
Gretchen: Oh my God.
Rachel: The dog. See what I mean? It's funny, right?
Amanda: Oh, my gosh. It's the best.
Rachel: I want to strongly recommend everyone begin speaking in their dogs' voices at difficult and awkward moments. But yeah, that's how — that's how it works.
Amanda: Humorous always.
Gretchen: Humor is it.
Amanda: Yeah, humor is it.
Rachel: Yeah. But, you know, you can't laugh at yourself without having some self-compassion. Humor is a really important way to kind of back out of a rough situation and forgive yourself and forgive each other. And we definitely lean on it.
Amanda: I love that. I think that, you know, I was going to ask more questions. I think that's a perfect place to end, unless there's something you want us to know that we didn't ask.
Rachel: No, I just appreciate the opportunity to connect on this topic and sending lots of love to everybody out there who's navigating this in a world that doesn't often see or attend to the kinds of kids we have.
Amanda: Well, we really appreciate you taking the time.
Gretchen: Yes, thank you.
That was such a powerful conversation. I appreciated how open Rachel was and just how willing she was to share laughs and a little bit of angst with us. So of course, she was just sharing the experiences of her one family. And there are lots of other experiences out there. Amanda, do you think there are other things that we should touch on before we go?
Amanda: I do. And it's interesting, Gretchen, you know this about me and our listeners may not, that when I was first going through this diagnostic journey with my own oldest son, I was a single mom to the two kids I had at that time, right? And so one of the things, you know, I think is really important to note is that being a single parent, whether it's by choice or whether it's by circumstance or however, however it is, it's not always about just making decisions on your own. Like sometimes a one-parent household, you may have less income than a two-parent household, but also less time. And there are a lot of phone calls and a lot of meetings and a lot of things that go on when you're trying to figure out the learning challenges in your home. And if income is also an issue, you have to figure out how do you take the time off to make those phone calls and those kinds of things? And so I remember that so clearly — trying to figure out how to manage my time, manage my income, manage my availability for my kids. And so I just — I think I wanted to share that with our listeners.
Gretchen: What kinds of resources are out there and how do you get them?
Amanda: One of the things that I realized I really needed over time was case management, right? Somebody to support me in making some of those phone calls. And the funny thing is, as an early intervention specialist, that's one of the things I provided to some of the families that I worked with, and it was just part of the early intervention component of things. You had a case manager. Oftentimes, health care providers can set you up with a case manager from an outside agency, and I think it's important to really tap into that resource so they can help you figure out the information you need, make some of those phone calls for you. Because all of that takes a lot of time. It's so much work just to be figuring out what piece of information goes with which form and where that form gets sent to and those kinds of things. And if there's somebody in the know who you can ask that question of, it saves so much time. It's an amazing thing.
Eventually, I remarried. My kids have a stepfather, and I signed releases so that he could speak to the schools and he could speak to the doctors, too. So making sure you think through like who you also feel comfortable having these conversations, and can you sign releases so that person can have those conversations is really helpful, too. And then the other thing — and this one's a little more wonky — is that the law is kind of on your side in some ways if you have a child who is going to have an Individualized Education Program or some sort of disability that requires additional doctor's appointments or therapy appointments. If you have a kind of job where you can take family medical leave, you can take it a little bit at a time to go to those meetings. And that's really important to note, too.
Gretchen: That's all such good advice, Amanda.
Amanda: Thank you. Is there anything you wanted to add, Gretchen? Like what came up for you?
Gretchen: My biggest takeaway from our conversation was just that we all could use a little humor and we all could use a little honesty with each other.
Amanda: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.
Gretchen: This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at email@example.com to share your thoughts — or to share a story about your own experience as a single parent to a child with a learning difference. We love hearing from our listeners.
Amanda: And if you want to learn more about what we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.
Gretchen: Understood as a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.
Amanda: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin, and a big shout-out this week to Sara Ivry. Briana Berry is our production director. Andrew Lee is our editorial lead. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music. And for the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer.
Gretchen: Thanks for listening and for always being in it with us.
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is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Gretchen Vierstra, MA
is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.