At Mindful Return, we recently announced that our once-mom-focused course for parents of special needs children is now open to all parents – both moms and dads. It’s also now geared not only to parents of babies and toddlers, but to parents of all children who have special needs. To make this course more accessible and inclusive, we teamed up with Bryan Levine, an amazing dad who is a lawyer and has a special needs son with Autism Spectrum Disorder. If you’d like to draw on the wisdom of both Bryan and course co-creator Mia Durairaj (a mama who, at one point, had twins in two separate NICUs), please check out Mindful Return’s Balancing Career with a Special Needs Child, a 4-week online program you can start anytime.
Today, Bryan has graciously shared with us his own, personal working dad story. Here’s Bryan.
Teaming Up with Mindful Return
Hello, and it’s so great to be part of this incredible community!
I first met Lori in October, 2019, when I was considering asking her to come speak to a family affinity group at my work. (The event happened earlier this month, to rave reviews (of course!).) I had been thinking about work-life balance issues for a long time, particularly the challenges of finding work-life balance when raising a special needs child.
But meeting Lori and learning about Mindful Return gave some focus to these thoughts.
What if I didn’t just think about work-life balance issues, but actually did something about them? What if I could be there as a resource for other parents facing this struggle?
When Lori asked if I would be part of Mindful Return and help her design a course for parents of special needs kids, it didn’t take long for me to take Lori up on her offer. And here I am. So let’s do this!
A Little About Me
I’m dad to an incredible 8 (almost 9!) year-old boy on the autism spectrum. My son was first diagnosed at 26 months. At the time, I was an attorney at a large corporate law firm in New York, desperately attempting to keep it all together and having very little success (more about that later).
The first 2+ years of my son’s life were a challenge, like they are for all new parents. But there seemed to be things we were dealing with that our new mom and dad friends were not. Our son would cry so hard at night he would vomit. Although he could walk and crawl fine, he didn’t have the arm strength to support his body in his gym class. And why was he drooling so much? We were going through 3 to 4 shirts a day.
In some ways, getting the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder was a relief. Now, we had a name to put to the things we were seeing. The vomiting at night? Sensory overload. The lack of arm strength and drooling? Low muscle tone. Running away from other kids, no birthday parties, or play dates? Social anxiety.
OK, great. We could now call it something. But where did we go from here, both for our lives and our careers?
Working Dad Life After the Diagnosis
The first thing having a diagnosis meant was that I was going to have to be a more involved parent. It became clear this was going to take a combined effort to make it work and to ensure our son always had the support to overcome what were going to be significant challenges. Easier said than done.
During the first 2+ years of our son’s life, I was doing the bare minimum as a dad. And my wife was taking on a lot more of the burden, putting her own career on hold in the process.
Sure, I’d help out at night – on the rare occasions where I was actually home before 10pm. Weekends? A dicey proposition as well. It was not unheard of for me to learn at 5:00pm on a Friday I’d be spending a large part of my weekend behind a desk.
Pretty much the only time I could be relied on to participate was when my son woke up in the morning, usually between 5:00 and 5:30am. So I’d wake up with him – and by wake up I mean change him, feed him, and watch him play, while I fell asleep on the couch for a few extra Zs. By the time I got to the office, I felt like I had already put in a full day.
After realizing early on that it would be impossible to make the changes needed within the system I was in, I put a plan into action to make a career move. There were two complicating factors. First, I knew that if I left my firm and went to another one, I was risking running into the same issues. The life of an attorney is unpredictable. Clients can make demands at all hours of the day, there are hearings and trials to prepare for, and there’s a decent amount of travel. I didn’t feel that law firm life offered me the guarantees I needed.
So what about going in-house? Sure, it was attractive. No billable hours, no clients, more predictability. But that brings up the second issue: money. Being a corporate defense attorney can be soul-crushing and leave little time for anything else in your life. But it paid well. This change would require a pay cut.
After about another year, I was really ready to make a move. I learned about an opportunity to do a secondment – going to work on-site for a client, but being paid as a law firm associate. I took the opportunity and was able to switch gears for a year. When I was working 9am to 5pm, home for bedtime, and around on the weekends, I was much, much happier.
But that year ended way too soon, and I was back where I started. It took me about another 6 months to find something permanent. Sure, financial sacrifices would have to be made, and it added to my commute. But with a new in-house job, I would have a set schedule and generally free weekends.
I made the jump in June 2017, and 2.5 years later, I’m still here. Working, but also helping my son navigate the challenges he’s facing.
So, that’s my story for now. But before I go, there is something I’d like to explain: it’s called Autism Spectrum Disorder for a reason. No two people with it (or any other disability) are the same. And no two families managing though it have the same experience.
Whatever your situation, whatever the challenges, remember that no one else can truly understand what you’re facing. But we all can listen, we can encourage, and we can support one another through it.
Bryan Levine lives in New Jersey and works in New York City in Compliance for Citigroup, having previously been a litigation associate at law firms in Washington, D.C. and New York. Bryan’s focus on work-life balance came after his son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at 26 months. Realizing the challenges his son would face – physically, socially and emotionally – Bryan put a plan into action to alter the balance between his work and home life, to become a more active, engaged dad and advocate for his son. He is one of the co-creators of Mindful Return’s Balancing Career with a Special Needs Child.
If you need more help getting your head in a better place to return to work after maternity leave, join us for the next session of Mindful Return.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave