Amy is a full-time student, full-time employee, and full-time family member. Her family includes her husband, 2 daughters, a cat and a dog. Amy feels personally called to a commitment to teaching Relief Society and create bi-weekly growth experiences for the girls aged 8 to 12 in her unit. Other interests include understanding and supporting mental neurodiversity, pastoral ministries, philosophy, history, leadership, and pasta (who isn’t interested in pasta?).
Almost 2 handfuls of years ago, my family (consisting of myself, my husband, and our daughter) felt mostly like your more-or-less typical (ish) family. My introverted husband stayed at home with our daughter while I worked (that’s our ish), but we went to church, said family prayers, and struggled with scripture study and FHE. I tried to find connections within our wards (and my husband went along with it), but because of a variety of life circumstances, it never quite gelled into a long-term meaningful friendship.
When we moved into our branch in the Midwest a few years ago, some things changed. Our current branch is a lot smaller and closer-knit, making it harder to hide or blend in. Some of the changes in the last few years have been adding a daughter to the family, and a breathtaking combination of various chronic physical and mental health acronyms for my husband, myself, and our oldest daughter. To make things even more interesting, I fell into a faith transition that stabilized, but impacts how I view and teach in the world. Each description reminds us of a way that we don’t fit in, that we are different while simultaneously presenting us with a compelling challenge to fit in to be in the community. Looking at it now, I think I better understand a few things.
Purpose and Connection
Purpose and connection can be externally fostered by providing physical, mental, and spatial environments for people to show up and introduce themselves in a mutually comfortable cultural surrounding (coffee breaks, service projects, board games, and linger longer all fit the bill). That is the idea behind why we do our best to make sure each new member has a friend and a calling – to connect them to our community.
The 64,000 question is “What do you do with people who don’t fit the community expectations”? The related question is “How do we change (ourselves and/or the culture) so that everyone finds something here?”
This applies to me, testimony-less but hopeful (and still showing up). This applies to my daughter and her prickly state of disengagement. This applies to my husband with a level of chronic health problems men 20 years older than him would find daunting. But while I wait for better answers and better questions, I tried to show up and be present. I try to connect. Here are few stories that have taught me important truths about Community.
There is plenty to laugh about in my world (the good, the bad, the scary, and the not-so-pretty). Laughter and the [insert-quasi forbidden-treat-here like ice cream] connect people and make the world less of a scary place.
Respectfully State Personal Resources Available and Make Specific Requests
Here are a few tips when you are receiving or offering assistance:
- It has helped me to help those who work with our additional needs to be S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Based) in my requests. Being Specific in what you want to accomplish, making it relevant to both parties, and including a general time frame, are key items that seem to work well.
- Think about how the other person might feel about offering this service. What is the probable resource cost to them? It’s important to honor their abilities and availability in your dealings with them.
- Sometimes it is helpful when they say “No” to see if stating what you want to accomplish will help them find a way to work with you to accomplish that.
- Also being willing to respectfully ask “Do you know someone else who can help with this?” can open doors.
Invite People into Your World
Being a part of an additional needs family means that you, as a parent or family member, now have knowledge that others do not. You know what works on a personal level for you and your family, as well as what can be expected with these acronyms, and a ton of other useful knowledge like dealing with bureaucracies.
- Gently and respectfully inviting other people into your world gives them the opportunity to slide easily in at their pace – and they learn new things too.
- You are going to feel as naked as a jaybird multiple times a day. This is an unavoidable thing in an additional needs family. There are times when specific standards set by a community or agency or someone else do not align with what a member or members of your family are capable of doing or understanding. Being vulnerable with someone (when circumstances allow) allows them to connect with you in a meaningful way. It is an invitation for them to step into your world.
The “Sit Next to During Meetings” Buddy
My tween-aged daughter does not like church. She is not fond of meetings where she is required to sit still. She is not a community person (an introvert like her father), not really a community singer (though if you want an impromptu solo about owls sung rock-star style, she might be your girl) or interested in spiritual things. To her, small talk is beyond pointless and boring. She does not follow other girls’ examples of reverence, or even notice them whenever possible. Her little sister is finally outgrowing the “Take-the-screaming-baby-out-to-the-halls” phase (mostly) – so I have spent more then one Sunday meeting alternating between walking out of the chapel with them (or having the older one trailing the younger one and myself – great fun). Out of self-defense, I started texting sisters my church unit in the morning or asking them when I saw them in the hall before Sacrament meeting if we could sit with them. Always, there was someone there – but never necessarily the same person. And sitting with a wonderful sister who couldn’t stop my oldest from following me with the youngest was minimally useful.
In the last few months, a wonderful sister made it a point to start sitting with us every Sunday. For her, my oldest sings hymns with the congregation and now takes the sacrament sometimes. I can take her little sister out for “The Talk” about meeting reverence without a shadow. Because of this sister sticking with us, my daughter goes to church to see her friend “Owl” and we can attend “Linger Longer” and know that we have a true friend. My heart grows half a size when I look over and see my tween engaging with her friend and experiencing a friendship.
Büchsen Mormonen (Canned-Food Mormons)
During the times when I felt isolated, testimony-less, and out of my league, I considered myself a variant of a “Canned-Food Mormon” . I did not attend church only because of handouts in the traditional sense. I went to church because I knew that some sisters had clothes for either of my daughters that I could pick up after church. I would be lying if that wasn’t the main reason I went to church on a few hair-pulling Sundays. I am grateful that those sisters had offered them freely (probably breathing a huge sigh of relief as they saw the bottom of another closet or corner of the garage). And the clothes that we have outgrown, I have made sure to pass on as I could to a variety of sources. However, with the turn of the season I am reminded of those sisters – their compassion and executive functioning skills to make sure that every item was fresh, size- appropriate, and arrived to us.
The sisters who truly minister to me make time for me (and my daughters) though not in the ways you think. One sister makes time on her schedule every 3 months or so to eat dinner at a fast food joint (or at the park with said fast food joint food) with my daughters so that I can breathe and chat a little. Another sister went thrift store shopping with me to cautiously celebrate preparing for a baby girl after a miscarriage. That baby girl is now a thriving, chattering, boisterous toddler. Some sisters I email or text. I bonded with another sister over photographing gravestones – we finished the cemetery and spent another 30 minutes or so talking.
Giving and Receiving Service
In becoming an additional needs family, it has changed how I receive and give service. Even though I have not been as good at serving others as I could have been, I have even less resources available to do so. It means that I am more deliberate in my service and how I feel called to spend my time helping others (so I say “No” sometimes, but it also means actively looking for and volunteering for acts of service that I see where I can contribute without breaking my resource bank). I now see every act (and attempted act) of service as an act of connection. Sometimes the biggest acts of service I have received have been offered by those sisters who made sure there was room in the tent for me, who asked “how” they can help and “what” they can do. They celebrate and mourn with me and my family despite and because of the acronyms.
Everyone Finds Something Here
I hope that these experiences light-hardheartedly illuminate your answers to the 64,000 questions of what do with people who don’t fit the community expectations and how to change (ourselves and our culture) so that everyone finds something here. In thoughtfully analyzing our resources and connecting to others through love, compassion, and meaningful service, we are setting ourselves up to be someone else’s miracle and to receive further revelation for our choices.