The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Category: Marriage & Partner Relationships (page 1 of 2)

How much should we help a spouse with ADHD?

Last week, I wrote about ADHD, failure, and resilience. The week before, I wrote about letting go of all my life’s could-have-beens.

But what about the person right beside us — our life’s co-pilot? What if we’re married to someone who has ADHD, too?

Living in a dual-ADHD marriage is complicated. Where does my success or failure stop, and my partner’s begin? Where do my responsibilities to myself stop, and my responsibilities to my family begin? How much of my self should I invest in lifting up another person?

A friend told me once, before I got married, that a marriage is like becoming 1.5 people. You never do anything truly alone. In many ways this is true: our fates are intertwined. We can’t (or at least shouldn’t) give up all of ourselves in service to another person, but neither can we afford to cut the rope and let them drown.

So how much should a partner’s ADHD feel like my problem? How much should I help, support, and rescue?

ADHD is different for everyone

Our family’s biggest blessing and biggest challenge is how different we are. My husband and I come from opposite ends of the ADHD spectrum. His Achilles’  heel is hyperfocus and time management. My focus is all over the place. On the bright side, I can’t stand being late. Rigid systems and lists repel him, whereas I’ve used them as a form of coping and self-soothing since my teens. I have no idea how to relax. He refuses to worry about anything until it’s critical. ADHD manifests differently for everyone. We’re a perfect illustration of this.

While differences allow us to support each other, we can’t let each other — or ourselves — off the hook. If adult responsibilities are divided too unevenly, a marriage can begin to feel like a parent-child relationship. I may be anxious and obsessively organized, but I shouldn’t do so much for my husband that he feels incompetent.

I also have to remember: my ADHD isn’t his ADHD. What feels right for me, may make little sense to him.

Life and marriage are different for everyone

I also have to think of my own sanity. ADHD expert Gina Pera often tells partners of people with ADHD, “put on your own oxygen mask first.” That often means finding a way to make peace with how things are right now. Regardless of how I’d like our team to operate, how can I make sure I write every day — right now? How can I practice yoga daily and go running three times per week? How can I keep others’ behavior from stressing me out? If I’m running myself ragged for someone, it’s not a healthy relationship. I help, I support, but I don’t sacrifice my self-care priorities.

Also, every marriage is unique. I’ve had many people, most of them pretty good friends, tell me things like “I don’t know how you do it” or “I could never put up with that.” What they mean is this: they couldn’t tolerate their spouse, in their marriage, rarely being around to help put their kids to bed. They wouldn’t want to be responsible for mowing the lawn or taking out the trash. For me, in my marriage, these things are tolerable. I enjoy mowing the lawn. Sometimes I ask my husband to take a few days off to stay with our son while I attend a writing conference or retreat. He supports me 100%. He’s never said no, and he’s never complained. As long as the equation balances for me, I try to ignore what may or may not work for anyone else.

ADHD symptoms, in priority order

If I’m asking myself how much I should help my ADHD partner, I have to consider if he even wants my help. How much of a problem is this for him? What are his priorities?

My own symptom-management priority has always been clear: to make sure I can comprehend and stick to a system for keeping myself organized. I can’t stand living in chaos.

On the other hand, I bet my husband would point to my temper. Also, my tendency to start new projects whenever I think of them, never mind the 10 projects I’ve already dragged him into. He’d probably say my ADHD can — when poorly managed — make me negative, inflexible, combative, and anxious.

Being an intolerable person is a problem, I get that. It’s just not as big a problem as failing to be productive.

It’s important to talk each other about what symptoms are bothering us most. Walking into an argument — or a well-intentioned attempt to help — assuming the other person ranks this problem the same way you do is a recipe for disaster.

Setting a spouse up for success

There’s also the issue of teaching a person with ADHD to fish, rather than giving them a free pass. My husband also has trouble coming up with productive ways to spend time with our preschooler on the weekends. He has things he wants to do, and he struggles with how to involve our son. I bought a few books with screen-free and science-y activities for young children. I bookmarked a handful of pages. Then I gave my husband a few pre-selected choices on a Saturday morning. He had no trouble picking one. He and R. went to the store for supplies, returned home, and made sensory “moon sand” in the kitchen.

I kept expectations reasonable. I didn’t berate him, nor did I hold his hand any more than I needed to. I set him up for success because success builds confidence and, in this case, relationships.

Go for what works

The bottom line: it’s a balancing act. I’m trying to find the sweet spot between the health of my family, our relationship(s), and my own sanity. I support and help — and, yes, pick up slack for — my husband. I also demand that certain conditions be met: our family relationships are strong, I’m taking good care of myself, and our home and finances are in order. When my kid feels hurt or disappointed, I’m not writing, and/or I feel like I have too much on my plate, I speak up and demand change. Otherwise, if it works, I do it — even if it’s not the way my friends are managing their home lives.

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Declaring relationship bankruptcy after an ADHD diagnosis

It’s been some years — I don’t remember how many — since my husband and I began treatment for ADHD. I use the word “treatment” loosely: we both began taking stimulant medications, and we still do, but treatment means more than that. The journey includes plenty of hard work and learning, not just a prescription.

That learning changed our lives. We both started reading about adult ADHD. We learned about ourselves, each other, and our marriage. We felt like our relationship could start over.

The ADHD diagnosis can give couples a chance to declare bankruptcy in our relationships — in the most positive, healing way possible.

adhd-marriage-bankruptcy

When we owe more than we can repay

When people (or businesses) declare financial bankruptcy, it’s because they owe more than they can afford to pay.

What a thing to consider in a marriage: what does it mean to owe more than I can afford to pay? If you’ve struggled with late-diagnosis ADHD, you have an idea.

Many of us cling to a feeling that we shouldn’t let someone “get away” with bad behavior: the consequences should match the crime. We fear becoming a doormat or an enabler. But in marriage, we bind ourselves to another person. We create a new family, whether it becomes a family of two or sixteen. We shouldn’t underestimate the emotional and financial price of dissolving that marriage. Sometimes we focus so much on standing up for ourselves, we leave no one standing up for our relationships.

While my husband and I might not have imagined it several years ago, our little family is thriving. Our home is full of love and support and, yes, ADHD-related aggravations. Letting go of the past has freed us to build a strong future. We have the knowledge and power to forge a new path. Grudges will only us back.

Letting go, for our own sake

I used to take pride in stubbornness. I cursed my short attention span for my inability to stay angry when someone “deserved it.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that I hurt myself more than anyone by holding onto negative emotions. Stress and anger are toxic to our minds and bodies. There was a time when I literally lost sleep over some of my husband’s ADHD-related behavior. I blamed him for my exhaustion and my elevated stress, and this fueled the cycle of anger and resentment.

Eventually, I realized I needed to take care of myself first. I needed to find a way to forgive and, most important, work around him. I needed to find a way to be content and effective on my own — to take control of my own emotional life. With that, I was free to care for myself, but also to support him in his desire to change.

We can’t build up when we’re busy tearing down

Which brings me to my next point: those of us with ADHD know we mess up all the time. We feel awful about it. Knowing others are angry and disappointed only makes it worse.

I remember when my husband rear-ended someone at a red light. In his defense, there were contributing factors, but it was still all ADHD.

I was livid. This was pre-ADHD treatment, so my own behavior — especially responses to frustration — was out of control. Having never been in an accident as a driver, I felt like I had a moral high ground. I wanted to stand in the middle of the road and berate him until I lost my voice.

Luckily, a close friend was in the car with us, and he pulled me to the other side of the road. Then he told me something I’ll never forget: your husband feels bad enough right now. The last thing he needs is for you to add to it.

I’ve remembered this conversation many times over the years. When we hurt someone we love, we don’t need the wronged party to tear us down. We need support. We needed a firm, kind response that will empower us to do better next time.

Letting go, to get to work

In many ways, treatment and education for our ADHD has given us new eyes. How should we ask to be repaid, except with a promise, now that we know better, to do better? What do I have to gain by creating unreasonable expectations, or by holding my husband to things he said before his diagnosis? Old hurts can be difficult to release, but when we learn to let go, we can find great peace, stability, and happiness in our relationships. Even when things go wrong.

For some, declaring financial bankruptcy can be the best first step toward a strong financial future. In the same way, for some couples, a declaration of relationship bankruptcy can be the best way forward following an ADHD diagnosis. All you need is two people willing to own their flaws and keep doing the best they can with what they have.

When have you struggled to let go of an ADHD partner’s misdeeds? How has letting go helped (or hurt)?

Sewing, ADHD, empathy, and learning to switch gears

My husband and I inhabit opposite ends of the ADHD spectrum, and we sometimes clash over each other’s use of personal and project time around the house. I’ve tried to develop empathy and understanding for his work style, but it’s hard, especially when my own ADHD hinders that empathetic response. I’ve learned the most — and gained the most empathy — from a hobby I’m shocked to have in the first place: sewing.

sewing-adhd-empathy

A little background on what makes time management a thorny issue for us: My focus ping-pongs between tasks. I love starting new projects. Anyone who shares an office with me will notice, I have a habit of saying a sentence or two every few minutes. This drives my husband crazy.

He finds interruptions unbearable. Once interrupted, he spends a lot of energy sinking back into his task. My multi-tasking, over-ambitious nature aggravates and overwhelms him. He only wants to work on one thing at once. Once he’s in the zone, he finds it nearly impossible to break away. He can agree the task sin’t worth the time, isn’t a priority, should at least be delayed for the sake of family time, sleep, or food — but he’ll still spend an entire day on it. I can’t spend an entire day on one thing, even if I want to.

In short: we have two very different brains. We both have ADHD, but we struggle to regulate our focus in different ways.

An unlikely truce with the sewing machine.

Until my late 20s, I avoided the sewing machine. It required many things I lacked: Focus. An ability to read directions without missing a step. A light touch. Patience. Willingness to forgo ill-advised shortcuts. My sewing projects ended one of two ways: Abandoned due to some mishap (see above) or looking uncharmingly homemade.

Then something happened. First, I started treating my ADHD. My house also needed curtains, and I had trouble finding the right size and color in the store. Curtains felt expensive for their quality. If I wanted the right stuff, I’d have to make it myself.

From curtains grew a desire to make clothing, floor cushions (another item I considered overpriced), and a weighted therapy blanket. With each project, I learned new tricks, new skills.

An object lesson in hyperfocus.

I also noticed something happening in my brain. I got into the zone with sewing in a way I usually found impossible. I’d finish a seam and want to sew up one more raw edge, and then one more. As the finished product grew nearer, I found it harder to put it down.

I mentioned this to my husband and he said, that’s exactly what software engineering is, except there’s always one more raw edge.

It’s the kind of thing that can become an addiction for a person with ADHD — especially one who struggles with controlling hyperfocus and switching tasks. With each raw edge that disappears, our brains get another little hit of dopamine. With that, we’re already chasing the next.

Brains out of (and back in) the corral.

Regardless of whether it contributes to an ADHD superpower, I don’t think hyperfocus feels good. Sure, my husband likes writing software, but he doesn’t like staying at work all night. Once the spell is broken, he won’t defend his decision to sink hours into a Wikipedia rabbit hole. In fact, it hardly feels like a decision at all. Hyperfocus can feel like a superhuman skill, but at some level, we also know we’re out of control.

My new sewing habit helped me understand and develop compassion for my husband, but I used it to teach my brain new tricks, too. I stopped and considered how long I might like to spend on sewing before I sat down at the machine. I forced myself to stop after that time had elapsed, even if my brain screamed in protest. When I burned out on  a writing project, I drifted to my sewing table. Switching to a spacial, manual task allowed the linguistic part of my brain to recharge. It gave me time to decompress and allow new ideas to bubble to the surface. After a lifetime of trying to corral my focus, I learned that switching gears — done wisely — can be a good thing.

It’s easy to give up on ourselves in certain respects: to say, “my ADHD makes me bad at that.” It’s even easier to get angry with a spouse because we feel they don’t get it, aren’t trying hard enough, or just don’t care how their behavior affects us. To my surprise, sewing has taught me a lot on both fronts. I conquered a previously unconquerable skill, and I got a taste of what hyperfocusers are up against.

When do you struggle most to empathize with your partner? What helps you see the world from their perspective?

Firm and kind: A challenge for ADHD families.

I think I speak for most ADHD-affected households when I say, sometimes we don’t bring out the best in each other. In his book Healing ADD From the Inside Out, Dr. Daniel Amen makes a list of games people with ADHD love to play. One of them is, “I bet I can get you to hit me or yell at me.” Sound familiar?

Most of the time, this isn’t even conscious. People with poorly managed ADHD — or those whose medication has worn off for the day — have trouble regulating emotional responses. They also use conflict to balance out their brain chemistry. Yelling, fighting, or needling someone until they explode provides a boost of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in short supply for ADHD’ers.

Without proper treatment and education, these become lifelong behavior patterns.

firm-and-kind-and-adhd

My goal when responding to these behaviors — and I falter often — is to be both firm and kind. Too many people still believe stricter parenting (like we had in the “good old days”) is the answer for kids with ADHD. When we see unacceptable behavior, we read a lack of visible, tangible punishment as permissive parenting. To some, firm and kind feel mutually exclusive.

This attitude isn’t limited to children: I hear the same about spouses and other adult family members. We don’t like to see someone “get away” with bad behavior.

I’m firm, I’m kind, but I don’t consider myself permissive with my family. I’m certainly not a doormat. In fact, people often tell me I’m the only person so-and-so will listen to, or they ask why a certain family member behaves better around me. It goes to show: Firm and kind can be strong, too.

Respect for myself

I first discovered “firm and kind” in parenting expert Vicki Hoefle’s lovely books and this post on her blog. Her words have changed my life. I feel like I have permission to look out for myself while I care for my family. Returning to Dr. Amen’s game of “I bet I can get you to hit me or yell at me,” I wonder how much respect I can have for myself when I’m falling right into that trap. In parenting, as in all social interactions, if someone can goad me into a fight, they can control me. If my child can make me late every time we leave the house, he’s in control. An out-of-control person doesn’t command respect from herself, let alone others.

When I draw a boundary, I show everyone I mean it. It doesn’t matter whether the boundary is big or small. I’m firm about reducing the number of days our family spends traveling around Christmas. I’m also firm about leaving for school at 8:45 a.m., regardless of who’s still in bare feet.

Giving kindness and respect to my family

At the same time, I try to practice kindness without letting others step all over my boundaries. I don’t say, “fine, you spent so long playing around, see how you like freezing your toes on the way to the car!” I say, “okay, time to leave. I’ll bring your shoes to the car so you can put them on while we drive.”

Simple. Matter of fact. Kind.

Hoefle claims that all children modify behavior based on what earns a reaction. We can deduce that children with ADHD do this to the extreme. When we engage in power struggles, allow ourselves to be goaded into flying off the handle, or allow our child’s behavior to control a situation, we set ourselves — and our children — up for more of the same tomorrow. This feels more unkind than letting him get cold toes on the way to the car.

Modeling how I want to be treated

After reading Hoefle’s books, my ears became attuned to how parents all around me spoke to their children. Try this next time you’re in a public place: Imagine the children as adults. What would you think if you heard someone speaking to an adult that way?

“Firm but kind” reconciles my two minds when it comes to parenting. We can be firm. We can refuse to engage in a power struggle. We can also be kind without letting kids ‘get away’ with bad behavior.

In other words, we can be respectful without being permissive. We can be kind without becoming a doormat. I apply these principles to everyone in my family, from ages 3-85. I’ve discovered that the harder it is to get a rise out of me, the more respect and accommodation I get from others. Especially those with ADHD.

Have you struggled to maintain peace and respect in your family? What keeps you grounded?

Why I don’t commiserate with friends about my ADHD partner

It can seem like a favorite pastime for the over-30 set: we commiserate with friends — almost always same-gender, often accompanied by alcohol — about our spouses’ foibles.

We’ve all done it, and we’ve all nodded along while someone else aired their grievances. In the sober light of day, we might wave this grousing off as harmless. It’s not, especially when someone in the relationship has ADHD. Taken too far, it can be as toxic as the ADHD itself.

happily-married

 

Here’s the problem: We view the world through our lens, and others through theirs. It’s easy for neurotypical third parties to misinterpret ADHD behavior. A well-meaning friend may jump to our defense, labeling our ADHD spouse as abusive or manipulative, selfish or inconsiderate. Surprisingly few ADHD behaviors are intentional or calculated, but most of the world reads it that way. We may read it that way. Our friends, eager to support and defend us, reflect it back.

To clarify: I’m not condoning bad behavior. Poorly managed ADHD can make the whole family miserable.  I’m also talking about my own experience in a normal, loving, ADHD-afffected relationship. ADHD affects all kinds of people, including selfish, abusive jerks. I’m not married to one of them.

ADHD hides other sides of the story.

ADHD can color the way I perceive and react to domestic negotiations. Last fall, I wrote about the challenges of being a workaholic homemaker with ADHD. I lamented the loss of our twice-monthly cleaning service, which was supposed to be temporary but which I tried to make permanent. I wanted more time to write, and I thought paying a cleaning lady could give me just that.

Imagine me telling this story, fresh off the original confrontation with my husband, to a supportive stay-at-home mom friend. What might she say? That my dreams are important, too? Who is my husband to deprive me of this over a relatively minor expense? That it’s 2016, and he shouldn’t expect a woman to be a full-time homemaker while he continues to advance his career?

Here’s the truth: My husband is incredibly supportive of my writing on a daily basis. This summer, he took time off from work to stay with our son while I attended a writing conference. He didn’t think twice about spending the money on the conference, nor did he complain about staying home with R. He has complete faith in me and admires my dedication to my work. As for which parent stays home, he would’ve been happy to do it. Our decision was made on the basis of money and, at some level, who was more in control of their ADHD symptoms.

Here’s another truth: Being a homemaker for an ADHD household takes a lot of time and effort. Having ADHD myself makes everything harder. When a spouse has ADHD, the other partner usually picks up slack from them, too. I’m pulling more weight than the average stay-at-home mom, plus I have my own impairments. Not only that, my ADHD hinders my ability to roll with the punches. I had more trouble dealing with the argument about the cleaning lady than the loss of her services.

If I lack adequate time to write, the culprit isn’t ideology, it’s poorly-managed ADHD. I shouldn’t be asking for a cleaning lady, I should be demanding that X, Y, and Z ADHD symptoms be brought under control. Most important, I should wait for a calm moment to plot my way forward. The problem is, I doubt that’s what a girlfriend would tell me over a glass of wine.

Don’t judge: our worst is the worst.

The bottom line: our family is mutually supportive and egalitarian, and we’re doing the best we can. We make mistakes, we overreact, but we apologize an move on. We know and honor each other’s true selves. Both my husband and I admit we have ADHD, admit it’s a problem, and make an effort to manage the symptoms that negatively impact others.

ADHD happens to good people, and it can make us look bad. In our worst — usually unmedicated — moments, we can look downright monstrous. I’ve dealt with this all my life: an outburst, a temporary loss of myself, an irrational response, and suddenly that’s what defines me in someone else’s eyes. It feels awful, and it’s why I try not to complain about my husband to my friends. Because he’s a great guy, and most of the time my life feels inappropriately fortunate. He’s my family. I don’t want ADHD to define him as anything other than that.

Do you struggle to be fair to your partner while satisfying your need to vent? What have you learned?

Family life with ADHD: Stash those labels.

Labels — we all use them sometimes, even though most of us know we shouldn’t. Parenting has taught me to use labels intentionally and sparingly. My favorite books caution against labels, both in the positive (“you’re such a good girl”) and the negative (“you’re a troublemaker”).

Labels tell us how we fit in.

The labels we give our children become the language they use to define themselves. Parenting expert Vicki Hoefle writes in Duct Tape Parenting, “your child is answering one question over and over again: ‘In my family I am the child who…'”

ADHD labelsFor those of us with ADHD, the end of that sentence was (or is) often negative. I can trace most of my childhood labels back to my undiagnosed ADHD: oversensitive. Inconsiderate. Selfish. Vain. Ingrate. Argumentative. Rude. Lazy.

Even positive labels, like “smart,” came with baggage. For a girl with ADHD, “smart” often means “you’re too smart for this.” This being missed homework, a bad grade, or a lower-level class. “Smart” also implies potential. It sets expectations for your life and career path.

As a kid, I sometimes took on these labels — “it’s true, only a selfish person would’ve done that” — and sometimes fought against them. I wanted to view myself as a caring, sensitive, quiet person. I never wanted to make people angry. And yet, I felt like the outside world saw me as selfish, aloof, and melodramatic. I didn’t like that person. I barely even recognized her. I longed to show everyone the “real me.”

ADHD inspires labels that belie our true intentions.

As a young, newly married adult, I still suffered with untreated ADHD. I felt desperate — and yet unable — to disprove the labels still haunting my life. In a long-ago conversation argument about household responsibilities, my husband uttered the phrase, “lazy is as lazy does.” I wrote it down, along with many other labels, in an attempt to sort through my feelings. Deep inside, I knew who I was, but I couldn’t show it.

I eventually sought help for my ADHD. (Side note: My husband, who was pre-diagnosis himself, would never say something like that today.)

And, just like that, we can evolve. It’s never too late to shed damaging labels and redefine ourselves. Change begins with a commitment to build each other up rather than tear each other down.

ADHD labels pull quote

Resisting labels while appreciating the little stuff.

These days, we shy away from labels in our home. In their parenting classic How to Talk So Kids Will Listen…and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish point out the dangers of even the best-sounding labels: “you can take away ‘good boy’ by calling him ‘bad boy’ the next day.” As a child — and later an adult — with ADHD, I learned to eye each personal victory with suspicion, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

That’s why I refuse to trade my negative labels for positive ones. I get no pleasure from hearing “you’re a hard worker,” “you’re so organized,” or “I can’t imagine you losing your temper.” On the bad days, positive labels only serve to hone my sense of loss and failure.

Instead, our family works day to day, praising and appreciating each other for the specific — the nitty-gritty. Somewhere around age two, our son went through a hitting phase. When he got angry and didn’t hit, I’d tell him, “you were so angry, I know you wanted to hit me, but you didn’t. You went upstairs to calm down instead.” When my husband — often at work very late — is home in the evening, I tell him, “I’m glad you’re here.”

This is especially critical for areas where we struggle. Specific praise and appreciation lets people know we see them. We see them doing their best, and we notice their small victories. When this is what defines us, rather than “unreliable,” “late,” or “hot-headed,” we access our power to do better.

What labels do you find yourself using in your family? What labels did your parents use with you? How do labels affect the way you view yourself and those around you?

Chores, gender norms, & ADHD

ADHD sabotages marriage relationships on (at least) two fronts: the emotional and the practical. One can precede or exacerbate the other. Sharing domestic responsibilities is far from mundane. When we feel unsupported — or worse, cut off at the knees — by a partner, our relationship can drift toward a parent-child dynamic. Not good news for emotional intimacy.

Partners of people with ADHD often complain about division of labor in the home, but it needn’t remain a sticking point. It’s easy to restrict ourselves to two options: continue to nag and get angry, or do it all on our own. Our ADHD household has taken the road less traveled. The house stays relatively clean, most urgent maintenance is addressed in a timely manner, and the bills get paid. Sometimes friends look at me funny, and one fellow at-home parent even told me, “I’d never put up with that [behavior].” But it’s not about “putting up” with anything. We’ve figured out what works for us, and we’re doing it.

If you’re struggling to maintain domestic peace and basic sanitation, you’re not doomed. You just need to figure out what works for your family. This often requires us to reject gender norms and other meaningless expectations. We need to experiment, be realistic, and find our ADHD superpowers.

Chores, gender norms,and #AdultADHD

What’s your ADHD superpower?

ADHD superpowers aren’t gifts. ADHD doesn’t make us special or superior. In his book, I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not, Dr. Wes Crenshaw describes superpowers as places we depart from the diagnostic criteria. For example, ADHD’ers are stereotypically terrible with money. I’m not. I could write a series of posts about finances, and maybe I will someday, but for now, know this: no matter how small my paychecks, I’ve never been broke. ADHD has crippled me in other areas, but not my bank account. ADHD superpowers are more like dodged bullets than gifts.

At home, this means my husband and I — both ADHD’ers, but very different people — break down responsibilities by strengths, not tradition. His perfectionism and hyperfocus — sometimes a terrible Achilles heel — makes him a great fit for jobs that require a fine touch. My ADHD makes me the bull in the china shop. That same hyperfocus makes my husband completely time-blind. If something needs to happen at a specific time, it’s my job: taking out the trash, verifying bills are paid on time, mowing the lawn. I rarely force myself to do nit-picky jobs, but if I get him started, my husband can’t put them down until they’re done. He won’t vacuum without moving all the furniture, and he’ll spend an entire day tracking down an error in our accounting ledger.

You may have noticed, I end up with many of the “man” jobs. I need physical activity to function, and my body type makes me the muscle of our small operation. My husband is the engineer. He’s the person reminding me to slow down and make sure the job is done right. Dividing tasks along gender lines feels arbitrary at best, intensely frustrating and counterproductive at worst. Why set each other up for failure? Why not let everyone have the job they want? Both failure and success have inertia, dragging us toward learned helplessness or self-efficacy. We choose the latter, even if people look askance at a woman mowing the lawn.

Experimentation is key.

Our household may be up and running now, but we learned most things the hard way. For example, we began with my husband managing our online bill-pay accounts. He insisted mailing payments was antiquated and silly, but since it worked for me, I told him, “you want a new system, you set it up.” He did. We stopped getting bills in the mail because he got them via email. Would you guess that someone with ADHD can both forget to log into his bank’s bill-pay system and get behind on his email inbox?

These snags are best dealt with calmly, without finger-pointing. If your ADHD partner lets the grass grow knee-high or forgets to pay the electric bill, he knows it’s a problem (even if he won’t admit it). She feels bad about it (even if she won’t admit it, or even blames you). When we hit a snag, I try to remember it’s a clue to a puzzle we need to solve. Yelling at your spouse, expressing disappointment and shame, or telling her she needs to act like a responsible adult only damages the relationship.

May all expectations be realistic…

Above all, an ADHD household needs realistic expectations. This doesn’t mean resigning ourselves to a lower standard of living. It means being realistic about which responsibilities our partners can take on and how they’ll get the job done. Forcing a square peg through a round hole is a recipe for argument, resentment, and less stuff getting done. What works for me rarely works for my husband, and vice versa. Rather than dwell on the downsides, we use our strengths to fill in for each other’s weaknesses. My husband may never take the trash or recycling out on the correct day, but it’s all good. When I encounter a problem in the house and think, “I can’t even imagine dealing with that,” he’s my man.

Do you or your partner have ADHD? How do you manage household chores? Do you feel like you’ve hit your stride, or are you still looking for a solution?

Boundaries in the ADHD home

Boundaries in our home are simple — they may even seem trivial — but they’re mighty. They’re the key to domestic peace (or ceasefire, if that’s where you are on your journey). ADHD adults living under the same roof need to learn, create, and respect boundaries.

The ADHD interruption paradox

We ADHD’ers struggle with interruptions. Interrupting shows up multiple times in the diagnostic criteria for ADHD. Ironically, many of us can’t tolerate interruptions to our own work or train of thought. I get cranky when I fear I’ll lose my place or forget what I was doing. My husband experiences intense task inertia, making interruptions especially uncomfortable because they intrude on his hyperfocus. While ADHD’ers dish out interruptions like it’s our full-time job, we might respond with a temper tantrum.

Thanks to our limited grasp on social cues, we don’t always know when interruptions are acceptable, either. My favorite solution: spell it out. What seems obvious to you may not make any sense to me.

When my husband lamented, “I never know when it’s okay to interrupt your reading!” I gave him a basic ground rule: magazines are always interruptable. Books are not.

I tend to say whatever pops into my mind. My husband can’t stand when I start talking every two minutes because it prevents him from getting anything done. Once he’s distracted, it takes him a while to settle back down to the task. Interruptions feel costly to him but negligible to me because I interrupt myself all the time. I didn’t know it stressed him out until he said so.

Being mindful of meds

Knowing when our meds are effective is one of the most important boundaries — and the toughest lesson — we’ve learned. In a high-stakes conversation, unmedicated me is extreme, volatile, passionate, and uncompromising. I’ll fixate on an issue and fight for it tooth and nail, yet lose track of why I felt so strongly once the moment has passed. I’ll yell and cry and make ultimatums. Medicated me has read several books about communication skills. I repeat what others have said to make sure I understand. I make the conversation about solutions, not problems. I entertain the possibility of compromise. Clearly, some conversations should be off-limits when one or both of us is unmedicated.

Deferring a conversation for meds can feel uncomfortable. For one, it’s hard to defer anything without the help of stimulant medication. We also exist in a culture that cracks jokes about people being “off their meds” and creates stigma around psychiatric disorders. Saying, “we should discuss this when we both have the benefit of our medication” can make us feel weak and incapable.

To that I say, imagine you’re lactose intolerant. Does it give you more self-confidence to eat ice cream whenever you want? Or does it make sense to wait until after you’ve taken some Lactaid?

ADHD meds don’t just keep you from getting fired. They also help you build a strong marriage. I’ve learned it the hard way, we need to use them accordingly.

Spelling it out

No matter what the boundaries are, they need to be explicit. People with ADHD don’t get subtlety. We tend to freak out a little when we’re expected to read between the lines. Even if something feels like a “duh,” it may not be on the other person’s radar. Successful relationships require an abundance of clarity — and then a little more on top of that.

What are some boundaries you and your partner have created over the years? How does your home life change when you respect these boundaries?

You vs. the world: lets discuss ADHD for at-home parents

“Our family needs a homemaker.”

I love to be needed, but those words stung.

I was trying to convince my husband to keep our twice-monthly cleaning service, but he wouldn’t budge. It was a temporary arrangement for a tough time: during the first nine months of our son’s life, my husband finished a master’s degree and broke his collarbone.

I needed help.

The problem was, once things returned to normal, I viewed this extra help as a small price to pay to get my writing business off the ground. My husband reminded me of our agreement that one of us would be a stay-at-home parent. It didn’t seem fair for me to claim I “didn’t have time” to clean the house.

Maybe it wasn’t, but providing sanity and order to an ADHD household, day in and day out, is exhausting.

Because it’s true: our ADHD family does need a homemaker. We need one adult holding down the fort full-time to keep everything from exploding (or imploding) into chaos.We need someone cleaning, coordinating home repairs, paying bills, opening the mail, and making sure everyone eats — among many, many other things.

But I have ADHD, too, and I have big plans for my life. Specifically, I want to do all the things, and I want to do them yesterday.

In the two years post-cleaning lady, I’ve found a better groove. I’ve forced myself to keep trying. I figured out a way to keep writing while (usually) keeping the house (relatively) clean. R. grew up into a little boy and stopped nursing, which meant I could resume taking my ADHD meds. I’ve mapped out a longer-term plan for my writing that allows me to feel like I’m making daily progress. I’ve learned to accept incremental progress, even if I want instant gratification.

Being the homemaker is still hard. I wouldn’t have it any other way, for more reasons than I can count. My husband has unbeatable job security, and my salary wouldn’t have supported us. I prefer to be in charge. I’m better at structuring my own projects and time.

Our family doesn’t just need a homemaker, we need me. And to be there for our family, I need to be there for myself, too. That means making time for my writing, but also taking care of our home and family. Taking time for myself, but not leaving everyone else to pick up my slack.

It’s a lifelong pursuit, finding balance. I’ll never quite get there. I’ll never perfect the art of slowing down, of accepting imperfection, of resting, of moderating — in any of my roles. All I can do is try.

Lately, I’m trying to be honest with myself about what it means to be a workaholic homemaker with ADHD.

And what does that mean, exactly? If you have ADHD and you’re a stay-at-home parent, I’d love to hear about your experience. How do you make it work? Have you struggled to reconcile your partner’s expectations with your own? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned?

When you’re not yourself

During an emotional meltdown, part of us really does disappear. My two-year-old gave me a powerful reminder of this while we were staying with friends for the weekend.

R — exhausted from days of fun and social interaction — totally lost it getting ready for nap. We were in full meltdown mode. I just sat in the middle of the room and tried to remain calm as he sobbed, crawled in circles, and screamed incoherent sentences.

The crying eventually subsided. R opened his eyes, looked at me like he was seeing me for the first time, smiled, and said…

“Hi.”

Hi. As though he had just returned from Somewhere Else. In a way, he had.

When your rational brain checks out

It happens to grownups, too. I especially like how Dr. Mark Goulston describes this phenomenon in his book Just Listen.  He refers to our “three-part brain” as:

  • The lower reptilian brain (fight-or-flight),
  • The middle mammal brain (emotions), and
  • The higher primate brain (logic and rational thought)

These parts were added on sequentially as we evolved. For a real-life illustration, spend some time with babies and toddlers. In his classic Happiest Toddler on the BlockDr. Harvey Karp compares toddlers to “primitive little cavemen” living a “superfast rerun of ancient human development.”

As adults, Goulston says, these three parts of our brain can work as a team. However, add a little stress and our old reptile brain takes over.

“If you’re talking to [someone] whose lower brain or midbrain is in control,” explains Goulston, “you’re talking to a cornered snake or, at best, a hysterical rabbit.”

The biggest mistake we make in our ADHD household? Assuming someone is thinking rationally — with our primate brain — when we’re not.

not yourself pull quote

Your reptile brain deserves some space

When I’m feeling like that cornered snake or hysterical rabbit — not sure which is worse — the critical next step is telling myself, you’re not yourself right now. Or, more accurately, I’m the last person I want handling an important decision or conversation.

I’ve learned it’s best to honor where I am at the moment and give myself space to cool down. Naming feelings helps a lot. Try it next time you’re in emotional or fight-or-flight mode: say — aloud or to yourself — I’m feeling really out of control. That comment was really hurtful. Wow, I’m so angry. Listening to my child cry is sending my stress hormones through the roof.

It’s a hard skill to learn, and it requires practice. My brain loves to trick me into justifying extreme emotions or, even worse, sticking it out in an argument despite feeling hysterical.

This is almost always a terrible idea, especially given ADHD’s effects on emotional regulation. Emotional control is often lacking in ADHD adults. “Without well-developed verbal and nonverbal working memory,” explains Dr. Russell Barkley in Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, “you have less capacity for the visual imagery and self-speech that can help you calm your emotions.”

If you’re in a relationship with an ADHD adult, this emotional reactivity may be all too familiar. In Is It You, Me, or Adult ADD?Gina Pera describes “a tendency to become easily frustrated and growl or blow up, but react 10 minutes later with over-the-top excitement to something else.”

This describes me to a T. My rational brain can be a real diva. It’s ready to walk off the stage at any moment, leaving me to yell the exact wrong thing at my husband, boss, or kid. Once I’m entrenched in a conflict, I forget how I even got there.

It’s tough to counter this. The first step is noticing it’s happening. Intense emotions are, most of the time, an indication that I need to back off. It’s not the time to work through an important issue with my husband, make decisions, or provide my opinion on someone else’s behavior. A poor grasp of time makes it tough to defer these things. Right Now can be the only time that feels real.

But defer we must, if we want to maintain healthy relationships. It’s okay to be upset, and it never hurts to ask, “can we talk about this a little later?” It’s not okay to explode at someone, say a lot of really upsetting things to them, and later claim you have no memory of what happened. My life has been a lot of the former and not enough of the latter, but I’m working on it.

How about you? How do you minimize the damage when your rational brain shuts down?

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