‘I’m always late and I can’t use the school apps, but my ADHD makes me a better parent’

October is ADHD Awareness Month, a condition more often associated with children. Here, one writer explains what it’s like having it when you’re a parent

ADHD Awareness Month adult ADHD parenting

by Grazia |

When I first became a mother eleven years ago, I expected to feel completely overwhelmed. It was how I always felt anyway, so surely adding a baby to the mix would only bring more chaos to the constant whirring of my mind?

So I was surprised to feel just as cosy as the new baby in my arms, blanketed by an emotion I wasn’t really familiar with: calm.

It took hardly any adjusting for me to get used to the bedlam of the early baby days - mess, erratic sleep, forgetfulness, struggling to leave the house or get anywhere on time. That was life as I knew it anyway, baby or not. The difference was, with a baby, there was zero expectation for me to accomplish most of the things I typically struggled with. My behaviour was totally normal. For once.

Things got trickier for me as my baby moved into the toddler phase and started school: suddenly I had to fill in forms, adhere to schedules and remember things like bake sales and costume days. Having three more children over the next five years meant those feelings of overwhelm and inadequacy started to take over, and soon I was regularly apologising for my cluttered home on playdates, leaving the house without essentials like nappies, or berating myself for my social awkwardness when I spoke to other parents.

Recently, however, I learnt there’s a name for the way I feel, for the things I struggle with: I have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, better known as ADHD.

One and a half million adults in the UK are thought to have the condition, but only about 120,000 have a formal diagnosis, for various reasons. It presents differently in girls and women and many have to seek private treatment to obtain a diagnosis (I was lucky I was able to go this route), as it can take months or even years of waiting on NHS lists for an assessment.

ADHD has a high correlation with other mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, so often people are diagnosed with those disorders, but not the root cause of ADHD. Interestingly, adults diagnosed in midlife like me often have their lightbulb moment after their own child’s diagnosis. A phenomenon that’s on the rise as awareness about the condition grows.

‘When you’re a new parent, you may experience many things an ADHD sufferer recognises: forgetfulness, struggling to follow a schedule, a foggy head,’ explains psychotherapist Dr Alison McClymont, who specialises in treating ADHD and autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) in children and adults. ‘If you have ADHD these feelings can be amplified and so can the sense of overwhelm that accompanies them. This can induce a sense of shock in some ADHD sufferers - a feeling whereby directions and tasks become so overwhelming that the response is to do nothing in order to quell the surge of stress.’

I sought a diagnosis after my symptoms worsened in the pandemic to the point where I was debilitated by the smallest of admin tasks. Getting diagnosed has been a huge relief, not only because I’ve found a medication that works for me (CBT is also known to help with emotional self-regulation, organisation and stress) but because understanding who I am is helping me be kinder to myself. Instead of focusing on what I lack as a parent - organisation, routine, maths skills - I’m learning to smile about what I do bring to the table.

Since I can be impulsive and childlike, there is an exciting vibe in our family life. I feel stifled and stressed when I overschedule the kids, so we don’t do Saturday clubs and our non-school days and holidays are blank canvases ripe for adventure.

‘I can match the children in excitement for things,’ says Louise Williams, a mum-of-two and blogger of Pink Pear Bear, who received her formal diagnosis last year aged 37. ‘Big things like Christmas, but also seeing the magic in the little everyday things like a beautiful leaf or a spiderweb sparkling in the morning dew.'

When my six-year-old started rattling off facts about the English seaside one evening this summer, the five of us jumped on an early train to Brighton the next morning. No itinerary, no pre-booked plans, no husband (he was away for the weekend). Just enthusiasm, spontaneity and a hunger for adventure.

‘ADHD parents are likely to be highly adaptable and possess huge amounts of energy and creativity,’ explains Dr McClymont. ‘Play and fun come naturally to them and their inspired, passionate ways of communicating make them easy for children to connect to.’

Even homeschooling during lockdown was manageable since our version involved roller-skating around the house and collaging our feelings using old fashion magazines. I struggled with uploading schoolwork to the various apps, so mostly I just didn’t, emailing the teachers to explain we were doing our own thing (history was watching old movies, and English was reading lots of E.E. Cummings poetry).

‘We’re known as the fun house because there’s mum and dad with ADHD, and a neurodiverse son,’ says Karen Spencer, another later life diagnosis ADHDer who manages the SPACE Hertfordshire charity, who support families with neurodiverse conditions and delivers training to professionals and workplaces.

For all the upsides, however, those with ADHD also deal with a huge amount emotionally. As many as 50% of adults with ADHD also suffer from an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. Michelle Beckett is a mum-of-three, co-founder of ADHD Unlocked and founder of ADHD Action, and was diagnosed with ADHD four years ago when she was 44. ‘It is challenging when you forget to hand a form in, or a dressing up day, and they’re nagging you and there's guilt. Women are socialised to be on top of stuff like this, and it always falls to mums.’

For me, I think it’s a shame that qualities society typically values in parents - being responsible, sensible, routine-embracing and organised - are not ones that come naturally to many of us with ADHD. Shouldn’t we also be valuing and celebrating vivid imaginations, infectious energy, out-of-the-box thinking and empathy, which is often found in adults with ADHD? I also think parents with the condition can teach children the most special thing of all: how beautiful it is to be different.

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