5 Career Mistakes Moms of Kids with Special Needs Shouldn’t Make

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Lori Mihalich-Levin & Mia Durairaj

Last week, we heard a familiar story from a working mom. The day after her son was diagnosed with autism, she sat down with her boss, burst into tears, and gave her two-weeks notice. She adored her job, but knew that her work schedule would not be compatible with the number of therapies her son required. 

This mom isn’t alone. Currently, 40 percent of caregivers of disabled children leave the workforce to care for their little ones. A study of families of special needs children discovered that 60 percent of professionals had to make workplace accommodations (such as reducing their hours) to fulfill their caregiving duties.

We fully acknowledge that being a so-called “stay-at-home” parent is the toughest job out there. And we absolutely respect a woman’s right to do what’s best for her and her family. However, it is possible for the vast majority of these moms to continue to advance their careers while caring for their little ones— if they can avoid these common pitfalls.

1. Choosing not to negotiate for flexibility.

Before simply presuming any flexible option is off the table, it always, always pays to ask. With the rise of remote work and other flexible options, both technology advancements and culture change are making it possible to work in ways we previously couldn’t. 

For example, in both a prior and current job, Lori dared to ask for more than she thought she was “permitted” to ask for in the flexibility department (in one instance, work-from-home Fridays, and in her current role, a 60 percent reduced-hour schedule), and it has made the world of difference for her and her family.

Whether you’re negotiating during maternity leave or as you interview for a new job, approach the conversation as a business negotiation — not a personal favor. Do your homework in advance as to what you’d like to ask for in an ideal schedule, and consider asking for flexibility on a trial basis (i.e., 3-6 months) to lower the stakes for everyone. 

2. Choosing not to consider entrepreneurship.

A risk-averse lawyer by nature, the thought of starting her own business never crossed Lori’s mind. Until she saw a huge gap in the world of resources for new working parents. If something screams to you “there really should be an X out there in the world,” then that might be your siren call to start a business to solve that problem. 

There are any number of amazing stories of special needs moms launching businesses inspired by their children. Take Maria Dellapina, for example. This Ohio-based optician and single mom’s world was thrown for a loop when her fourth child, Erin, was diagnosed with down syndrome at birth. Fast forward a few years, and she had turned an obstacle — no available eyeglasses for children like her daughter who had different facial features — into a successful and award-winning business called SPECS4US.

3. Choosing not to delegate at home and at work.

If there’s one thing we have both learned through parenthood, it’s that go-it-alone is a poor strategy. Letting others step in can be scary. But it does our families no good if we’re burned out, and it’s hard to magnify the impact of our talents in the world if we’re not putting them to their highest and best uses.

Letting go of more things during a maternity leave, for example, can help your team grow and allow you to step into new roles. But delegating at home is just as important. Are there specific tasks for which you can write out steps, ask for help from a partner or caregiver, and then stand aside? Now is the time to grow that village to support you. 

4. Choosing not to plan for "just in case." 

There is a snow day, your caregiver called out, or your child is suddenly hospitalized with a respiratory virus. On occasions like these, it’s easy to feel like the universe is conspiring against all your best efforts to advance your career. It sounds counterintuitive, perhaps, but we are both big believers that it’s possible to plan for the unexpected. For example, Lori and her husband have a weekly Saturday night meeting, where one of the topics is who is on kid duty on any given day of the upcoming week. 

Many employers also now offer back-up childcare options through companies like Bright Horizons. Planning ahead can reduce the stress of the unknown, and make committing to career-related aspects of life more feasible.

5. Choosing to undervalue yourself.

Why are so many moms of special needs children convinced that they are less desirable employees? If this describes you, we urge you to change your mindset. To start, try to think about all of the ways your unique situation has helped you become a more capable professional— not less. 

Special needs motherhood teaches you organization, negotiation, advocacy, coordination, patience, and teamwork. Guess what? All of these are valuable leadership skills. As long as you are clear and upfront with what you need and are sure to meet your deadlines with excellent work, your experiences as a mother should be an asset to your organization, not a liability. 

We hope that this article encourages those of you who want (or need) to work to muster up the courage to do so. Whether you aim to work it in the c-suite or a small business during your child’s nap times, know that it can be done. It just takes creativity, courage, and flexibility, which are all skills you practice every day as a special needs parent!

Whatever happened to the mom we spoke about at the beginning of the story whose son had autism? Well, she took a few years off of work. Once her son was a bit older, she started her own successful business helping other parents just like her. If that isn’t a beautiful example of career-family balance, we don’t know what is.


Lori K. Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return, author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, and Co-Creator of Mindful Return’s Balancing Career with a Special Needs Baby program. A partner in the health care practice of a global law firm, she also is mama to two beautiful red-headed boys. Lori holds a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Amialya (Mia) Durairaj, MSc is the Co-Creator of the new Mindful Return’s Balancing Career with a Special Needs Baby program. She is a writing consultant and owner of Little Octopus LLC, where she specializes in creating health and nutrition communications for non-profit and academic clients. Mia has a Master of Science in Nutrition and Food Studies from George Mason University. She is also the proud mom of identical twin toddlers. 

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