Monday, April 11, 2011

Roller Derby and Special Needs Parenting

Of Suburbia's 40 or so active league members, 10 have kids; of those, 3 of us have kids with special needs. One skater has two sons with Asperger's. The other has a son with ADHD and a daughter with an as-yet-undiagnosed mental disorder, as well as a typically-developing child. I don't know if this is a high proportion or if it falls within the range of statistical probability that 30% of parents in our league would have special needs kids, but it got me wondering about other moms out there in similar positions.

I posted a message to a derby chat board, and instantly got a flood of responses from derby girls around the world who are raising children with special needs, or are special ed teachers, or are themselves on the spectrum. So many different stories, such a wide range of disabilities they're all living with - autism, dwarfism, Down Syndrome, deafness. I also got plenty of messages from parents of typical kids, saying that roller derby is the antidote for their parenting stress as well. About half the women I emailed with said they had started playing before their children were diagnosed with disabilities, and half started in reaction to an official diagnosis.

I thought I'd be able to weave their stories together coherently to prove... something... but really, the only common thread is they all love playing roller derby, and find support from their derby sisters and catharsis from the act of beating up their friends.

Instead I'll just share the story of a couple of remarkable women.

My teammate, Satan's Cheerleader, has been skating for a couple of years. Her decision to try out for the team involved this thought process: "OMG! A way out of the house! Three times a week! Other MOMS too, that want to talk about something besides bowel movements, the latest gluten-free products, and trips to the pediatrician! I will sell my soul to get in!"

I completely identify with her feelings about being part of Suburbia:
I was excited that there were other moms at derby, including some that didn't suffer from perpetual MommyTalk. They could complete entire sentences that didn't include kids! I won't lie, I was actually a little excited when I found out that others had kids with special needs too. They don't glare at me when my 12 year-old rolls around the filthy PAL floor having a temper tantrum that I can't tend to at the moment because my 10 year-old klepto just disappeared into the parking lot and is trying to break into the armory next door.
And, she adds, her participation in derby has created a community for her children. They hang out with the other derby brats and take on their own derby identities - Satan's kids (collectively known as the Spawn of Satan) are Wring Pop, Sticky Fingers, and Pain in the Ace. I truly look forward to when Ryan (aka Captain Awesome) is ready to play with the Spawn of Satan, the Whiskey Shots, the Wayward Boys, and the Sane Asylum. So far, it's been hard to get him to stay at a game or practice for more than five minutes without a meltdown, and at the last parade we marched in, he was far more interested in his balloons than in interacting with the other kids. But it's nice to know there's a community waiting to welcome him.

Long Island Rollita (I love the name!) has four children - both biological and adopted - and a grandchild, all with multiple disorders. Her home life is complicated enough that she broke it down for me in a handy chart. For the sake of brevity, I'll just say these kids and grandson range in age from 2 to 25, and their diagnoses include Asperger's, Bi-Polar, ADHD, Fetal Alcohol Effects, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Learning Disabilities, Anxiety, OCD, Depression, and Schizo-Affective Disorder.

Rollita's reason for starting skating was similar to my own. She says, "I joined Derby because I really wanted something that was mine...completely separate from my daily chaos.  I have never had an outlet like this before and it has been life changing for me." Oh, I hear that! Because of the positive effect playing derby has had on her life, her husband has been very supportive. "If I start to feel the pressure to let it go because of the kids," she says, "he tells me I can't give it up, I need it too much."

I'll let Rollita take it from here:
Sometimes my family feels neglected because I am off doing something for Derby...especially my older kids.  Everyone is used to mom always being around and now I suddenly have places to be that don't always include them.  It's been a struggle, but they are adjusting. 

I try to include them as much as possible. When they do come, I often feel like I am on eggshells and have to watch every little detail and try to prevent/avoid the usual triggers, especially with my 9 yr old son [severe anxiety, OCD, ADD, learning disability, and being monitored by a child psychiatrist for mild Asperger's Syndrome].  For example, at our Christmas Bout, he had a full blown anxiety attack when he saw Santa....for whatever reason, that triggered his panic button...fortunately, my mom was there and just had my son hide behind her while Santa walked by....  without her there, I would've been torn between derby and being a I always try to plan for back-up support at times that I know my team really needs me because I clearly wouldn't think twice about putting my kids first...I'm sure the other skaters don't have to worry as much about these types of details.

My life is, obviously, much simpler than Rollita's, but I completely identify with her need to have something in her life that is all her own, independent of parenting and disability. I admire her, and all the other amazing women who emailed me, for carving out a little corner of her world where she can recharge and refocus herself so that in her "real" life she can be the best advocate she can be for her family.

We are not alone. Raising a child with special needs can feel very isolating - feeling like your daily experience is completely alien to your friends' lives, not identifying with any of those parenting magazine articles and milestone charts, avoiding play dates because they're just more trouble than you can handle. But there are thousands of us. And apparently quite a few of us have found release in roller derby.

I hope to see you ladies on the track someday!

And thanks to all who responded. Please check out their teams and support your local league!
Bay Area Derby Girls
Bellingham Roller Betties
Charlottesville Derby Dames
Central New York Roller Derby
Dead Girl Derby Kansas City 
Dutchland Derby Rollers 
Gold Coast Roller Grrls
Iron Mountain Roller Girls
Oly Rollers
Suburbia Roller Derby
Whidbey Island Roller Girls
Winnipeg Roller Derby League


  1. I love you more than you can possibly know.

  2. I play for the Prison City Derby Dames in Chino, CA. I am not a mother yet nor do I have anyone in my family with any special needs, but I came across this post and my heart melted.
    I've always really admired all of the women in Roller Derby for the courage and strength it takes to play this game, physically and mentally. All of us comes from such different backgrounds and yet the comradery we all share with one another floors me every time!
    Thinking of everything you all must go through makes me feel horrible for everything I take for granted and you make me a better person for opening my eyes to it.
    I just want to let you all know that as mothers you're heroines, but in my eyes, as mothers of special needs kids you're truly legendary.
    I wish all of you the best of luck in every single step of your journeys!!
    All my love!
    -ApocaLoops #2012

  3. love this. And I really relate to the feelings of being isolated and alone in your world of special needs parenting. I've applied for a supervisory position at a diabetes sleep-away camp, because I've realized how lonely I am for a community of people who think about the same things that I think about now. reading your post really resonated with me.

  4. this is a fantastic article i have a daughter with a rare syndrome, physically effecting her only...its called Polands Syndrome ...very rare but we cope and all i can say is that roller derby especially my league GRDL (Geelong roller derby) have made her self esteem and everything better they are so good to her and make her feel so so loved and special, as she loves roller derby as much as her mum. it has helped me in a major way, when i am on my wheels nothin else worries me...thank you for sharing your story and hats off to you for thinking of our special little ones...Attila the Mum

  5. Thank you for this. I have frequently considered quitting roller derby because of how much time it takes me away from my three special kids but every woman needs her outlet and I love my Dames! I seriously need to consider giving my kids derby names now. Thanks so much! -Witch Wade Shego.

  6. Love you & thank you! I have 2 SN kiddos (CP & aspergers) and finding Derby has been a life saver! Best way of handling stress *ever*! -


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