Podcast: Sarah Baldwin on combining special needs parenting with a demanding job

I had interviewed Sarah Baldwin a few years ago for a story I wrote about friendships for Fast Company. She had started a book club in order to see friends more regularly amidst her busy schedule as a college administrator and parent. She would also occasionally invite a friend to come meet her for a long lunch on campus.

Anyway, I’d kept in touch with Baldwin and was thrilled when she agreed to come on the Best of Both Worlds podcast to talk with Sarah and me about another aspect of her life. Baldwin is a veteran parent; her oldest daughter (who Baldwin had in her 20s) is in college. She then had two more children in her early 40s.

Her youngest daughter, Emily, has Down Syndrome and epilepsy. Both of these have presented logistical challenges for Baldwin’s family — though of course Emily herself has brought an incredible amount of joy to the family (and cuteness. Follow @sarahthomasbaldwin on Instagram for proof.)

This was probably one of my favorite interviews we’ve done for BOBW. Among the highlights:

So much people obsess about just doesn’t matter. Forty-something Baldwin says she would have liked to tell 20-something Baldwin not to worry about most of the day-to-day crises and competitive parenting she lived through. Now that she has little ones when most of her peers don’t, she can just enjoy the kids.

Big jobs are actually good jobs for moms. Baldwin says that back when she was first a new mom, she was pondering whether she should go part-time and scale back her career. She is so glad she didn’t, because now she’s parenting Emily in the context of having a 20-year career with her employer, and a lot of autonomy and control over her schedule. This gives her flexibility. Her team helps support how she chooses to prioritize her time. Speaking of which…

A good executive assistant is key. Baldwin’s assistant makes sure that important things do not happen at times Baldwin can’t be there. This was especially helpful when Emily had a health crisis last summer (a rather horrible epilepsy related complication that led to regression; thankfully she is now recovered from that.) We often talk about home support being important, but work support is too. (Another part of that: Baldwin lives very close to her university, so she can pop in and out if needed.)

You don’t have to go to everything. Baldwin and her husband trade off on specialist appointments. Their nanny manages a lot of the therapy visits, with Baldwin aiming to go to every third one or so, so she maintains a relationship with Emily’s team. (Baldwin noted that Kentucky, where they live, has a program where therapists come to the child for ages 0-3, which is definitely logistically easier than hauling a baby to them.)

A child is so much more than a diagnosis. We asked Baldwin what she’d like to share with other parents facing tough news about a child. Baldwin learned that Emily would most likely have Down Syndrome very early in her pregnancy. She reports that she had a lot of anxiety about this, and fear about what it would mean. But when Emily was born, she got to know her as Emily — an adorable, sweet child whose special needs are just one aspect of her. Her arrival has made life more logistically complicated, but more joyful too.

Anyway, please give the episode a listen! And if you enjoy Best of Both Worlds, would you please give us a rating or a review on iTunes? And tell a friend about us? We really appreciate it!

13 thoughts on “Podcast: Sarah Baldwin on combining special needs parenting with a demanding job

  1. This was a fantastic episode, thank you Laura, Sarah, and Sarah. Although I can’t directly relate to Sarah’s specific work and parenting experiences, this episode still resonated with me deeply. The discussion of joy and hardship coexisting was an epiphany for me. I think I am guilty of waiting for some mythical perfect and easy future at the expense of missing out on the beauty of the present. I’ll try to remember to notice and savour the good times right now even in the midst of my baby’s terrible sleep and 4-year old’s grumpiness. Just because thibgs aren’t perfect, they can still be joyful. Thanks again for the podcast, I enjoy listening every week.

    1. @Jenn – I completely agree that joy and hardship can co-exist. I think the “discipline of joy” is choosing to see this. Sarah Baldwin really has that discipline!

  2. As a fellow special needs parent, I have a very different perspective and a lot of grief and anxiety about my special needs child (everything from all the extra appointments and therapies, to making schooling decisions to worry about not having as much energy and attention for my other two kids). Of course I love my child and yes there are ways that he makes our life brighter but I do not in any way view him or his needs as a gift. I love the podcast but this one didn’t resonate for me. We certainly have joyful moments but our entire family revolves around one childs special needs and will continue for his entire life.

    1. Thank you for sharing that. Clearly a different perspective than our guest, and a good reminder that every experience is different.

  3. My reaction to this episode is that I am bothered by the fact that the midwife sold that 10 week test as “a way to find out gender!” Yes, that’s one of the outcomes, but the purpose of that test is to assess for chromosomal abnormalities in a fetus. Perhaps this was discussed with Sarah prior to ordering the test and that didn’t come through, but it bothers me that many medical professionals do not prepare people for the outcomes of what screening tests can find. Consequently, some individuals are really blindsided by the results because they did not expect to be assessing for these other conditions. I realize this is not at all the main point of this episode, but – as a genetic counselor – it is what stuck with me the most! Beyond that, though, I thought this was a great episode (as they all have been!) and found Sarah’s perspective really interesting…though I agree with a previous commenter that this attitude may not be shared by all parents who have kids with special needs (and that likely depends somewhat on the condition itself).

  4. Thanks for another great episode, ladies! Since I also have a background in higher education, I did a little internet sleuthing to see if I could find more information about Dr. Baldwin’s education and work experience. I found that not only does she have tremendous higher ed experience, but she’s also a licensed pastor and has worked to develop spiritual life programs at her previous universities. Since so much of her career has been spent in ministry positions, I was surprised that this aspect of her life wasn’t a part of her interview. In fact, spirituality and religious practices are an aspect of women’s lives that I wish would be addressed on BOBW — especially since Laura and Sarah have both mentioned observing religious holidays or attending religious services. Specific questions that I’d be interested to hear about: how do women serve in their religious communities? How do their religious beliefs inform women’s decisions to continue to work full or part-time outside the home, or to stay home full-time? How do religious beliefs impact their relationships with their husbands and children? How do women find joy and contentment through their religious practices? How do women make time for daily spiritual reading or prayer, service to their community, and prayer/reflection time with their husbands and kids?

    1. @Mary C Johnson – thanks for your comment and thanks for listening to the episode! At some point in the future I’d like to do an episode with a guest who is a pastor/rabbi/etc. since there have historically been few women in these positions (often by organization policy). I realize that’s not the same thing you’re bringing up (incorporating spiritual practices into life) but these tend to be very demanding jobs, and it would be interesting to see how women combine them with raising their own families.

      1. This episode was so moving and I really appreciated hearing Sarah’s perspective.

        There is a woman who has appeared as a guest on Pantsuit Politics and What Should I read next? (whose name is now escaping me). She is a pastor and activist and might be a really interesting person to talk to. I think she has older kids.

      2. I’ve known a few woman who are or were clergy, and one of the parts that I found interesting was their reaction to what I call — attending to the spiritual and emotional needs of their parishioners. I understand that some faiths may refer to this as pastoral care or ministry. What I found interesting was what a heavy load it was and the toll it took on them personally and on their families. It is a lot to attend to the spiritual needs of hundreds of parishioners, as well as family. Perhaps because they were women, or clergy, or some combination of other characteristics, it was expected, and the burden did not seem recognized. To me on the outside, it seems like a hard profession for anyone not able to carry the counseling part.

      3. I would love to hear perspective on this topic as someone who is exploring this as a field! I don’t have any recommendations as far as names, but would really love the discussion.

  5. This was a really great episode with great insights. However, what about mothers who are in the early stages of their careers and have children with special needs or other challenges? They have not yet built up career capital and it is can be more challenging to build up career capital at that stage with more demands in other parts of life. Maybe you can address that in another episode of the podcast.

  6. I do not have a special needs child. My brother-in-law has Down’s syndrome and is now 28yo. My MIL and FIL took several years and a LOT of soul searching to be at peace with their reality. It sounds like Sarah Baldwin has incredible perspective on this issue; however, if I were on a podcast about combining work/life, I would try to be as positive and reflective as possible. In real life, there are good and bad days!

  7. I really appreciated the to-do list a listener sent in to prep for motherhood. Have you written down the list in a post somewhere? Thanks!

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