Dr. Mary Susan McConnell offers a dose of fun, creativity, and connection to parent caregivers
by Jennifer Lendvai-Lintner
My sister went on a research spree at my request. My medically complex daughter was about four months old and in the middle of a hospitalization and I needed help. I was floundering in what felt like uncharted territory. The objective I assigned to my sister was to help me find ‘my people.’ My sister (who is really quite gifted at this sort of thing) didn’t disappoint. In a matter of hours, she had crowd sourced what would become important lifelines for me. One of those lifelines was the Mama Bear Podcast, hosted by Dr. Mary Susan McConnell.
Feelings of isolation in what Mary Susan describes as her own ‘unique, extreme parenting world’ led her to create the Mama Bear Podcast, so other women raising kids in profound circumstances would have a space in which they could find connection and a sense of belonging.
Mary Susan and her husband Sean adopted daughter Abiella, who Mary Susan describes as ‘the spunkiest bundle of joy,’ in 2012. Abi has profound cerebral palsy.
“Her story also includes a feeding tube, a bright hot pink sparkly wheelchair, epilepsy, and speaking in a variety of awesome ways that don’t include spoken words,” Mary Susan says.
“Nighttime, no sleep, sleep terrors, epilepsy, hip surgery, not knowing what’s wrong when your child is upset and you aren’t sure why… These are all very hard things. What has helped is connecting with other women who get it.”
That connection is vital for caregivers who frequently experience feelings of isolation and overwhelm. For me, listening to episodes of the Mama Bear Podcast is balm for what can often be an uncertain and overwhelming journey. In Mary Susan’s podcast, I found the beginnings of community. It may be a virtual one, but it’s a positive and real one which acknowledges the many aspects of the parenting/caregiving role I am in. The podcast provides validation and a sense of being ‘seen’, but it goes further than that. When I tune in to Mary Susan, I come away with creative ideas to help address some of the pain points of parenting in this kind of circumstance and also how to prioritize myself amidst the heft of daily caregiving.
Though her own experience as a caregiver informs much of her work in this space, Mary Susan also draws on her doctoral work in the field of Special Education—an advanced degree she earned while caring for daughter Abi full-time.
“I’m proud I listened to myself, that I went back and finished my doctorate. That I dared to dream bigger for myself than I originally thought possible,” Mary Susan says.
Tuning into herself has been an important tool in her role as caregiver. Mary Susan says, “If I accidentally get lost in the world of “martyrdom” it’s not good for anybody. I’m consistently learning to listen to myself and take the spaces I need. This includes tiny acts like listening to a good playlist, enjoying a good coffee, spending time with friends, reading good books, painting, and taking time for things that I LOVE.”
One of my most important takeaways has been how to reinsert fun in ways that make sense in our unique family dynamic. Fun and creativity are important themes in Mary Susan’s work. She encourages others to inject both into their lives in manageable ways. Followers of her journey can see how she puts this into practice in her own life. In fact this year, Mary Susan took her painting hobby to a new level by launching Mary Susan McConnell Art, a website where she sells her original, abstract mixed media art pieces.
In over two years, Mary Susan’s offerings have grown to include one-on-one coaching and virtual courses in which she encourages women in caregiving roles.
“I LOVE empowering other women (especially full-time caregivers) to lives that feel free, empowered, satisfying and FUN,” Mary Susan says.
She’s even published an e-book titled, We’re Going to Have Fun, Dammit, which can be downloaded directly from her website. Mary Susan’s website is also home to several freebies including an inclusive coloring book and a hefty list of tips for how to find peace when things are rough.
Last year in addition to her podcast—which boasts 185 episodes to date—Mary Susan launched the Mama Bear Daily, a monthly content subscription. For $27 per month members have access to a short 5-10 minute episode 5 days a week. These episode snippets include bite-sized challenges, inspiration, and encouragement, manageable for her target audience of parents/caregivers of children with profound circumstances.
When my sister stumbled upon the Mama Bear Podcast, she couldn’t have known the positive impact it would have on my life. Over the past few years I’ve worked one-on-one with Mary Susan, I’ve been a Mama Bear Daily subscriber since its inception, and–in a truly full-circle moment–I’ve even been a guest on the Mama Bear Podcast! I speak from experience when I say that this community is fortunate to have the support and encouragement of this self-described good timer.
Mary Susan says her work within this community has taught her a lot, too. “I didn’t know there was such a vast network of incredibly badass women doing beautifully hard things. I originally felt isolated in my unique/extreme parenting world—now I know there’s a lot of us. It’s a phenomenal connection we share.”
A note to my readers: This blog post is part of my SpotLIGHT series. Last year on The Best We Have to Give blog, I debuted SpotLIGHT—an occasional feature post that highlights the stories of other caregivers who see a need or void and seek to fill it. The purpose is to marvel at the ways in which even in difficult, profound circumstances, light shines through in the most amazing ways. I hope you enjoyed meeting Mary Susan! — Jen
Photo courtesy of Mary Susan McConnell
[Image description: In a gray Fleetwood Mac tee and rectangular statement earrings, Mary Susan sits on a porch in a wicker chair with a laptop before her. With her blond hair piled high in a messy bun and a hair scarf tied headband style, she is smiling and looking directly at the camera illuminated in golden sunlight.]