Jewelry designer Lisa Leonard and her husband discuss how they prioritize their marriage while running a business together and caring for a son with special needs.
- Posted on Feb 1, 2019
Lisa Leonard started making jewelry as a hobby after giving birth to her eldest son, David. David was born with Cornelia de Lange syndrome, a severe developmental disability. Doctors told Lisa and Stephen, a pastor at the time, that their son would never walk or talk.
In the midst of learning to care for an infant with special needs, Lisa began to take her jewelry-making hobby more seriously. Soon, the business outgrew the kitchen table. Today, Lisa Leonard Designs employs hundreds of people and Stephen serves as President & CEO of the company.
From the outside, things looked perfect. But Lisa was struggling. She felt enormous pressure to be the perfect mom, caregiver, wife and designer. In her book, Brave Love, Lisa opens up about her journey to find true love—and herself.
“I really used to think love was giving and serving and making myself less, so I could make other people more,” Lisa told Guideposts.org. “I’ve come to see that the bravest love is showing up as a whole person.”
This feeling that other people’s needs were more important than her own started when Lisa was a child and only grew when she became a wife and mother of two boys.
“Motherhood is a season of giving so much,” Lisa said. “Then our oldest son has special needs and so we're giving a lot there. With David and his needs, it's just ongoing and in some ways relentless.”
For years, Lisa felt like she had to do it all: attend to all of David’s caregiving needs, run her business, cook homemade meals for her family every night, and never ask for help.
“Anytime you're a caregiver, whether its young children or a child with special needs, or an aging parent, there is a certain demand,” Lisa said. “We can try to have healthy boundaries and self-care but it is demanding. It is exhausting. It can be hard to have perspective.”
“It's very behind the scenes too,” Stephen added. “Caregiving is really important work. It's probably some of the most significant work any of us ever do in our lives, but there is no credit and most of the time nobody sees it.”
Stephen and Lisa also struggled to navigate the complicated web of grief, joy and pain that came with raising a child with special needs, especially after their younger son, Matthias was born. In Brave Love, Lisa admits how relieved she felt when Matthias was born perfectly healthy.
Do I love this baby more because he doesn’t have a disability? She wondered. Am I betraying David by loving our new baby?
Lisa’s guilt and exhaustion only continued to grow as her business took off.
“I felt like I wasn’t allowed to ask for help,” Lisa said. “I felt like I wasn’t allowed to get so tired I couldn’t care for David.”
Finally, a few years ago, she reached a breaking point. Her marriage was floundering and the demands of business and motherhood had become so draining she wasn’t sure she could do it anymore. She told Stephen she thought they should separate.
“I needed some space to try and regroup and ended up going away for ten days,” Lisa said.
While she was away, Lisa realized how gracious Stephen had been about her taking time for herself. She started wondering, “What else do I think I'm not allowed to ask for? Maybe I need to ask for it.”
She made a list of things that needed to change. She would go for more hikes. She would cook simpler meals. She would hire help for David and take time for herself. And she decided to go home.
Ten days after her departure, Lisa returned home and she and Stephen went to work on their relationship.
“We really had to redefine for ourselves what [rest] looks like so Lisa is very clear that she can [take] breaks,” Stephen said.
The couple said they’ve fought more in the years since Lisa’s trip, but their relationship is stronger.
“It's something I've really been working on is I can't keep giving out of emptiness,” Lisa said. “I have to at some point rest, ask for help and set boundaries.”
They’ve also decided to accept their feelings rather than denying them, especially when it comes to David and their caregiving responsibilities.
“When you feel grief, or you feel guilt, you're trying to tell yourself something,” Stephen said. “Ask yourself ‘why do I feel this?’ [I’ll think] I feel angry right now. I love David and I feel angry about having to change another diaper today.”
On the surface, that feeling of anger might be enough to make Stephen feel guilty for not wanting to change a diaper for his sixteen-year-old son. But when he digs beneath the surface he sees that the anger isn’t really about David at all.
“Why do I feel that?” Stephen asked. “Not because I'm angry at David. Actually that anger is covering that I’m sad about the situation. Then I can process that…and let myself feel sad. We wish David didn't have Cornelia de Lange syndrome. At the same time, we're delighted to serve him and to do everything we can to make his life as full as possible.”
For Lis, making self-care a priority has made a huge difference.
“One of the big things that I did was started just making ten minutes a day to sit quietly. It was totally transforming for me,” Lisa said.
The couple also had to learn to share their feelings with each other.
“To sit with someone in their grief or their anger or their sadness is such a gift,” Lisa said. “I think we can do that more for each other. To just listen without answers, without quick fixes. Those feelings just need to be felt.”
Years ago, Lisa discovered a simple way to help her navigate how other people treated her son. When David was an infant, they were out for a family lunch and Lisa saw some boys pointing and laughing at her son.
“I felt swallowed up by shame,” she said. Then she made a decision. Instead of wallowing in her shame, she would address the boys directly. She went over and introduced herself and asked them if they had any questions about her son.
“It was really a life changing moment for me to feel like I [wasn’t] ashamed of my son,” Lisa said.
In sharing her family’s story, Lisa hopes that people, women in particular, will feel free to leave shame behind and find peace.
“There is space in our marriage for two whole people,” Lisa said. “There is space in our family for me to be a whole person with needs and wants…Having needs and wants and communicating honestly is a really vulnerable way to live, but that’s where brave love comes from.”