Casey Johnson is a single mom from upstate New York raising a two-year-old girl named Marley, a five-year-old boy named Ivan, a Boston terrier named Penny, a one-eyed cat named Odin and a fish named Violet. Casey has been separated from the father of her children for the past two years but he is still very involved and sees them on weekends.
Ivan has high functioning autism so Casey has struggled to find childcare (“he has gone through two or three babysitters that have quit.”) Casey’s father has helped watch Ivan in the past, but after four years, it proved to be too much of a struggle for him as well. As a result, last November, Casey decided to leave her job in the restaurant industry to switch to the family business, a dog grooming shop run out of her parents’ home, which allows her to bring Ivan and Marley to work. This way, Casey can watch her children, earn an income, save on childcare and also have the additional support of her family.
Casey describes her day as “chaotic, busy and frustrating” and says that working while parenting is really hard.
“I always feel like I’m neglecting something. Like something is not being done right because I’m trying to split myself. I’m trying to do two full-time jobs at once.”
Casey wakes up at 5:30am and then staggers her children’s wake-up times so that they all have sufficient time to adjust to the day before they have to be anywhere.
Ivan usually wakes up between 6-6:30am and watches cartoons on the couch.
At 7am, Casey wakes Marley, who she describes as a “wild, smart and stubborn little thing.”
Marley is mostly non-verbal but she does have a few words like “Ivy” which is short for Ivan.
Casey stressed the importance of taking their morning slowly.
“We are NOT morning people. It’s important that we wake up early enough that we don’t have to rush or it sets the day off on a bad, grumpy note. Ivan will surely have a meltdown.”
Casey’s goal is to leave the house at 8am.
They drive 12 minutes to her parents’ house which is a converted schoolhouse with the dog grooming shop on the lower level.
“My stepmother Jean has been grooming dogs for over 25 years. Almost six years ago she decided to venture out on her own and has been killing it since then.”
Casey talked about the struggle her dad had watching Ivan before she started working at the shop.
“A lot of the time talking to Ivan is like talking to a wall. He is in his own world and you have to snap him out of it before he can even hear you. It’s hard to get him to follow directions. It was really hard on their relationship. Now, my dad and Ivan get to hang out like grandfather and grandson with no pressure. It’s a breath of fresh air.”
From 8:30am to lunchtime, Casey works grooming dogs, managing the shop’s Facebook page and taking care of the kids all at once.
She loves the positive effect being around so many animals has on her kids. “My children know how to be kind and care for a dog. They know what it’s like to have a creature be loyal to you and to take care of them in return.”
Her parents’ dog, a black Newfoundland named Danica, is particularly loyal to Ivan. “Ivan and Danica grew up together and she adores him. When Ivan is playing outside, she goes with him and follows him around. He won’t even go without her now.”
While Marley loves helping out in the dog grooming shop, Ivan has a tougher time being stuck inside working. The solution is often screen time, which poses its own issues.
“When Ivan watches a screen he turns into this zombie-like creature I don’t recognize. Then he gets grumpy and loses all control.”
When possible, Casey tries to make sure her kids get play time outside, doing the things they love like looking for bugs. Ivan is particularly interested in insects and all things science related.
Even though doctors have told Casey that Ivan is on the autism spectrum, she has had trouble getting him an official diagnosis which affects the services he is eligible to receive.
“We always suspected there was something ‘unique’ about Ivan from birth. This past spring I finally begged my doctor to help us because his school kept sending home terrible reports but unfortunately, he had missed the age for early intervention. We were put on a year-long waiting list at one of the only places in the area that can diagnose a child over five. In the meantime, I had Ivan checked by every therapist and doctor I could wrangle. The basic conclusion is that he is on the autism spectrum and he has Sensory Processing Disorder, but there is no official label until he takes the test. Watching him struggle is torture, but I need the official label to get Ivan the services he needs. I feel like we’re in limbo.”
Since the shoot, Ivan has started school and Casey is feeling more hopeful about a diagnosis.
“Ivan’s new school is amazing. He is in occupational and physical therapy and a little lunch group to work on social skills. The special education teacher also found a place that might be able to get him in earlier for a diagnosis.”
On most days, they stay and have lunch at the schoolhouse and then work the afternoon as well, but on the day of the shoot, they had a bunch of cancellations giving Casey and her kids the afternoon off. She ended up driving the kids back home for lunch.
“Meal times used to be horrible, with Ivan getting so stressed out that he’d throw up. Then our doctor recommended that I make Ivan the few meals he likes (even if Marley and I eat something different) with no pressure to actually eat it. It worked. I put food he likes on the plate and don’t talk about it. If he doesn’t eat, that’s okay.”
After lunch, Casey took the kids to a nearby lake about 15 minutes away.
“Not many people go to this part of the lake so it allows for us to have a really mellow time looking for bugs and fish and watching the dogs. This time means a lot to me. We don’t really have any money to go do fun activities so just playing by the lake and spending the day outside is one of the few ways I can hang out with them that’s not at home.”
Casey also likes the solitude of the lake because she’s not worried about strangers judging her if Ivan has a meltdown.
“I wish that people who saw a kid having a tantrum in a store or at the park didn’t judge the situation because it’s not always a bad parent. It’s not always a bad kid. If Ivan is overstimulated from the day or even slightly tired, forget it. He is reduced to a crying screaming ball of anger. I get a lot of dirty looks from people when this happens. I wish people reacted with a little more understanding. I want to wear a t-shirt constantly that says ‘I’m just doing my best. Leave me alone.'”
She also talked about feeling judged for being a single mom, after overhearing one mom on the playground explain away Ivan’s behavior by the fact that he comes from a “broken home.”
“I’m terrified to tell people that I am a single mom. There is just this stigma that a single mom can’t do it all. Or that I go out and party and ditch my kids. When in reality, I do laundry and make spreadsheets to plot out our day in my free time.”
Spreadsheets, schedules and chore charts are Casey’s way to keep her kids on a routine schedule, which she’s learned is a huge help to Ivan who thrives on a set routine with concrete rules to follow.
“It is working so well for us now. Ivan is less angry and the meltdowns have decreased. He is actually sleeping.”
Unfortunately, a structured schedule has made it tough to have relationships outside her family. On the day of the shoot, after they returned from the lake, her boyfriend Byron brought pizza over for dinner, but they have since parted ways.
“Now that school has started, I literally have a spreadsheet with what we do at what times and on what days. Our life is really structured. Byron decided that it wasn’t a life he could commit to. He very much likes to live free and it was especially hard on Ivan when he didn’t show up on certain days at certain times.”
After dinner, they all hung out, played and talked about “weird science stuff.”
Casey talked about how well Marley and Ivan get along.
“Marley thinks Ivan is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Ivan is in his own little world most of the time so he doesn’t notice her a lot. So far, I think this dynamic has made for a great sibling relationship. Ivan doesn’t get as annoyed with her as much as a typical older brother might with a little sister who follows him around copying everything.”
At 7pm, Casey starts what she calls “bedtime voodoo,” a combination of very specific strategies she has developed over time to help Ivan go to sleep.
“For the first 4.5 years of Ivan’s life, he fell asleep screaming his lungs out. No matter what we did. Then I found the right time to put him to bed and the right routine and it slowly fell into place. We do the same things at the same time no matter what. There is always a bath, teeth, and story. Then Ivan takes a pill to help him hold still long enough to sleep. We use lavender essential oils, a fan for noise and a super heavy blanket he sleeps under.”
Putting Marley to bed is much easier and rarely an issue.
By 8pm, the kids are usually both sleeping. Casey uses the rest of her evening to clean, do dishes, cook for the following day, do some yoga, watch TV and read.
She goes to bed at 10:30pm.
I asked Casey about her reaction to the pictures.
“It’s a very different point of view when I’m looking at the pictures, as opposed to living in my own head, thinking about what needs to be done and how to do it all the time. I always feel so busy and rushed that it’s nice to see I do stop and hug them more than I thought.”
She also expressed gratitude for the experience in general.
“Our little family can get so stuck in our own little bubble and forget that there is an outside world. When we had a photographer come and crash our day and I had to start talking about our family, it really put normal everyday things into perspective for me. I feel lucky.”
She would still describe her day as “busy” but replaced “chaotic and frustrating” with “loving and connected.”
I asked Casey how she felt about the series being called “Extraordinary Families.”
“I think my children are extraordinary. But I’m just doing what any parent would do to keep their kids from struggling.”
I asked her if there was anything else she hoped to accomplish with being featured in this series.
“I want to let people know that if they have to do weird bedtime voodoo and talk about bugs constantly, they are not alone.”
And for the people who might not understand or relate to her family, Casey had this to say:
“My kids might be loud and weird and annoying in a store, but they are also funny and smart and amazing. Parenting can be really lonely and hard. I just want people to react with kindness.”
Please leave a comment in support of Casey and her extraordinary family below.
This post is part of the “Extraordinary Families” series sponsored by Allstate. “Extraordinary Families” aims to show what life is like, sun up to sun down, for families facing (and overcoming!) unique and challenging circumstances. As the nation’s largest publicly held insurance company, Allstate is dedicated to protecting what matters most.
All photos were taken by Cooper Miller of Demonstrous.