When current Boise State Public Health major Hailey Merrick found herself single and pregnant at 19 in 2010, many people told her she “couldn’t do it on her own”. This alone would have made many doubt themselves, but not Hailey. “This pushed me harder to be the best mother I could be” she said. 10 years later, married with 2 more kids in the family, Hailey’s determination to be an amazing mother has been a critical asset in her latest evolution – being a caregiver to her daughter with autism.
Hailey is no stranger to caregiving, as she first became a certified nursing assistant at age 16. While working in a nursing home, she says she “developed a love and passion” for caring for other people. “I made it my mission to figure out their daily routines and tried to give them what they needed before they asked. I wanted them to feel as if I truly cared, because I did, and that they were loved”.
This nurturing temperament served her well as a parent, especially when her daughter Izzy’s autism began to surface around age 6. It began with meltdowns that would last for hours, “triggered over the smallest things”. But the biggest tip off was struggling to connect with her friends emotionally. In the first grade when a friend told Izzy her sibling had passed away, “she kept asking questions in her cheerful way, completely oblivious to her friend’s pain. We had to explain to our oldest daughter that her friend was hurting and no longer wanted to talk about the subject”.
While autism creates parenting challenges, it also comes with unexpected joys and surprises, such as their daughter’s excellent memory and precociousness. “It used to shock me when she would remember everything I said [three weeks ago]”. She was also potty trained and able to speak in full sentences at 18 months. Now as a healthy 10 year old she excels in school and loves to read, especially anything that involves fantasy and magic like unicorns and mermaids. “She likes to call herself a ‘Potter Head’ because of her love of the Harry Potter series” says Hailey.
While the Merrick family has found a groove for the time being, the road to Izzy’s autism diagnosis was not easy. She went through several medications and misdiagnoses before specialists determined it was Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder. “It took a year and a half to meet with the specialist” said Hailey, at which point the diagnosis was a welcome relief. “Having this diagnosis opens the door to so many opportunities to develop the tools in her toolbox. It unlocks all the necessary means that we need to be able to support her in being the best version of herself that she can be.” Hailey reflects. “There was, and still is, no doubt in my mind that she will do amazing things.”
Like many families, COVID has brought some changes to the Merrick household. “The pandemic resulted in all 5 of us confined to our home with limited resources and outlets for the children. We have had to become creative to keep the younger children occupied…We have learned new skills that we did not anticipate needing. One of our biggest takeaways from this is that we need to remember to take care of ourselves [as parents]. If we don’t, then the [children] will struggle as well”.
Part of taking care of oneself for Hailey includes pursuing her Bachelor’s Degree part-time, while being heavily involved with school activities such as being an Academic Senator, student council member and President of Eta Sigma Gamma. Balancing parenting and school is not for the faint-hearted, even without caregiving duties. But Hailey’s positive outlook has served her well through her caregiving experience as well as the challenges of the pandemic. “It is not about being perfect, but setting a good example and showing our children that you never really lose unless you give up. Life is full of challenges and how we solve those problems is what makes it interesting”.
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