Success at work, struggles at home: DANA BUCHMAN shares her daughter’s story

It is a common lament of parents: To wish you knew then what you know now. Perspective is a seductive gift. But few parents do what Dana Buchman did, which was to write a no-holds-barred book about her experience in A Special Education: One Family’s Journey Through the Maze of Learning Disabilities.

Dana had it all (and as she makes clear through the book) still has it all — her eponymous fashion label, successful attorney husband, two gorgeous daughters, fabulous Manhattan loft. But Charlotte, the older daughter, didn’t seem quite ‘right’ and by age 4 was diagnosed with ADD, dyslexia, spatial and motor skill disabilities. Amazingly enough, Charlotte, who went to ‘special’ schools all her life, is now thriving at a mainstream college, where she is completing her freshman year.

The ‘special education’ is not merely Charlotte’s; Dana readily admits that raising an LD child was a learning experience for her and her husband, Tom, as well.

When a child has special needs, the entire family is deeply affected. Dana still harbors guilt at underplaying her younger daughter’s successes. Annie, two years younger, felt guilty, too; she learned how to read before her older sister, but resented having to downplay her own achievements. Dana and Tom grew apart as they internalized their fears and feelings.

While Dana feels some of the pressures the family faced were magnified in New York, where type A personalities and scarce quality preschool seats conspire to make getting into kindergarten a toddler rat race, she also acknowledges that the city has some of the best resources for LD, including the Gateway, Stephen Gaynor and Churchill School, all of which Charlotte attended. But the program that taught Charlotte to read, Lindamood-Bell, now in New York and on Long island, was only offered in California at the time, so Tom put his career on hold to enroll Charlotte, a luxury that most parents can’t afford. But although Dana and her family could afford expensive private schools, finding the right programs for Charlotte was viewed by her parents as a necessity, and a reader gets the sense that Dana and Tom would have sacrificed more if they had to.

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Although Charlotte is clearly a ‘success story’, Dana is not done. She still serves on an advisory council to diagnose and guide underprivileged children. And proceeds from the book benefit the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Dana spent a year writing the book (while logging long hours at her company), but she is adamant that parents do not need to go through the pressure, shame, confusion and anxiety that she experienced.

Charlotte’s LD included coordination issues; she was not able to keep up with her athletic father and younger sister. Her mom actually found this both a blessing and a curse — Dana says she never liked to ski anyway, and now had an excuse to hang out in the lodge with her daughter. But she admits that she relishes long bike rides and that this became a problem: family biking trips from their Long Island beach house usually ended in disaster. Finally, when Charlotte is in high school, she becomes a runner, and goes jogging with Tom.

Dana reports that while the book puts Annie again “in the role of watching” her sister get the attention, mother and younger daughter will be working together soon, when Annie completes an independent study at her mother’s company. To diffuse sibling rivalry, both girls enjoy ‘alone’ time with their parents — Dana often takes one girl on a business trip, for store openings or events.

One of the most powerful parts of the books is the last chapter, written by Charlotte (pictured on the front cover, with her mother). Charlotte is very pragmatic about her differences and rightfully proud of her accomplishments.

A Special Education: One Family’s Journey Through the Maze of Learning Disabilities is published this month by Perseus Books.