NEW YORK — Dana Buchman is hardly the first designer to pen a book as a milestone approaches — her 20th anniversary as the creative force behind her women’s sportswear label.
But while most of her peers have published collections of archival fashion photographs or bons mots of style, Buchman chose to tackle a decidedly more complicated and personal subject. In “A Special Education: One Family’s Journey Through the Maze of Learning Disabilities,” the designer puts her career aside to focus on the challenges of motherhood, particularly those involved with raising a child who has severe learning disabilities. Her eldest daughter, Charlotte, was diagnosed with neurological, spatial and motor-skill disabilities as a toddler, and it was her achievements rather than Buchman’s own career success that inspired her to start writing.
“I came to terms that Charlotte would be leaving for college and had come to the end of a long journey,” said Buchman, who has been touring extensively since last month to promote the book, with upcoming stops in April at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue stores in Dallas. “And I glanced back and realized I know so much more now than I had known at the beginning, which is the curse of all mothers. But I felt like I had something to tell.”
In 1986, the self-described workaholic was a newlywed expecting her first child and preparing to launch her label under Liz Claiborne. By the time Charlotte was 12 months old, Buchman’s business was on the rise, but early signs of learning disabilities cast a shadow over her personal life. She and her husband, Tom Farber, had noticed that their otherwise healthy toddler was slow to crawl, walk and talk, the first of many development issues that became even more obvious after their younger daughter, Annie, was born when Charlotte was two years old. The official diagnosis — dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, to name two — at age three was just the beginning of an ongoing challenge that required speech therapy, special schooling and countless doctors’ appointments.
The book, proceeds of which go to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, reveals how the designer grappled with excessive drinking (she gave up alcohol three years ago) and a lack of emotional availability. But the bulk of it details Buchman’s personal struggle to reconcile her type A, perfectionist personality with her daughter’s disabilities and all the patience-trying complexities that come with them: clumsiness, a poor sense of direction and difficulty with numbers.
“When I found out Charlotte had LD, I thought ‘Oh, let me fix it,'” she explained. “I wanted so much to fix what was broken, and I want to tell parents that you can’t and it’s OK.”
Charlotte spent the majority of her education in specialized schools, and there was a point when Buchman and her husband doubted that their daughter would ever be capable of an independent lifestyle. Now a freshman at a mainstream college in New England, Charlotte is adjusting to life on her own, and her mother is adapting to letting go.
Buchman admitted that, in a way, the special education was her own. “I grew up with so many expectations that things had to be a certain way,” she said. “I aimed for perfection, and I learned from raising Charlotte that perfect isn’t always the best.”