What’d I get myself into when I said, “I do?”
Being married and having a special needs kid is like… well, let me back up.
When I was in college I had a friend named Dan. Dan ran for student council president his senior year. The two main candidates, Dan, and another man whose name is lost to my memory, debated at the Student Union Building. They discussed “the student parking problem”. The other candidate mapped out his strategy first. He talked about improving student access to parking spots on campus, budgets associated with building a garage, earmarking special spots for student only parking, etc. He was prepared. He had a plan. The facilitator turned to Dan. Dan was either not-so-smart, or maybe he was just cocky and thought popularity would carry him in the election, but probably both.
“Dan, how would you handle this issue,” the moderator asked?
Whether Dan was just completely unprepared for the “parking” issue, or just phoned in debate preparation in its entirety, his response was, “Like what he said…but MORE.”
And while I never thought to use Dan’s argument as anything other than an amusing story about an unprepared debater, I handle my marriage while parenting a special needs kid just like any other couple handles their marriage while parenting a typically developing kid…but MORE.
There’s a sort of hands-off, let the kids handle it themselves parenting philosophy that is not only employed, but RECOMMENDED by parents raising kids without special needs. I know this because I have one of each. I’ve used that tool with my older daughter, she learns to fight her own battles, handle her own business, guided by me, but implemented by her. But as a parent with a special needs daughter as well, that tool is often not in the toolbox.
And so what does it mean to the parent who cannot leave his child to “handle it for himself”? It means a lot of time spent handling “things”: IEP’s, trips to therapists, trips to specialists, Evals, RE-Evals, conferences with the school to discuss bullying, or social interaction. The number of trips pale in comparison to the paperwork associated with making them happen. The paperwork pales in comparison to the calls and scheduling, the lining up of babysitters, the deciding of who’s picking up the other kid when you’re taking your special needs child to the therapist. It’s dizzying. And that more-ness means less-ness with your partner. Dividing and conquering by definition means dividing.
So that’s really the starting point of any discussion of how special needs impacts anything. There are more needs, and satisfying those needs means taking more time. Without belaboring the whole concept of satisfying one child’s needs while balancing quality time with the other child, it’s a big deal. You’re spending more time with one of your children out of necessity. Love, guilt, and a desire for fairness drive you to balance that out with the other child, and now you’re left with still less time with your spouse.
You have to carve that time out. You have to learn to cherish those nights when you’re not too tired from your day to have a glass of wine and chat. You have to use that time spent scheduling baby sitters to set up a night out with each other, or in the company of other adults. Perhaps there’s not as much time, but there’s enough.
Is it harder to have a happy marriage with special needs kids? I really don’t think so. There’s less time, but I feel like the time when my wife picks up the slack because I’m too tired, or when I jump in to assume some of the responsibilities she’s taken on herself to give her a break is time also spent learning just how great a mother she is, and learning just how lucky I am to have her in my life. We’ve got each other’s backs. We’re fighting in the trenches together. It gives us one more thing in common.
And we fight each other too, of course. We have stupid fights primarily about stupid misunderstandings and we’re both too stubborn to say we’re sorry even after we realize we were wrong, but then we settle down and we realize that we still love each other, and we still trust each other, and we’re still on the same team. She’s not the bad guy. I’m not the bad guy. We’re BOTH the good guy in this “adventure” of our lives.
At its heart it’s about love and mutual respect, just like any other marriage. Raising a kid with special needs is passionate work, and tempers flare, and it’s so important to remember with each new argument or discussion or debate or fight, that this person you’re talking to is not the villain, she’s your ally. It’s important to remember the reasons you got married in the first place. You trusted this person. You knew she had your back. You knew she wouldn’t say or do something just to hurt you.
There are no reliable statistics concerning divorce rates among parents of special needs children (at least where autism is concerned). If you told me that divorce rates were higher, I wouldn’t be surprised. But if you told me they were lower, I wouldn’t be surprised either. Because I believe that the needs of your children really end up having little to do with a happy marriage. Perhaps a marriage destined for failure anyway might red flag itself a lot sooner in the wake of some of high emotion/high stress special needs meeting. Nerve-exposing IEP meetings or the psychologist’s evals that parents of special needs children routinely attend are more gray hair-inducing for us than the more routine day-to-day agenda items our traditionally-developing child rearing peers attend. There are so many more chances for couples to sink or soar in the emotionally raw aftermath of an appointment where your doctor reveals some painful truth that you or your wife have been denying too long; so many more opportunities to support your spouse and show your love when it counts; when it’s needed most, but also so many more opportunities to squander or fall short.Being married and having a special needs child doesn’t make me a better husband or father. But it does require me to try harder at both. And because I love, honor and respect my wife, “I do”.
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