For Parents of Children With Differences, Marital Teamwork Is Crucial
As parents, we want our children to enjoy every advantage we may not have had, to be healthy and, most importantly, to be happy. Whether your child's diagnosis came at birth or later in development, one of the hardest obstacles to overcome is the realization that the dreams you held for your child may not come to fruition.
In addition to all the struggles that come with parenting, we have new and unexpected challenges that make us feel like we'll never be good enough. As we scramble to keep up with doctor appointments, medical evaluations and helping our children through daily tasks, our marriages and partners could take a backseat, which can lead to trouble.
The stress of the unknown
My husband and I always knew my daughter was different. In many ways, these differences make her unique and are what we love most about her. Developmentally, however, something just wasn't right. Her tantrums could rattle windows, and her ability to perform tasks such as tying her shoes, buttoning her shirt or using utensils were months behind other kids.
It took years to confirm her developmental disability, and during those years of wondering and struggling, my husband and I felt like failures. Like any parents, we blamed ourselves. Maybe we weren't socializing with her enough. Perhaps we were too lenient or too strict. We worked hard to help her learn coping skills, but were we too focused? Did we stress her out?
These unanswered questions left us frustrated because no matter the answers, she was the one suffering. Additionally, my husband and I approach parenting differently: I'm a rigid person who relies on schedules and charts, while my husband's favorite phrase is, "We'll figure it out." Inevitably, these conflicting methods led to disagreements.
In these moments of doubt and unrealized expectations, research became our best friend. Seeking out information that pointed us toward a clear diagnosis, helpful tips from parents in similar situations and support services all helped us overcome potential conflicts.
"Collecting and using the information available on disability issues is a critical part of being a parent of a child with special needs," according to the Center for Parent Information & Resources. Finding this information is critical because there's a misconception that when we have children, we naturally know what to do. Needless to say, this cannot be further from the truth. Trying to navigate parenting a child with a disability by relying on wits and guile can only perpetuate feelings of failure.
Focusing on your marriage
Maintaining a healthy marriage can become a challenge for many parents of children with disabilities. We spend our days being caregivers, educators and parents, and sometimes we forget that the rest of our family needs love, too. As a result, we spend our free time giving our children the attention they deserve, but forget to take time to enjoy our own lives and the company of our partners.
In the darkest times, it can seem ridiculous to think of our marriage. We feel like no one understands. "Sometimes parents raising a child with special needs feel that they are criticized, shunned or avoided by their own parents or siblings, friends and neighbors," according to the May Institute. "This can lead to a sense of isolation."
We struggle and hope we're doing our best, but it feels like "our best" isn't good enough. It can be easy to become depressed and succumb to a feeling of helplessness, but in these moments, we need to remember the person walking this path with us shares our feelings.
We spend our days being caregivers, educators and parents, and sometimes we forget that the rest of our family needs love, too.
"The unfortunate correlation between a child with special needs and a marriage, though, is that the amount of participation from each parent can vary based upon how they are handling the issue emotionally," states the My Child Organization, an educational resource organization. They went on to say parents of children with disabilities such as autism are 10 percent more likely to get divorced.
"I find it's absolutely crucial for them to take a break from the challenges of parenting and see each other as people," said Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D., of the Child Mind Institute. Taking the time to focus on your marriage may seem out of reach, but if we remember how important our own self-care is, then why would a marriage, a partnership based on emotional connection, be different?
As a couple, my husband and I find time to spend together. We are in a bowling league, we go for walks with the family dogs and we exercise together. All of these activities allow us to feel like individuals, and we can spend time being who we are rather than being someone's caregiver. This break reminds us of what we love about each other, relieves the stress of the day and, most importantly, allows us to have fun and live in the present.
The support you'll need
Whether your child was recently diagnosed or you've been managing their disability from birth, it's never too late to work on your marriage and you should never feel alone. There are many nonprofit organizations that offer parent resources, disability support services and, importantly, support groups for parents of disabled children.
Seeking out help doesn't make you weak. It means you care so much about your family and your mental health that you are willing to admit that you don't know everything. And that may just save your marriage.