“He’s run away from class again,” my son’s second-grade teacher told me over the phone. “He’s hiding in the playground. One of you needs to come get him.”
Long before our son was finally diagnosed with autism at age 10, calls like these became part of our family’s daily life. Along with the calls came the arguments: Who was going to cancel their day’s meetings to pick up our kid—me or my husband? Who was going to ask their boss for flexible work hours? Who was going to make dinner if one of us was exhausted from a day at home with a stressed-out, screaming kid?
No wonder so many marriages collapse under the pressure of raising a special needs child. Just getting from crisis to diagnosis can be an ordeal. First we were told our son was just restless because he was gifted, then we found out that challenges he had, like trouble using a pencil, were due to fine motor problems. Next, we were told he had ADHD, anxiety and a tic disorder. Between the intricacies of dealing with doctors, teachers and social services, and the extra demands of caring for a child with physiological, mental or behavioral challenges, special needs parenting can dramatically increase the stress on parents—and on the relationship they have with one another.
From the time my son was four years old until we finally pulled him out of school at age eight, every week presented fresh challenges—and fresh opportunities for marital conflict. Every month, there was some new specialist to see or some new assessment to schedule, leaving us to decide who would cancel their meetings or cut back their expenses to accommodate six weeks of psychologist appointments. Every week, we’d get several emergency calls from school, telling us that our son was hiding or raging or pushing all the classroom furniture to one side of the room: Each time, my husband, Rob, and I debated whose workday was more essential and who could cut out to handle the school crisis. Nearly every day, our son had an explosive meltdown, screaming and kicking for so long that my husband or I —and often, both of us—were reduced to tears.
I’d been warned that parents of autistic children are nearly twice as likely to get divorced, and I can understand why. But the pressure didn’t tear our marriage apart: It brought us closer together.
That was far from a foregone conclusion, however. At the time our son first started having difficulties in preschool, our relationship was at a low ebb. We had survived the marriage-testing early years of parenthood by starting a social media agency together: The joys of creative collaboration, not to mention eight kid-free hours together every day, had kept us from losing sight of our common passions once we were swamped with diaper changes and daycare drop-offs.
But before our son even started kindergarten, we’d put the business to bed so that we’d have more time for our kids. Unfortunately, the result was that we no longer had much time for one another. The irritations that are an inevitable by-product of co-habitation were no longer offset by the delights of seeing each other deliver a brilliant client pitch, or entertain a room full of colleagues.
When our son’s developmental and behavioural issues first surfaced during his preschool years, they added to our ordinary marital frictions and diminished our ability to absorb them. On a day when I’d had to keep calm during a three-hour autistic meltdown, I would tip into explosive rage if Rob forgot to pick up milk on his way home. Rob is the world’s most patient guy, but even he could lose his temper if he was up for hours in the night because our son had a nightmare. We wanted to be gentle with one another, but our son used up all of our patience.
We travelled the bumpy road of special needs parenting downhill for four years, pushing our marriage and each other to the side while we prioritized the all-consuming job of figuring out how to help or what was wrong—or, at least, how to survive it, one day at a time. We kept thinking that, with the right school, the right doctor, the right diagnosis, the right medication, all these problems would go away. Our marriage could wait—probably—until we conquered our son’s challenges with the same finesse we’d once used to launch our client’s websites.
Shortly before our son turned eight, we stopped waiting. We took a hard look at the way we were balancing our family life—me working long hours for executive pay, my husband working full-time at an ad firm—and recognized that it wasn’t working. It wasn’t working for our son, it wasn’t working for us as individuals and it wasn’t working for our marriage.
I quit my job and went back to freelancing so that we could pull our son out of school; I’d be the primary point person for managing his education and medical care. Eventually, my husband returned to freelancing too, allowing us to share the day-to-day work of managing meltdowns, medical appointments and homeschooling.
We hated admitting that our family challenges made full-time jobs an almost impossible stretch, but since we’ve returned to working at home together, we’ve remembered how much we love seeing each other all day, every day. Instead of arguing over who’ll handle the latest school emergency, we trade stories about the word game my son and I invented on the way to a homeschooling group, or the programming lesson my husband got him to complete. Before a meltdown or argument can reduce me to tears, I text my husband for backup; he races out of the local coffee shop and comes home to take over so I don’t lose my cool. Once our son calms down, we recover together, snuggling on the sofa or even collapsing into bed. We might have returned home for our son, but once we were there, we found one another.
And what we found, we saw in new ways. Years of meeting with psychologists, psychiatrists and developmental pediatricians exposed us to new ways of looking at neurological and psychological differences. Things that used to bother me about my husband, like his difficulties remembering our son’s medical appointments were less aggravating once I realized that he had some of the same executive function challenges that doctors diagnosed in our son. My husband became more sensitive to my mood swings once he recognized that I’m governed by the same spiky anxiety that often tips our son into meltdown.
The skills we learned from parenting books and behavioural consultants—all aimed at helping our son—taught us how to be kinder and more patient with ourselves and thus, with one another. I broke my habit of working to the point of exhaustion when under deadline because I just couldn’t survive my son’s meltdowns if I were already worn out myself; once those sleep-deprived crunch weeks disappeared from our lives, I was far less likely to get angry and irritable with Rob. As Rob invested time in learning about autism and emotional self-regulation, he became more adept at talking about his own emotions, and we grew closer through those conversations.
But the greatest gift to our marriage came not from the ways our son’s needs drew us closer to one another, but rather, from the way it pitted us against the rest of the world. Nothing solidifies a relationship like shared adversity, and we had plenty—thanks to the challenges of navigating the healthcare system, the school system and our son’s regular meltdowns. Every time we held hands in the office of a therapist who handed us yet another set of diagnoses, every time we sat down with a principal who hectored us about how we needed to be tougher on our son, every time we collapsed after a meltdown, trembling and tearful, I felt grateful to have a partner in the struggle.
Marriage, so often challenged by special needs parenting, can instead be buoyed and deepened by the shared challenge of caring for a very special child. The world might not appreciate our son, and teachers and doctors might blame us for his issues, but we know the truth: We are doing our best, and our best is pretty damn good. And nothing—nothing—is more lovable or sexier or more inspiring than watching your partner love and care for and believe in a child that the rest of the world has written off.
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