Having a child with special needs is always hard on a relationship. But special needs parenting when your husband doesn’t get it? It can be devastating.
“There are times,” I admitted with a sigh.
“There are times that I wish I could just give him an injection of autism awareness and education. Like a vaccine. Or a strong dose of IV antibiotics.”
My friend smiled sadly.
I did too.
“I want him to have all the information and know how to deal with this. But it’s like I am the wrong person to give it to him. He needs another father, or his own access to the therapists, or something. And the really hard part is that less he knows, the less he is equipped to really parent and help our child.”
“And the less he can help you,” my friend said quietly.
“Yep,” I said, tears welling up. And then I changed the subject.
A reader wrote me this note a few weeks ago. It is almost identical to so many others I have received over the past few years.
I love seeing all the pictures of you and your husband. He seems like such a great guy. But what would you say to a mom who feels like she is doing this all alone? My husband doesn’t get it. He yells at my son. He tells me that he thinks I am overreacting. He doesn’t believe that my son’s meltdowns shouldn’t be punished. I am so unhappy all the time. I feel like I am caught. What can I do?
When I received this message, I started to cry. First, because I felt so bad for this mom. Second, because I think I may have given y’all the wrong impression. And third, because I hear this all the time.
Now, I realize it is not always the mom in this situation. I am certain there are circumstances in which the father feels like his wife is not engaged in coping with a child’s diagnosis. But no one has ever written me a letter about it and it has not been my own experience at home. And so, I will stick to writing about what I have personally experienced.
Sometimes, my husband just doesn’t get it.
I am writing this with his expressed permission.
I am writing this because, as much as I love this man and always want to publicly honor him and the commitment he has made to me and the boys, there are times that we argue over our children’s special needs. Like, a lot.
(This is about the everyday disconnect that happens in all marriages from time to time. It is about how our children’s special needs can sometimes become the source of that disconnect. This post is not about tolerating abuse. Please hear me. If you are in an abusive relationship – this is not the post for you. Please message me directly and I will direct you to resources that can help!)
It started before we were even married and my husband was certain that he and Super Nanny could fix it all.
Prior to my son’s diagnosis, the meltdowns, escalating violence and property damage were the #1 issue in our marriage – bar none.
Post-diagnosis, helping my husband understand what the therapists are teaching me, helping him see what is behind my son’s behavior, and getting on the same page as to how we approach parenting (for both of our sons), has been one of the most frustrating, rewarding, painful, rewarding, anger inducing, and rewarding parts of our marriage.
Now, we have only been married for five years. I am by no means even remotely an expert in this. In fact, I am writing this post, only because I cannot find any other resources that address it.
Despite the haze and filters that a blog post can sometimes cast on real life, my husband and I struggle all the time with this – all the time. We are not great partners to each other. We are not special needs parenting experts. We are not somehow better than or more equipped than anyone else.
We fail. He fails. I fail. We fail each other and our children – all the time.
And we are learning – all the time.
Here is my response to all the moms who have written me, and to my own heart.
Special Needs Parenting: When Your Husband Doesn’t Get It
I spend almost every minute of my waking life caring for my sons. Sometimes, it goes well. Sometimes it doesn’t. But I have had loads of time, and so much trial and error, to study my son’s behaviors, to learn his triggers, to craft his routine, and to meet with all of his doctors and therapists to figure out the best way to help my son learn to cope and live. My husband has maybe two hours every day plus weekends (which incidentally, are always tougher for my son because we are out of routine). Mick has gone to a small fraction of the appointments with ‘experts’, has never read a book about autism or lupus, and reads articles only when I forward them to him and say, “You need to read this.”
The reality is that I am the primary care giver. He is not. It is unrealistic for me to expect that he would know how to do this. I don’t even know how to do this, and I am in it all day, every day.
Divide and Conquer
We have made the most progress, in gaining a better shared understanding of our son, when we have intentionally divided and conquered. I know it seems counter intuitive – doing separate things in order to feel more connected – but this has really worked for us. For example, a long-standing and unspoken rule has been to allow me to manage my older son’s meltdown, while my husband immediately steps in to comfort and distract my youngest son. My husband knows that dealing with a full-blown meltdown is not his strong suit, and I feel supported and helped because I am not worrying about my little guy while attending to his older brother.
It makes us both feel like the other is contributing to a very difficult situation. And it makes us a team.
We Are So Different
So, so different. Ridiculously different. The way we approach our schedules, what we like to eat, how we like to spend our free time – we are two very different people. This was clear from the very first day of our honeymoon, when I wanted to get up early and go for a bike ride on the beach, and my husband wanted to relax and order room service. These differences are part of our marriage. And I can see how they make us both better.
I think this means I shouldn’t be surprised, when my husband responds to the kids differently than I do. I don’t have to like it, but I do need to recognize that this is a part of who he is. He is more forceful than I am. He is more prone to yelling when he is angry. I tend to try to make everything better by people pleasing (even with my children), and he wants to get to the bottom of the problem and stop it.
Sometimes he messes up. Sometimes I mess up. When we give each other grace in parenting, even with our different approaches, our children fare better. So do we.
And that brings me to my most important point –
It’s About The Two of Us
Our marriage is about us. Not the boys. No matter how much our day-to-day involves our children, Mick and I are man and wife. Not man, wife and two boys that require a lot of care. What I have tried to communicate to my man, and I would encourage you to do the same, is that when he responds angrily to the boys/me, or checks out and leaves me to deal with all of the tough stuff, it hurts my heart as his wife – not as the boys’ mom.
For me, the worst part about being the primary care giver, is having my husband seem to not care or understand how tough it is (or in some instances, make caring for my son more difficult by blowing things up). For my husband, it is the feeling that I am aligning myself with the boys, and not with him.
The only way I have found to combat this (and believe me, we are terrible at it most of the time), is to lean in and not pull away. It’s seeking the other, wanting to try to get back on the same page, apologizing, forgiving, admitting that we suck at this, and agreeing to give each other grace, over and over again.
Special needs parenting when your husband doesn’t get it?
Marriage is easy on paper.
It’s the living, day in and day out, that complicates it.
Sometimes, my husband just doesn’t get it.
And I am 100% certain that he would say the same about me.
I am not sure it is any different in families without any special needs.
I think marriage is marriage. It’s messy. It’s beautiful.
It’s loving more than we thought we ever could. It’s forgiving more than we thought we ever could.
We keep reaching for one another, trying to understand, working to figure it out, enjoying the fun times, and not holding the bad ones against each other.
Shawna Wingert is a former training and development professional turned education specialist, and has homeschooled her two children for the last ten years.Shawna has written four books about homeschooling unique learners and has been featured in homeschooling discussions on Today.com, The Mighty, Simple Homeschool, My Little Poppies and Raising Lifelong Leaners.
You can find her online here at DifferentByDesignLearning.com.