“Having a special needs child changes your life and tests your marriage,” says Nancy Flanders, of Essex Junction, Vermont. Nancy and her husband, Steve, have experienced the ups and downs that go along with parenting and care-giving to their two-year-old daughter, Maggie. “Studies have shown that the emotional turmoil of parenting a child with special needs is similar to post-traumatic stress syndrome,” she says. “You’re so busy managing the day to day that your relationship can fall by the wayside if you let it. We’ve had some rough times, but having a child with special needs has enriched our marriage because we’ve found value in the every day.”
Nancy shares the strategies that she and Steve have found essential for making it through together.
Respect Your Separate Coping Styles. At first, Maggie’s diagnosis created a gulf between Nancy and Steve. Instead of returning to work, Nancy stayed home to be Maggie’s main caregiver, managing her many appointments and therapies. Steve started working more and more as the family’s sole breadwinner. “We became very distant from each other and our limited time together was spent fighting,” Nancy says. A year of marriage counseling - both together and alone - helped the couple confront their feelings and pent-up resentment. “We learned to be more patient with each other and acknowledge that we each have our own ways of venting and dealing with stress,” Nancy says. “Now we make sure that we regularly ask each other, ‘How are you feeling?’” “We also try to remember that we are both doing the very best that we can.”
Schedule Together Time. Nancy and Steve have weekly date nights, while Maggie stays with Grandma and Grandpa. It’s nothing fancy, “just a chance to have dinner together and talk, maybe watch some TV,” Nancy says. “You get so caught up in caring for your child that you forget about tending to each other.”
Give Each Other Space. Acknowledge that you each need time alone. Steve goes fishing or takes long walks. Instead of racing to get housework done while Maggie naps, Nancy tries to baby herself a bit by taking that opportunity to read a book or magazine.
Make Decisions Together. As a parent of a child with special needs, you’ve got to make some tough calls. Doctors recommended that Maggie stay out of daycare for at least six months, but Nancy and Steve agreed to skip it altogether because it would expose her to colds that could land her in the hospital. Because of her diagnosis, they avoid play dates for the same reason. “Make sure you sit down and talk important decisions through together so that you are on the same page,” advises Nancy. “That prevents ‘I told you so’s’ later.”
Focus on the Present. Nancy says that she and Steve have learned that they cannot spend their days worrying about what the future will bring. “Instead, we try to take things one day at a time,” doing what the doctors suggest and concentrating on ways to help Maggie right now. Nancy and Steve are expecting their second child within the month, and do not know whether the baby will be born with special needs as well. “There are so many things out of our control. We just have to lean on each other and have faith that everything will be OK.”
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