By Renée Schultz, Westhampton, MA
“Promise me,” I say, “promise me we’ll be okay — you and me.” Ron and I are less than 24 hours into this business of being parents to a child with special needs. Already, I’m terrified that we’ll lose each other.
“Of course, we’ll be okay,” Ron reassures me. Although I know there really is no guarantee, no matter what he says, I’m still happy to hear him say he loves me and we’ll make it – baby with Down syndrome or not. I know we’re going to have to work hard to keep our marriage loving and vital; but, at least at this moment, our commitment is strong.
Never, in the 25 years since that night Ian was born and we sat huddled together on my hospital bed, have I forgotten the commitment we made to each other. Oh, we’ve had our moments. The ones in which fights erupted and one or both of us wanted to take to the hills. I do not think we have some magic formula that guarantees a happy marriage. But, together our commitment to each other has served us well. Our desire to learn what strengthens a marriage, particularly when you have a child with special needs, has guided our work with other couples.
In an age when we often look for easy answers or a magic pill, the truth is there are none. Despite the best of intentions, some relationships fall apart. Even with hard work, I believe there’s a certain amount of good luck in the mix, along with a healthy dose of good humor and the knowledge that you both are trying your best, even when you fall short. Most of us need to know our partner is our ally, not our judge. Caring for one’s relationship is an ongoing commitment, which takes extra attention when your child’s needs may consume a far greater piece of the pie. What else can guide us on this journey?
A friend likes to remind me of the instructions flight attendants give on every commercial aircraft in America: The oxygen mask will drop in front of you. Place the mask securely over your face before placing the mask on your child. Certainly all those airline attendants can’t be wrong…but let your child gasp for air while clasping the mask to your face? Shouldn’t we attend to our child before attending to ourselves? In the daily demands of childrearing, we often must attend to the needs of our children first. It’s easy to forget to give ourselves a little oxygen.
Before you were a parent or half of a couple, you were an individual with your own needs. You still are. You may not have much time to attend to those needs, but acknowledging that you have needs is the first step towards meeting at least some of them. Martyrs don’t make healthy families. Nurturing oneself is not selfish. It is an act of self-care that often benefits you and your entire family.
It’s not just that we need a little time for ourselves. We also need to find time for us as a couple. Well, that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Some of us are blessed with parents or siblings nearby to lend a helping hand. Far more often, we’re isolated without any natural supports.
When my daughter was in kindergarten, a new friend came into our lives. She had a strong commitment to fostering community support and soon suggested taking our children for an overnight. “Ian?” I said, incredulous at her offer. “He’s not easy.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “You two do it all the time. I’m sure we can manage. Besides, I like to support other couples. I bet you two could use a break.” Even now, remembering those words, tears come to my eyes.
She was right, of course. By then, it was more challenging to find babysitters for 10-year-old Ian. The kids could stay with a teenager for a few hours, but overnight was out of the question. We couldn’t remember the last time the two of us had been without our children for 24 hours. We had other friends, of course, but never once would I have suggested that we trade kids to give each other that necessary respite. I thought my son was too difficult and felt ashamed of my neediness. I thought we were supposed to be super-parents and do it all ourselves, day after day, year after year. Besides, it was easier just to keep putting one foot in front of the other instead of stopping for a break.
But those breaks were the oxygen our relationship needed, reminding us of the commitment we had to each other. That commitment began before Ian ever entered our lives.
What can you do? Here are a few suggestions for couples gleaned from current research and parent surveys.
- Talk and listen to each other. The quality of your communication is the most critical factor in marital satisfaction.
- Validate each other. It’s easy to take each other’s contributions for granted. Notice and express what you appreciate about your partner.
- Disclosing feelings is critical to maintaining a strong relationship — that includes difficult feelings. Fear cuts off communication and can separate and polarize partners.
- Accept that differences — in both feelings and behavior — are okay.
- Anger is a normal part of the parenting experience. How we express anger is critical.
- Take responsibility for your feelings – no blaming your partner.
- In a direct and positive way, let your partner know what you need from them.
- As a couple, take time away from your children for the two of you.
Editor’s note: Renée Schultz and her husband, Ron Baer, will be offering an experiential workshop for couples at the NDSC Convention in Sacramento. Renée is an experienced marriage and family therapist and co-author of The Mother-Daughter Project. Ron is the former director of The Fathers’ Network and together they have facilitated workshops for both parents and professionals. They are the parents of two children.