In Good Times and In Bad

Even after I gave birth to my first child, my husband and I continued to discuss a variety of topics besides her at the dinner table each night. Granted, Maria still monopolized a good portion of our conversation, as most children do for any proud parents. But we still chatted about the Middle East, local weather, and the Academy Awards.

After having a child with autism, however, things changed. On good days, commentary typically revolves around C. J.’s latest accomplishments at school or a positive report from his teachers, therapists, or doctors. Dialogue between us at the dinner table is usually exchanged in a rapid-fired, “spit out as much as you can while you can” manner.

Apart from the fact that we are helping a one-year-old learn how to use table utensils, we also have a three-year-old who can’t stay put in front of his plate for more than three-minute stretches. One of us needs to forever be making sure that C. J. isn’t streaking through the living room with Ragu on his hands or picking noodles out of his older sister’s bowl. Now add to that the challenge of a five-year-old who is trying to throw in her two cents about what’s happened in her world during the course of the day but who is regularly instructed to “hold that thought” or to “hang on a second.” What you get at the tail end of this equation is a screaming baby who has stabbed himself with a fork, furniture with spaghetti handprints, and an impatient little girl who feels largely ignored.

Just as significantly, though, the combination of said factors results in a husband and wife who could very easily drift apart amidst chaos, constant parental concern, and fatigue that no amount of coffee can combat. By the time all three children are in bed every night, each of us struggles to stay awake, let alone play catch-up with bills, work, and one another. Yes, we do periodically hire a sitter and go on dates. But chit-chat inevitably returns to a certain little boy . . . or his siblings and how he impacts and relates to them.

            So, what do we do to make our relationship work in light of the challenges that routinely spring up around us? For starters, we admit that we don’t have all the answers and that the age-old adage of taking things a day at a time indeed has some merit. And, in keeping with that philosophy, we try not to have weighty, all-consuming bedside chats about where C. J. will be in twenty years or even two. We make a point of not going to bed angry at one another, regardless of whether we resume hostilities the following morning in between gulps of coffee.

Perhaps most importantly, my husband and I laugh at those parenting moments that one can either face with a crying jag or a chuckle. I can’t lie and say that we giggle about everything related to C. J.’s struggles. But we do try to find as many opportunities as possible to adore who he is, rather than resent his autism and our sometimes imperfect way of handling it.

Oh, and we also spend at least one weekend a year away from all three of our children. We purposely head somewhere that can only be reached via plane because anything within driving distance presents too much of a temptation to cut our alone time short and head home early. Nevertheless, it’s not all candles and roses.

Like most parents of special-needs kids, we tend to be a tad on the tired side and so spend at least part of our mini-getaway snoring. But we talk to each other, too. We sit an extra fifteen minutes luxuriating in a restaurant booth after dinner because there are no possibilities of a potential meltdown. We laugh at memories of our many good moments as a family, and we cry at the more difficult situations that we’ve either tackled or are still struggling with.

Best of all, we take a second to remember who we are as a couple. We reaffirm that we are more than parents of a special-needs child. We are two people who fell in love and who are willing to use that love to raise C. J. and his siblings to be strong, independent, and compassionate human beings.

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