A Special Child in the Family

Family matters

 

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Taking the Stress off your Relationship

According to some experts, divorce is more common among couples with a disabled child. It's a frightening thought, isn't it, but it doesn't mean your relationship is doomed to fail. No one knows how many of those broken marriages would have ended in divorce even if all the children had been perfectly all right. Perhaps the extra stress just makes it harder to limp along in a partnership which is already unhappy for other reasons.

However, your child's problems can place an extra strain on your relationship. Nearly all the parents who helped with my research admitted theirs had been through some bad patches as they came to terms with their new situation. They argued and shouted or failed to talk to each other much at all. However, most had worked through the bad times to a greater understanding so don't assume you are going to break up just because your relationship doesn't seem too good at the moment.

Facing facts

Not everyone reacts the same way to bad news - individual personality and upbringing affect behaviour. In particular, women are more likely to cry openly and want to talk about what has happened. Men are brought up to put on a brave face and struggle through their difficulties without the emotional release of tears. Faced with a weeping wife, many men feel they should be even more stoic and unemotional in order to support her through her distress.

This contrasting behaviour can be very upsetting when you have just learnt your child has problems. However happy you were before, you may find your differing reactions make you feel isolated from each other and think you are growing apart. I know I did at one stage and it was a frightening feeling.

The solution suggested by parent after parent is to talk to each other. This is not as easy as it seems if you have lost the habit. My husband says my plaintive cries of "Talk to me about it" left him in confusion. By then, he was so accustomed to suppressing his emotions, he was no longer sure of them himself, let alone able to talk about them. We kept trying and it gradually got easier as I hope it will for you.

Remember this is a shared experience so share the heartache and the joys. Talk together, cry together, laugh together for otherwise you add the pain of loneliness to all the other hurts. Sharing your worst fears with each other won't make them go away but it might make them easier to handle.

The overtime syndrome

Unless Mum goes to work, she's the one literally left holding the baby. Her emotions are probably in turmoil during those early months. Guilt, rejection, fear and love may intermingle in the confusion. The sheer responsibility can seem terrifying and she may feel trapped by the situation, any plans she had for returning to work shattered by the new reality.

Mum has to face the facts every day. Hospital visits, physio, drugs and special care combine to make it impossible for her to deny the problems exist and pretend all is well. Dad is in a different situation. His emotions may be in a similar turmoil but he sees his child much less and is less involved with the treatment. As well as making it more difficult for him to build a relationship with his special son or daughter, this also makes it easier for him to deny the problem exists.

Mum can't escape but Dad can. Work offers alternative stress to take his mind off the worries at home. Many Dads start working hours and hours of overtime after they learn their child has problems. It keeps them away from the worries of home and saves them facing up to the situation - at least, that's how their wives view it.

Dad probably sees it differently. He is upset to see his wife working so hard and worrying but he can't take the problems away. It makes sense to him that he should earn more money - after all, there are probably extra expenses now and he can, at least, relieve the financial worries even though he feels powerless to do anything else.

If you are in the overtime syndrome, talk together about how to deal with it. Do you really need that extra money? Would cutting back on expenditure solve your money worries while allowing the two of you to spend more time together? Perhaps money is not really the root of the problem. Maybe Dad's job is just very demanding and he fears he may lose it if he doesn't work so hard. If that is really true, perhaps he is in the wrong job for your new situation. Changing jobs is a drastic step and but sometimes it is worth doing.

Sharing the care

As well as sharing your feelings, share the practical problems as well. Some employers are very understanding about time off for clinic visits so it is always worth asking. The worse that can happen is a refusal. Even if Dad can't attend all the appointments, it's good if he can get to the most important ones. With two people listening, you are less likely to miss or forget important information and the travelling and waiting is more bearable with company.

If Mum feels very protective towards this special child of yours, be careful not to let that protectiveness push Dad out of the picture. It's no good her complaining later that he never helps if, for months, she has given him the impression that she doesn't want him too.

Make time for each other

Your relationship is important and justifies time and effort. If you can manage it, give yourselves an occasional break to be together without the children. Even if money is tight, could you just go for a walk together while someone babysits for a little while? Several parents said they use some of their child's Disability Living Allowance for an occasional meal out which allows them to recharge their batteries so they can continue to cope.

After our own bad patch came to a head and we started talking more, we decided to do something together. As we live by the sea we spent our spare cash on an elderly dinghy and learnt to sail. It did wonders for us, providing time together and something else to talk about. On a rough day, it drove all other worries out of our heads as we struggled to keep it upright.

A boat probably is not the answer for you but do consider doing something together, preferably something that demands sufficient concentration to stop you worrying about home. Learning to dance is one idea as you trample on each others toes if your mind wanders. Evening classes can be fun and so can sports like badminton. Even if lack of babysitters makes going out impossible, why not do something together at home rather than watching hours of TV.

Sex

There is more to a relationship than sex but it is important. If you have a happy, fulfilling sex life together, it will help you to be happy the rest of the time too. There are two main ways your child's problems can upset this situation.

Firstly, fear of having another sick or disabled child can leave you really frightened of another pregnancy. Mum, in particular, can be so worried about this that she is reluctant to make love at all. Total abstinence is, of course, the most effective form of birth control but it can leave you both feeling frustrated and less close.

The solution is good contraception - ask your GP or Family Planning Clinic for advice. Sterilisation of one or other of you can give complete peace of mind but is only worth considering if you are absolutely positive you will never want another child. Don't rush into a decision without careful thought because the procedure is irreversible (or should be considered so).

The other way your child's problems may affect your sex life is to take so much time and energy that you feel the short time you get in bed should be spent asleep. I sympathise but don't forget lovemaking can be very relaxing. If you sleep better afterwards, the few hours left may do you more good than if you hadn't bothered. Remember too that there is no law restricting sex to the bedroom during the hours of darkness. There's nothing wrong with the living room on Saturday afternoon when Granny has taken the children to the park.