One of the powerful lessons that people with disabilities teach us is how to be flexible. One of my favorite sayings is: “The best way to make God laugh is to plan.” When raising a child with a disability, one of our best tools is organization and programming. But then we often watch those best intended plans blow up in our faces. Then, we have two choices, we can stand and watch the humor of our smashed efforts or we can get really stressed.
These kinds of lessons teach us to live in the moment and appreciate our relationships better. Here’s another shocker. I believe that raising a child with extra challenges, who lives in a world that is not prepared for him, has actually strengthened our marriage.
The statistics are inconclusive about the impact of raising a child with special needs on marriages. In 2010, a study at The University of Wisconsin at Madison showed that parents of children with Autism and Developmental Disorders were almost twice as likely to divorce as couples who had children with no disabilities. A study in 2012 from a National Survey on Children’s health found no evidence to suggest that American children with disabilities are more likely to live in single parent homes that normally developing children. Even if these studies conflict, there is a strong message that raising a child with a disability is an automatic divorce sentence. This is just wrong.
Perhaps raising a child with a disability brings to the head the issues that are hidden in a difficult marriage. The extra stresses quickly bring any problems in the relationship to the forefront. Then the couple decides how to best navigate the challenges.
When our son, who has cerebral palsy, was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes at age 15, I wasn’t sure I could handle the extra challenges. I was mentally and emotionally sinking. But my husband said, “We can do this. For other people this may be a real obstacle, but we have been exercising what it means to be flexible and solve extra problems. We are good at thinking outside of the box.” He then gave our our son his first insulin shot, which Phillip needed to live. This action gave our marriage an instant shot of enormous strength.
But having a person with a disability in our lives is a constant reminder of how to stay flexible. Over the Fourth of July weekend, we felt trapped in our mountain cabin with the days of constant rain and flooding. Finally, my husband and I wanted to go out for an intimate dinner. He is really good at making sure we spend quality time alone together. But our son had also been indoors, and his friends were unable to take him out this Saturday night. To Phillip’s incredible delight, we invited him to join us. Together, we had a great time and once again learned the lesson that being ready to change helps us live in the moment, and truly enjoy life.
For more information about the impact of raising a child with special needs, read “The Truth About Couples With Autistic Children.” Psychology Today, July/August.