Where Have All The "Good" Dads Gone – Marriage and Special Needs

Where Have All The "Good" Dads Gone – Marriage and Special Needs

If you’ve ever read Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Moose a Muffin, you probably immediately related to the boy in the story. The one who just wanted to be nice and share a muffin with a forest animal, and ends up spending his time, energy, and patience managing consecutive needs the moose brings as a result.

Marriage and parenting are like that.

You get the dress, write the vows, promise the world, then wake up in the honeymoon suite to “sweetie, let’s watch Nascar” when the obvious choice would be the beach.

At that point, we women can feel like we live perpetual moose-muffin lives. Filling needs, balancing wants, negotiating date nights and bills and who’s cleaning the bathroom this week and why didn’t you call when you had to stay late at work?

Then baby makes three. And whether baby came from your womb or an adoption agency, she comes with her own moose-muffins. If baby brought special needs, we’re talking muffin factory, people. But then you already get that. You’re here.

When that journey starts, one parent (often mom) becomes the primary caregiver for the high-needs child, taking on that full time job along with any others she already had. It wasn’t really decided. It just fell to the one with more empathy or time.

But then it stays her job. Sometimes without talking about it or making a plan that takes care of the caregiver. The daily behavioral, medical, feeding and hygiene care leave her feeling like she’s drowning in moose-muffins. Resentment builds a wall to stop the madness.

Marriage in Special Needs Families | Special Needs FathersAnd the dads? How do we lose them along the way?

They begin to feel incapable

He may not have read the hundreds of articles on his child’s condition. He doesn’t know the cutting edge therapies, the intricate mechanisms of the disorder, the subtle signs of discomfort or agitation that mom knows. He resonates with the words in a Mother’s Day card my husband (jokingly) gave me this year: “Honey, today’s your day to sit back, relax and let me do everything…. the wrong way.”

When men feel like they can’t engage it effectively, can’t solve it, or can’t save their wife from what’s obviously about to eat her alive, they start to withdraw.

They feel irrelevant.
My husband often doesn’t know the up-to-the-minute bipolar mood-management strategies for our girls (he’s been busy working his hind end off to pay for us to have a house in which to mood manage…). But he wants to help and be involved, so he’ll recommend strategies and behavior modification ideas. Trouble is, he a) doesn’t know up to the moment mood-management theories, and b) I don’t have the energy to sit and have a how-brains-with-bipolar-respond-to-traditional-parenting summit as my daughter’s decomping. So I do what any person in a war zone does: I deal quickly and effectively with the bomb and let the relationship with my husband wait its turn.

If soon afterward I don’t reengage him as the life partner he is, that bit of emotional death takes root and begins to grow. It becomes its own moose-muffin problem. And unchecked, it can lead to dad checking out.

Those reasons are biggies. But there are other reasons dads check out:

  • They’re scared. For themselves, their marriage, their child’s prognosis.
  • They’re angry. That this is happening to their family.
  • They’re lonely. As their child’s care pulls more and more from mom’s energy and time.
  • They’re stressed. As they work hard to provide for the family and the often extraordinary medical and therapeutic costs needed.
  • They feel guilty. If the child is biologically theirs, they (like us) wonder: “what if it was me who ‘did’ this?”

In other words, they’re grieving, stressed, and scared. Just like we are.

It’s just that they may not say it. Unless there’s space to say it.

How we can re-engage dads:

Regular date nights, even if it’s just to do the grocery shopping sans kids.

Affection. Stolen kisses while you’re cooking dinner, that let them know they’re still your favorite, even if life’s kicking your butt right now.

Honest words that give space for them to love you where you’re at right now.

Taking care of yourself so there’s a little leftover after all the therapies to give him a back rub now and then.

Laughing together, even if you’re so annoyed at each other you could just spit. Queue up some Brian Regan on YouTube for a jump start on that. Get those endorphins going around each other again.

Keep them in the loop. Send calendar invites for IEP meetings and doctor appointments. Send your notes if they can’t be at the meeting. Ask them if they have questions about those notes.

Pray. Pray for them, for their confidence, for God to give them (and you) strength we all need in these moose-muffin lives.

Has your child’s dad checked out? How are you handling it? Is there a step you could take to reach out and bridge the gap with him today?


Image credit: william87 / 123RF Stock Photo

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  1. Natalia Erehnah June 10, 2013 at 5:21 pm - Reply

    Good tips. Many dads stay involved and supportive. Other want to stay involved, but are blocked by women who believe that they are the only ones that can do it “right.” So, I’d add one more item to the “how to keep dad’s engaged” list, a tip that is often applied to autistic children (and adults): presume competence. Step back and allow the father to do things his way. Let him enjoy the children, and let them enjoy him without interfering.

  2. Cheryl
    Cheryl June 10, 2013 at 8:00 pm - Reply

    Yep you nailed it…said Mrs. Took the trip, bought the tee-shirt and is currently wearing it out…

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