I succeeded brilliantly before failing miserably as a husband this weekend. Friday night I took my wife out to dinner for our anniversary. We'd "skipped it" in favor of other pressing concerns with a rain-check-promise of a rescheduled date Friday.
First of all, it was a great dinner (the brilliant success). The restaurant was nice, the server friendly and informed, and the food was wonderful. Second, we talked each other's ears off, which is probably the best part of our dinners out; our ability to pick up the dropped conversations from the previous months of silent parent-censored snippets of adult conversations made impossible by the presence of intelligent, but innocent ears. We handed each other cards. I blogged about my selection criteria here: http://yourfaceismyblog.blogspot.com/2011/09/last-week-was-our-my-wife-and-i-12th.html, and indicated that the heart and soul of the message contained within my card was that we've been putting each other on the back burner for all sorts of good reasons, but that we need to focus more on us.
We talked about that. We talked about the idea that parents who raise children with special needs have higher divorce rates. See how I typed that all out like it's a fact? We both thought it was. Not to change the subject (because it's certainly related to this blog) but it's not a fact. It appears to be essentially a well-accepted (and reasonable, I think) urban legend.
Before I set out to write this blog I decided I'd get the facts and figures "right" so I went to the census bureau. . . they don't handle it anymore. I went to the page the census bureau directed me to. . . they don't handle it anymore either. Eventually I found a "Study" (more like poll, really) done by Easter Seals that looked at the numbers. They're hardly conclusive, or scientific (better discussions of its merits or lack thereof from a "study" perspective can be found here:
http://www.opposingviews.com/i/what-are-the-divorce-rates-among-autism-families), but they're about all that's available to interested folks, curious about their marital futures. They can be perused here (if you register with Easter Seals): http://www.easterseals.com/site/PageServer?pagename=ntlc8_living_with_autism_study_home&s_src=autism_study&s_subsrc=blog.
Essentially the numbers suggest that not only are divorce rates of parents of children with autism, asperger's or PDD NOS not the staggering 80% number bandied about in popular media. . . they're actually lower than the rates of parents without special needs kids straight across the board. The arguments above-linked about reasons why the study may be biased are good ones, but I'll suggest to you that my opinion is that parents of kids with autism are probably about as likely to get divorces as parents of kids without autism, or for that matter, childless couples. People get divorced for all kinds of reasons, and sometimes people who are bound for divorce have autistic kids, but that doesn't mean autism was the reason they divorced.
It's not in my immediate plans to divorce my wife. Relax, it's not in any plans I have. She's pretty awesome. So why all the talk about divorce? Because in general, people think that the parents of autistic kids are bound for it. Both my wife and I agree, however, that our relative closeness now is not autism driven.
We have a mantra that we repeat whenever we're giving each other a hard time about what we have or have not gotten accomplished at home when the other person's out taking care of the chauffeuring duties, or attending mandatory meetings or whatever. It's something we remember from the marital encounter classes that the Catholic church
I thought a lot about the message to my wife before scrawling it in the card I gave her. I thought maybe we should earmark a day every month as our time together. Maybe it's dinner, maybe it's a movie, maybe it's just brunch or a trip to the bar for a drink. Whatever it was, I intimated that perhaps we weren't giving our all to the relationship, diverting our resources instead to other important things without scratching out a defensive barrier and saying this is our time. But these aren't autism-specific marital goals, they're just marital goals. Everyone's lives are chaotic and busy and autism doesn't in any way change my beliefs of what comprises a 'healthy' marriage.
So, fresh from our fantastic supper out, and renewed in my commitment to my wife and our marriage and to time spent together with her, I promptly ditched her and didn't see her again until Sunday night (miserable failure). And although I got a lot of work done (grocery shopping, picking up Lily's replacement frames, starting the laundry, etc), and although I had fun (a Pirate game with Emma and friends, a night out with my father to celebrate another belated event), we completely abandoned each other in favor of other priorities. Again.
I try to do my part at home. As I was texting the items that I was taking care of to my wife, ticking them off one by one, she texted back "husband of the year!" I understand what a boon it is to come home expecting to have to take care of a dozen things and finding all of them done (because I'm typically the recipient of that pleasant surprise), and I further get that maybe not a lot of husbands tackle some of that stuff, but you can't be "husband of the year" if you don't ever actually see your wife. The things I did "for her" while she was gone were parenting things. . . not husband things. They were things that a good dad would do. I think that parents of children with autism and parents of children without autism need to remember that it was the marriage (or partnership) that made them parents in the first place, and remember to spend some time on maintaining that marriage (or partnership). I married my wife before I knew what autism was (at least in anything other than a Rainman sort of way. I married her before we had kids. Parenting, has become a part of our lives. But my relationship with my wife, though it's changed with the children in it, is not dependant upon the children. It's dependant on the two of us.
Raising an autistic child can be stressful, but so is raising any child. I don't like to imagine the sort of man who would point to his autistic child as the reason his marriage failed anymore than I would want to associate with the sort of man who points to his neurotypical child as the reason his marriage failed. Marriages fail. They fail for all sorts of reasons good and bad.
While it's not particularly constructive to speculate about what our family would be like without Lily's autism in it, I suggest that perhaps (my wife brought this up at dinner) our family is stronger because of her autism. And don't mistake the message. I'm not saying that her autism is a blessing. It isn't. Are we stressed out? Absolutely! But also perhaps more focused, more aware our children and each other, less inclined to take little things for granted, more inclined to fight for our kids' rights.
Every day I think back on my day with the kids and think of all the things I could have done better: Involved myself more, yelled less, got up off the couch and played ball more or swung the kids more, or played peek-a-boo more. I think of all the things I could have done better and then I go out and try to do them the next day. I beat myself up a little because the kids are so important to me and I really want to be the best dad I can be.
What I probably haven't done enough of is thinking back on my day with my wife and imagining the things I could be doing better with her, then going out the next day and doing them. You raise your children to leave you. Your goal is to get them to the point where they can leave you behind and go it alone successfully. Your goal in marriage is stay together.
Happy 12th Anniversary, Baby!