By Jamie Patrick
PRIOR TO THE SUMMER OF 2007, my husband and I possessed what many would coin a blissful marriage marked by a strong commitment to God and each other and two beautiful children—a boy and a girl. Jonathan, our third child, was born in July of that year. He has Down syndrome and was born with some major health issues. Thankfully, six years and a fourth child later, our marriage is even sweeter, though not without the marks of the added stress that parenting a child with special needs often demands.
I have yet to hear a believing mom or dad of a child with handicaps say that he or she regretted the rigorous journey this type of parenting requires; however, each of them has spoken with great passion regarding the added pressure this places on their marital relationship. I want to offer a few reasons marriages— whether or not marked by the Gospel—often struggle under the load of special parenting.
Sleep deprivation can make monsters out of the most peaceful among us, leaving us wondering what happened to our kind disposition and speech filter. The first few years of Jonathan’s life, we spent many sleepless nights at his bedside or in the hospital. In addition, he required and still has numerous doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions. Organizing our lives around this “new normal” proved incredibly tiresome. Fortunately, Jonathan now sleeps well at night; but many children need seemingly constant care, like the son of my friend Janna. Her son has Angelman’s syndrome, requiring around-the-clock supervision.
Men and women are different, and the grieving process is no exception. The initial shock of the “news” regarding your child’s diagnosis is only the first of many stages of grief throughout life. My grief was quite selfish at first. I had to get beyond my own dreams and expectations for Jonathan and truly recognize that God’s plan was obviously quite different than mine. Many prayed specifically for us and for Jonathan those first few months of his life, which I believed sustained us. Most people have no idea, though, that there are other sad days in our home—and in the homes of all families with special kids.
Watching our Jaclyn, who is a little less than two years younger than Jonathan, learn to go potty while Jonathan still struggled was quite difficult for this mommy. I have listened to other moms speak of the horror of standing in a courtroom when their child turned 18 and telling a judge and jury—in front of their child—why the
child’s rights as a citizen should be terminated as the child would never be able to function independently. Women feel things deeply because we are emotional beings. Men tend to think more with their heads than their hearts.
These differences are magnified immensely when applied to situations such as these. In addition, my husband is an eternal optimist— which happens to be an attribute I admire. It is quite unnerving, though, when I want to wallow in my sadness over something Jonathan isn’t doing and Lange is pointing out the many things Jonathan CAN do well. Thus, a type of “friction” can occur.
Scripture speaks clearly of the priority matrimony must take over all other earthly relationships. Not only is it difficult to find time alone with the Lord when dealing with the demands I’ve already addressed, but one-on-one time with your spouse is almost impossible to come by. I remember well when we finally felt like Jonathan’s health was stable enough for us to go out on a date. We asked a sweet girl in our neighborhood to come over and help out—as our older two children would also be there if any needs arose.
Jonathan began to cry not long after we drove away, and the sitter got so upset that she left before I was able to turn around and get back home. On another occasion recently, we decided to leave a bit later in the evening, after putting Jonathan and Jaclyn to bed. We got to the restaurant and were both so tired that we decided to eat quickly and go home and go to sleep (see #1).
In a culture where the divorce rate for homes with healthy children is at an all-time high, adding the stress of a child with special needs only increases the potential for disaster. It is imperative that couples facing this uncharted territory commit to honor their covenant with God and each other, refusing to allow their situation to drive a wedge between them. Driving a wedge between a husband and a wife is a tactic of the Enemy. For those of you who have healthy children, I would ask you to seek out a family in your church or community who is on a journey like ours and extend as much grace, love, and encouragement as possible.