Before becoming parents, my husband and I were together for eight years and had this childless rhythm. We were so in sync with what we wanted and how we would execute those things. We were easily navigating this marital journey in our childless and naive minds. Fast forward, we wanted to grow our family and had our firstborn, Jake. There’s something about your firstborn child that shapes and morphs you into someone that you didn’t even know you could be, and that is what happened to us.
But our marital journey now had a passenger, a high-need passenger. Our son has autism and managing the balance of marriage and neurodiverse parenting has been an adventure. I am a cognitive specialist, parent coach, and author. My husband and I have been together for 19 years, married for 14, and parents for 12. Over these years, I learned a lot from my failures and discovered ways to be successful. I want to share what I learned from my professional and personal experience balancing relationships and neurodiverse parenting.
Focus on Your Marriage Just as Much as Your Parenting
The first thing I learned about being a mom was how my needs suddenly became insignificant compared to my child. But, boy was I wrong. To parent children with neurodiverse needs, you must ensure that you are taking care of your needs, including your marriage.
Parents of children with autism have a higher rate of divorce, which is terrifying but a reality, and I want to make sure that we do not become a statistic. We must focus on marriage as much as parenting because they are both essential to us. We have to actively work on maintaining the connection that drew us together in the first place. Here are some ways to begin:
- Make time for conversation that is focused on you as a couple. The most challenging thing about being a parent is that you are always on, but it doesn’t have to be that way. When you are with your partner, keep the conversation away from children and negative issues but on each other. Instead, go down memory lane and talk about a fun memory you shared or a funny situation you were both involved with at some point; this is a great way to break the ice and reconnect with your partner again.
- Remind each other what you value and appreciate about one another. After years of being in a relationship, you can start to take each other for granted. Ask your partner how they want to be acknowledged and respond to that request.
- Reciprocate as much as possible. It’s common for one person to become the point person. As the default parent of a child with high needs, resentment can build towards your spouse. When possible, help each other in areas that are not typically that parent’s responsibility.
Spend Time Together Without Your Child
However, spending time away from your child comes with unique challenges. The neighborhood babysitter that everyone is raving about is NOT an option for neurodivergent families. Some families may have medical needs that require an older and more mature adult to handle and others may have a child’s behavioral issues that are not easily handled by another child, and lastly, there is the concern of abuse. If you have a child with limited communication abilities, the idea that someone might take advantage of your child is very real. But you still need to spend purposeful and quality time with each other, away from your child.
To get comfortable with being away from your child, as their primary or sometimes only caregiver, you have to start slow and gradually increase your time away. Do not force yourself to do something you do not feel ready to do. I left my son with a babysitter when I was prepared to do it. I was reminded all the time about how I needed just to do it, but honestly, I was not ready, and it would have caused me more anxiety than relief. However, when I was ready, it was easy. I have no regrets about it, and you should not either.
You could ask a mommy’s helper when you are home to keep your child entertained and see how your child responds to that caregiver. The more comfortable you see your child with another person, the easier it will be for you to take a long time away.
Consider Relationship Therapy or Coaching
My husband and I are over-communicators; we want to talk about everything; however, during the earlier years of Jake’s upbringing, it was hard to talk to each other about certain things. One of the reasons we had a hard time was admitting to each other how hard this was and how hard it was on our marriage, so we just avoided it, which was not helpful.
One of the reasons we had a hard time was admitting to each other how hard this was and how hard it was on our marriage, so we just avoided it, which was not helpful.
For example, sometimes I have felt like my husband was not on the same page as me about our son’s needs. Our son required visits to several providers each week during the early years. I was the parent that did all of the driving to occupational therapy, speech therapy, and psychologist appointments weekly. I felt that my time investment was more than my husband’s. My emotional state would allow me to neglect the fact that he would spend hours on the phone with insurance companies that enabled me to attend these appointments.
When we started to communicate our needs to each other and what we wanted our family to resemble, it was apparent that we needed another person to help us navigate.
An objective third party can help you get past those difficult conversations. Things can quickly get heated when both individuals are stressed and are not seeing eye-to-eye with certain decisions. For example, deciding on a school, therapy, or babysitting can become a heated conversation. A therapist or relationship coach can also help you see the other person’s perspective and give you some helpful suggestions for what you can do to work around or tackle these issues.