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How Having a Kid with Special Needs Affects Your Marriage

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It’s the morning of a snowstorm that just started. My husband’s with our four-year-old at gym class, and calls to say hi. Because there’s a possibility that we might be snowed in for a few days, I tell him to grab a carton of milk from the supermarket on the way home and any other foods that’ll carry us through. Dave walks in the door with a very small bag. Inside: a gallon of milk, a jar of salsa, and a package of chili lime tortilla chips. I stare at him, then burst out laughing. We break open the chips and dig in.


This is Dave: A guy who’s not always practical, but who sure knows how to enjoy life.


This is me: A person who’s overly practical, and sometimes forgets to enjoy life.


We always knew these opposite traits would balance us out, but we could never have imagined just how much so until our son was born. Max had a stroke at birth (not as uncommon as you think—it happens to about one in every 4,000 kids). The two primary doctors at the hospital, who we nicknamed Dr. Doom and Dr. Gloom, told us the worst: Max might never walk or talk. That he would have mental retardation. That he might not see well or hear. You name it, they warned us about it.


That was six years ago. Today, Max walks. Max talks with some words, and via a communication device (a Dynavox), gestures, and uses his eyes. Max is bright. He’s determined. He’s curious. He’s got a bubbly personality and a wicked streak for teasing his little sister. Like Schuyler, he’s also pretty damn cute, which has been a real asset. He has his challenges, but he’s the opposite of a nightmare. And the one-two punch of my husband and I has been good for him.


Dave has always been able to just enjoy Max as a kid—whether he’s playing monster with him, plopping him onto some motorcycle parked on the street and pretending to let him drive it, or splashing around in the pool with him. Me, I’m always trying to sneak therapeutic exercises into his playtime. I’m the one who notices Max is growing out of his foot braces and needs new ones. I’m the research nut—the first thing I did when I walked in the door after the hell days in the NICU was get online and look up information on strokes and therapies.


Early on, I heard that having a kid with special needs can cause a lot of tension in a marriage, even break it up. I don’t know that it’s exactly benefitted ours—I mean, come on. But I do think Max has made Dave and I realize how strong our bond is. We’re able to work with each others’ strengths and weaknesses, laugh through it all and keep each other sane. Well, most days.


We fight most often about what I consider Dave’s “denial” and he considers my “pessimism” (pragmatic, I call it). A couple of years ago, we went to a doctor who told us, “I see Max has trouble using his right hand, it’ll always be his helper hand and he’ll mostly rely on his left.” After, we assessed the appointment in the car ride home. Dave said, “See? Max will be able to use both his hands!” And I said, “No! He said he won’t really be able to use his right hand, and he’ll need to make do using one! Hopefully, that one will work okay!” We’re the glass half full/half empty couple. Or make that the salsa bowl half full/half empty. It works for us. Most important, it works for Max.

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