"Our daughter's illness has left my marriage in shambles," said Leigh, 28, a former model and stay-at-home mom who's been married to Sean, 30, the owner of a computer graphics company, for six years. "Our twins, Stacy and Suzanne, now almost 3, were born prematurely. While Suzanne was healthy, Stacy had weak lungs and severe respiratory problems. That first year, we made five middle-of-the-night runs to the ER because she couldn't breathe and was turning blue. Even though Stacy is out of danger now, I still have nightmares about the baby in the incubator next to her who died while we were at the hospital.
"Sean was very attentive when Stacy's health problems were acute, but for the last year or so, he's been more interested in his work than his family. He's left me with the bulk of the housework and childcare. Just having to think of everything that has to be done is exhausting. I don't like having to ask all the time if he could put in a load of laundry or pick up juice at the store. And when he does help out, he acts like he's doing me a big favor. I wish that just once he'd do something — take the girls shopping for new shoes, schedule a doctor's appointment — without waiting for specific instructions.
"I haven't had a full night's sleep in three years. Stacy still has chronic respiratory infections — she sees her pediatrician and an allergist once a month — and she frequently wakes up in the middle of the night screaming. The doctors say she's traumatized from her experiences and that she'll settle down. In the meantime, I have both girls sleeping on futons next to our bed. Naturally, this has all but killed our sex life, which Sean complains about bitterly. I don't love it either, but I'm not going to take the chance I won't hear my daughter if she starts crying, or worse, choking.
"Lately, I've seen a whole new side of Sean. He speaks in a flippant, sarcastic tone, making me feel like an idiot for worrying too much about Stacy. He balks when I set limits that I believe are in my daughters' best interests, such as not allowing them to go to birthday parties or have play dates. I just don't like Stacy to be in places where there are lots of other kids who can make her sicker than she already is. Sean says I'm overreacting, but the fact is that a simple cold often means a hospital stay for Stacy. Recently, we got into an ugly argument because he took the girls for ice cream. Stacy is on a strict diet — no dairy, wheat, or sugar — because she has a bunch of allergies. Why is he sabotaging it?
"Sean is a wonderful father, when he wants to be. He owns a computer graphics company, and he's taken on extra projects because he's worried about finances. But that means either he's at the office late, or he's buried himself in the den with his charts and graphs. Last week, he came home from the office early and he expected, I suppose, to be welcomed with open arms. Well, I was trying to make dinner, and I admit I wasn't particularly charming. Sean went into the den, and later, when the girls were fed and bathed, I came in to talk. But he told me I was interrupting his work. One weekend, when I assumed we were going to be doing things as a family, he actually took off by himself on a four-hour bike ride!
"I want him to be more involved with me and the girls. I hardly knew my own father; he moved to Oklahoma City after my parents divorced when I was 5. My two sisters and I lived with my mother, a boutique owner in New York City; she remarried and divorced again before I graduated from high school. I stayed in New York and started a modeling career; that's when I met my first husband. Soon after our divorce three years later, I met Sean at a tennis clinic in Colorado where he worked. It was love at first sight. I ended up staying in Colorado for two weeks. When I returned to New York, we talked every night and I flew to Colorado on weekends. Six months later, we were married. I moved to Denver and we settled into a wonderful life. We both love the outdoors, so we'd ski, mountain bike, and hike. We both wanted a family, but I had several miscarriages. When I finally conceived, we were thrilled. Life was perfect. But when the twins were born, everything changed. The big question is, Can we ever get it back?"
"I know this marriage is meant to be," said Sean, who is fit and tan with dark hair and deep brown eyes, "but we're having a very hard time now. Leigh and I used to talk for hours. We could be on a desert island and not need another soul. I know children turn your life upside down, but I feel there's absolutely no room in Leigh's life for me anymore. She's totally wrapped up with the girls.
"Leigh lives in a state of nonstop worry, and her craziness makes me crazy. The doctors have said that while we have to be careful about Stacy, we shouldn't be paranoid. Yes, Stacy still has some problems, but they are minor and our life could go back to normal if Leigh would just let it. The girls deserve a normal childhood; as parents, we need to back off and let them have it. Whenever I try to tell Leigh this, she doesn't hear a word I say. She makes it sound as if I don't care about her or our children. She tells only part of the story.
That bike ride that she makes such a big deal about? Once, when I was really stressed, I grabbed my bike and went riding. I love biking and never get to do it anymore. Leigh makes it sound like I abandoned her for the whole weekend.
"It's amazing that she thinks I ignore her because, basically, I feel she's not there for me. We never make love anymore and hardly even talk about anything other than the twins. The time I told her she was interrupting, I was really upset because she'd just barked at me for some reason I can't even remember, probably something as ridiculous as how I didn't add the right detergent to the load of whites or criticizing me for how I make dinner when I do manage to cook on the weekends. I don't want to be spoken to like I'm some jerk who can't do anything right.
"I've started to feel so unhappy and lost. What I find really hard to handle is the arguing — we fight all the time. Stacy's ordeal has brought out the worst in us. Usually, fights start over something small that gets blown out of proportion, like Leigh's nasty comments when I took the girls to Dairy Queen or when I suggested they be allowed to go to birthday parties. While I knew that she was trying to keep them off dairy, I didn't think a little ice cream would do any harm. And you know what? It didn't. What can I say? I just want my children to have a normal childhood, to let them hang out with kids in the neighborhood, and for my wife not to get all bent out of shape if they sneeze.
"I grew up in Indiana, the third of nine kids. Although my dad can be abrasive and critical — I remember a lot of angry outbursts at my mother — we were all close. I moved to Colorado for college and worked at a tennis clinic on weekends. The day I met Leigh, I mustered the nerve to ask her to play tennis with me in the afternoon and that began this amazing, whirlwind relationship. Back then we were so incredibly happy, I feared it was a fairy tale and wouldn't last. Now I'm beginning to believe I was right."
The Counselor's Turn
"Many marriages are shaken by the stresses of a child's serious illness," said the counselor. "It's not unusual for basic communication and time alone to be put on hold. The underlying issue with Leigh and Sean was simple: In the face of a youngster's health crisis, how do you care for your child as well as yourselves?
"I pointed out that every person responds differently to a crisis and there is no right formula for coping. It was imperative that they both understood and respect that, and not assume, as Leigh did, that Sean didn't care just because he wasn't reacting the same way she was. What's more, Leigh's continuing anxiety about her daughter's health prevented her from letting Sean relieve her burden as much as he might have. She was unable to step back and let Sean take over everyday duties — making dinner, doing the laundry — without dictating how they should be done. Although she was furious about having to do everything, she was too exhausted to see that she was making her own situation worse.
"A take-charge, emotional woman, Leigh was physically and mentally depleted by her determination to make her daughter well. The fact that she had also witnessed the death of another baby in the intensive care unit had traumatized her, though neither realized how deeply until she burst into sobs recalling the incident. Sean, in turn, responded to his daughter's illness by burying himself in his work.
"Although Sean described his family as close when he was growing up, it became clear that expressing feelings, particularly sad or negative ones, had been routinely discouraged. In counseling, he acknowledged that his father had also been highly critical of his homemaker mother — a pattern he was unwittingly repeating.
"For this couple, talk and time were the healing factors. As they listened to each other, I helped them manage painful feelings and find simple solutions to problems that had them gridlocked. For example, I insisted that Leigh find ways to defuse her own anxiety by eating regular healthy meals and giving herself one hour in the middle of the day to sleep, exercise, meditate, or just read a magazine. That meant either napping when the twins did or hiring a babysitter for a few hours.
"I also helped Leigh recognize when she was slipping into self-defeating thought patterns that compounded her stress. Whenever she found herself dwelling on the past when Stacy was critically ill, I urged her to repeat, 'My baby did not die, and there's no indication she's now in danger.' By focusing on what was happening in the present, Leigh put her fears into perspective and felt more comfortable making play dates and signing the girls up for community gym and art classes. Recently, the girls began to sleep in their own room — something they, and their parents, were excited about.
"Leigh needed to give Sean more credit for what he did for the girls or around the house, and to tell him, nonjudgmentally, when she needed him to pitch in. As the tension eased, she was able to do that, and now he frequently does the dishes or the laundry without being asked. "We also spent several sessions helping Sean lower his stress level so he didn't snap at Leigh or feel the need to distance himself. 'Don't let favorite pastimes get edged out by work and family demands,' I told him. Sean now meets two friends at 5 a.m. three days a week to ride his bike into the mountains. He also takes a few minutes to sit quietly in the car and meditate, or simply close his eyes for five minutes, before going inside the house after work.
"Focused now on making their marriage a priority, the couple religiously reserve one night a week for a date, and they set aside half an hour every day to talk about anything other than the children. 'I also call Leigh in the middle of the day just to say hi,' Sean reported. 'I think about her all the time, but she never knew that. Now she does.'
"By the time they ended counseling, Leigh and Sean were quicker to recognize problems and resolve issues before they mushroomed. Basic rules for conflict resolution — such as tabling volatile topics until they both felt calm enough to discuss them — also helped. Recently, I received a call from Leigh. It was around 3 p.m., and she was at home resting because she was once again pregnant with twins — this time, boys. When I called to congratulate her, she sounded ecstatic: 'I feel great — physically and emotionally — because Sean and I are finally on the same page.'"
This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Lynn Heitler, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker in Denver. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, May 2004.