Lessons for coParenting Special Needs Kids
Forty-year-old Alison had an air of quiet competence. She was the first parent of a special needs child I interviewed, and the challenges she faced floored me. Although she had care of her eight-year-old daughter over 80 percent of the time, not meeting our definition of coParenting, I have included her story because it feels so important.
“If you have a child with mental illness, behavioral issues, and explosive rages, divorce is that much harder,” Alison said. “My daughter has spent time in the psych ward at the children’s hospital. No parent wants to go through that, but you do, and you learn from it. Mika has a lot of special needs and it is highly demanding to parent her. I think we’ve done pretty well.”
Alison and her husband, Russell, had adopted Mika when she was an infant. As Mika grew, Alison and Russell reacted differently to the challenges of parenting her. “I thought that the adoption was equal when we went into it, but he found the parenting overwhelming … he didn’t think of parenting in the same way that I did.”
Mika was six when they separated, two years before our interview. “In the months before the split, I felt terrible, that this was on me. I did a lot of research on what children need. My ex was feeling surprised and angry about the split. At that sad time, it was not easy to talk about a parenting plan.”
Fearing that Russell might opt out completely from parenting, Alison tried to persuade him that Mika would benefit from seeing both of her parents every week. Russell, though, wanted relatively little involvement. The parents had enough self-management skills to find a mediator and stay together for several extra months in order to make their decisions carefully. “We talked about every possibility, including the quickly discarded fantasy of a duplex in which our daughter could run back and forth between us.” They eventually agreed that Mika would spend every other weekend with her dad, and they bought houses near each other.
Alison reflected on the huge challenge of parenting any child with special needs. “The divorce rate is higher for parents of children with special needs, across attention deficit disorder, autism, and other kinds of disabilities. It’s unknown territory. No one knows the best way to parent a child with disabilities, so you have to make it up as you go along. In some ways, it was a relief when we split; I could just do things the way I think is best.”
Alison read up on a strategy to tell Mika about the coming split, where both parents sat down together to explain things. “Then one day Russell told Mika while they were driving to the Target store in the car, with no strategy whatsoever!” she said with exasperation. “That’s not the way I would have done it, but I had to accept that it was done and move on. I was trying to be so conscientious.”
Alison struggled to meet Mika’s many needs. Her friends were great but could only help so much. Some didn’t feel qualified or up to the challenge. “My daughter had explosive rages. At times I felt so tired, so completely done with Mika. I had nothing left to give. We hadn’t worked out roles between Russell and me, so there was no one to hand off to. For a while, I felt I would never get settled into a new life.”
They had to work out finances. “Russell felt I was destroying his life and plans for retirement by separating. I was trying to keep the focus on our daughter; he thought about money and financial stability. We made about the same income and we had been together for a long time, so it was clear we would divide costs equally. That made things easier.”
Similar expectations about cost sharing formed a good foundation, but after the separation, Russell’s financial decisions made him perennially short of money. This meant that Mika couldn’t always take part in activities unless Alison contributed more. “Russell has made some bad choices. It’s painful to watch, and when it affects Mika, I have to deal with the fallout.”