Is shared parenting in a special needs family possible?

With the same jarring sense of realization that I’ve left a load of laundry rotting in the washing machine, this Sunday’s Boston Globe article Learning to Share reminded me of my intention, pledged back in the last millennium, to equally share the parenting load when I became a mother. What’s shared parenting? As the article so aptly puts it, “it’s the difference between being willing to drop off the enrollment form for summer camp and realizing, months ahead of time, that the right camp must be found; between picking up a box of Huggies on request and knowing when supplies are running low.” It may sound tricky (and according to the article, it is) and maybe it isn’t everyone’s dream, but when I read the article, I remembered that it had been mine.

In the idealistic-yet-oblivious flash of social justice insight that only 20-something’s get, it was obvious to me that if I wanted my future daughter to be able to balance a family and a career, I would have to do it first. And with almost eerie prescience, I sensed that simply learning to juggle more wasn’t going to cut it; equal opportunity would start in the home, and that meant shared parenting, not just being a mom who could bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.

Looking up from my coffee cup twenty years later, I realize things aren’t quite what I planned. Influenced by aptitude, interest or culture, when my husband and I divide household chores, we party like it’s 1959. Him: breadwinning, carpentry, car repair, pay the bills, IT service, comparison-shop for large household purchases, mow the lawn, kill vermin, assemble the tent, load the bike rack on the car. Me: cook, grocery shop, laundry, clean, de-clutter, mend (well, feel guilty about not mending), volunteer for PTA, buy teacher gifts, do all gardening except mow the lawn, schedule playdates, shop for back-to-school clothes.

Having a child with special needs seems to cement the roles even further. It’s fairly common to have a “case worker/bread winner” division of labor in special needs families, a la Kristina and Adam Braverman in Parenthood. (Love it or hate it, but that show and its companion blog nail my experience as special needs parent in so many ways.) In our family, I’m the one who schedules appointments with our son’s eight doctors and three therapists, chauffeurs to therapies, spearheads IEP meetings, special orders medication and medical supplies, badgers the insurance company, keeps track of the big picture in both kids’ development. Perhaps it’s possible to split this work down the middle, but I honestly can’t see how. In my son’s case there is simply so much information to keep track of and synthesize that my husband and I would spend as much time getting each other up-to-speed as doing the work itself. To make it possible for me to do this, my husband gets to take on the high-stress role of sole breadwinner while keeping up with one heck of a honey-do list. (Is it my fault that he’s the only one who knows how to solder?) We both work incredibly hard, but we are definitely not sharing parenting. I don’t even think this is strictly a gender thing; I’d wager money that same-sex special needs parent couples find themselves in the same bind.

Reading that article, I felt a little disappointed in myself. Somewhere deep inside I’m still that idealistic young woman who hoped to change the system instead of punting the problem forward to the next generation. Caught in a daily grind of unloading the dishwasher and reading neuropsychological evaluations, it became so easy to lose sight of that.

Without creating unnecessary pressure to hold myself to ever increasingly impossible standards, I want to continue to think about this. I would love to hear from other families (especially one who understand the challenges that special needs add to the mix) on how they share parenting. I need some good role models and some inspiration. And maybe simply some hope. Am I the only person thinking about this?

Published by Cristin Lind

Facilitator, consultant, speaker for better health and care through patient-professional partnership. Passionate about helping change agents build courage and agency. She/her.

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  1. I think every situation is so different, but in the end is shared hands-on parenting of a special needs child possible? Perhaps if the demands are not so great, if the child functions at a fairly age appropriate level, has no severe medical or behavioral issues and doesn’t have more than say two specialists. My experience is that the the primary caregiver is really the ONLY caregiver and even so when I was married to my child’s father. I don’t give it any thought at all. It’s how it is, out of necessity. In my case, many of the responsibilities filled by a second parent were mine even when married (I worked, did the yard work, cared for my vehicle, helped my ex with his school work etc…) while their father went to school. Needless to say this crumbled the marriage. So, having another parent/partner who is at least involved and committed to easing the day in other areas is a blessing and in the end results in shared parenting in a way. What you do, how well you do it and the benefit to your child would not be possible with the burden of those additional responsibilities and the father is providing the support in other areas needed to do what’s best for the child. And, in the end that’s parenting-doing all that you can, the best that you can, to better the life of your child.

  2. Indeed, “having another parent/partner who is at least involved and committed to easing the day in other areas is a blessing.” I’m so grateful that I am able to share parenting in this way. In many ways, everything else is just icing on the cake. I’m in awe of single moms and special needs moms, I have tremendous respect for those who are both.

  3. When I read that article this weekend in the Globe, coffee snorted out my nose. To me, equally shared parenting is a fantasy that belongs with the stories that have princess being rescued by Prince Charming.
    Be honest, what kind of business could run if every employee knew every aspect of every facet of the business? It just isn’t feasible. By requiring each parent to know everything about everybody’s schedule and the minute details, is creating more stress, not less.
    In our non-special needs house, things are tough enough. We have shared parenting. I make sure kids get homework done, I clean, I am the keeper of schedules and the scheduler. I run to the parent teacher conferences unless my husband can make it with me. I work 32 hours a week. My husband does the cooking, the shopping, the making of lunches (I have a phobia about that). He drives kid #1 to her hockey games, or kid #2 to her ice skating. I take kid #1 to violin.
    What we’ve done is divide the tasks. We don’t fit the traditional roles, but division of labor has to be done. We inform each other. We use google calendar to track all of our children’s events. Last night, he reminded me that I had a parent teacher meeting. We share our news. He tells me the results of the hockey game and I tell him how violin went.

    I honestly don’t think you are failing. You are sharing parenting. But you really should learn how to solder. It’s fun and it would help your daughter learn something different. 🙂

    1. Well, as I said, it isn’t everyone’s dream. It sounds like you and your husband are working things out well. Still not sure about soldering–though I did commit to posting my own for sale items on Craigslist! Baby steps. Love your blog–thanks for swinging by.

  4. My original dream – which seemed anti-Prince Charming to me – was that my husband and I would be equally responsible, either the way peaceofmymindparent describes it or the way spacemom described it. We’d do it together – neither saving the other. As long as we were each bringing home bacon and taking significant parenting responsibility. My experience, though, didn’t turn out either way. I felt I was responsible for all the work of parenting and having a high-stress job and he got to have all the fun of parenting and a low-stress job or eventually no job at all. I was angry about this. I didn’t want an assistant, I wanted a partner. But it truly wasn’t possible for us to function as that sort of team – perhaps because of my personality, perhaps because of his makeup, perhaps both. Finally I accepted that the kind of relationship we were able to have just wasn’t satisfying to me. When we separated, and I was ultimately responsible for everything on my own, it was actually a relief. Yes I still have stress, but I know what I can and can’t count on from myself. As a single mom with no children with special needs, I realize I now think of mySELF as having some special needs! Still, I am so much happier than I was three years ago, and so grateful to have the clarity I have now.

  5. For me it’s about the strong suits and not-so-strong suits.
    We all have them.

    Whether I choose them or they choose me, I definitely have strong suits.
    These are the things that I will not negotiate with my partner or my kids.
    (BTW… I am fortunate to have a partner in this journey.)

    My strong suits are not what I do enjoy doing pre sa… rather what I won’t let go of.
    Example: Folding the laundry. Not getting clothes into the washing machine and then the dryer…
    but folding it. Crisply folding- being careful to flatten out any turned up edges or hems, succinctly matching socks and turning down the top edges just slightly into a pair, and hanging items onto hangers.

    Admittedly then hanging hung clothes in some of order in the closet. Starting on the left, jackets, sweaters, and sweatshirts, then dresses, then tops. In the dresser drawers— every item has a place, tops, bottoms, sports bras/underwear, pajamas and those neatly matched socks. Not extreme but certainly methodical.

    For me it makes it easier to then grab them in a rush and if I should ever not be home… another can easily find clean crisply folded or hung options with ease.
    The origin behind this strong suit is because of a few traumas I have suffered in the past.

    Like the time my partner showed up to the hospital to visit me, kids in tow and they all were a wrinkled mismatched hot mess. I couldn’t even appreciate the flowers they brought, the fact they did all shower, ate breakfast, made it in-and-out of stop&shop for the bouquet, and arrived at the hospital and no one was crying or whining! All I could see was their dis-shoveled apparel. OMG … I cried. They thought I was happy to see them. In fact I wanted them to leave… immediately before my lovely nurse saw them.

    From that point on…I had a new strong suit. As far as me and my house goes …we will have neat and matched clothes! I read a book once for new parents raising children with disabilities and the author opined… (paraphrased) you can’t control the chromosome map children are born with, the intellectual or behavioral wiring realities, but you can ensure they are clean and look nice. That stuck with me and after a few trauma’s like described above…A strong suit was born.

    My partner has his own strong suits. Nothing is our house will be held together with duct tape, glue sticks, or (in a pinch) medical tape. I don’t give two hoots about this strong suit. It isn’t mine!

    In the end we add the strong suits we each bring and have an agreement/arrangement that we can live with.

    I consider that shared parenting.

    I have strong suits in case management, IEP meetings, talking to the doctor’s, knowing when meds need to be refill, banging out a letter, changing the diaper of our 18 year old and finding resources under a rock.
    (I have friends that guide me on this one)

    His strong suits can be social interactions, (he can be very charming and disarming which is why the IEP team always asks if he is coming) all things electronic and mechanical (good… I can’t stand looking into a car engine… it just pisses me off) and he can demonstrate unrelenting patience to our daughter who scratches, pushes, hits and who can get me a head lock that I can’t get out of.

    Each of us brings our strong suits to the partnership and we have learned to respect what the other brings. Even when we think the other’s strong suit is ridiculous.
    But heck… I don’t begrudge him his strong suits and he doesn’t begrudge me mine.

    I do think I sometimes bring more strong suits to deal and in those moments I question if I carry more. But you know what… so does he!

    In the end I have reduced the whole equation to …
    We each have strong suits and not so strong suits.
    I am keeping mine and if things go well he will keep his and we each will bring what we have. That’s the “shared parenting” perspective that works for me… and keeps me out of car engines and my partner out of the clothes folding business! Thank God!


    1. Lauri, that seems to be how we divide things too–along the lines of our strengths and our priorities. Though what to do about the things that neither likes or is good at? Might explain why laundry NEVER gets folded in my house. (We actually affectionately call our pile of clean laundry “Mt. Washmore.”) Maybe you could come over some time? Haha.

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