Kathy and Will (not their real names) have been married eight years and are the parents of 3-year-old Addy. Kathy is seven months pregnant and scared. She and Will have been fighting a lot lately about how to handle Addy. After weeks of talking about it, Will has agreed to try some family therapy to see if it would help.
Addy has Down Syndrome. This family has been through a lot. Addy had two heart surgeries before he was six months old. He has hearing problems. Like most kids with Down, he has been slow to grow, slow to walk, and slow to talk. Also like many kids with Down, he is adorable and affectionate.
Will works long hours as a plant manager. They have been fortunate that they can afford to have Kathy leave her job as a third grade teacher and be a stay-at-home mom for now. They both say they are committed to doing the best they can for Addy and that they are looking forward to the new baby too. What’s the fighting about?
“I’m exhausted,” says Kathy. “Addy still wants to be carried most of the time and he’s getting big. I take him to an early intervention program three mornings a week. I’m learning a lot about how to help him and he is getting a chance to be with other kids. We’re trying to help him learn to accept limits and walk on his own.
“I know Will works hard but he comes home and seems to think that he should be able to relax. He is a big support in his own way but he doesn’t seem interested in what the physical therapist and speech and language specialist says we need to do. I often feel like he’s undermining me. My mom helps me a lot but I can’t ask her to do any more. I don’t know how I’m going to manage Addy and a baby too.”
“I think everyone is asking too much of Addy,” says Will. “Life is going to be hard enough on him without us being hard on him too. Yeah, I think it’s time he walked on his own but he’s making some progress. And he is communicating. I think the language stuff will come naturally if we just give him some room. When I get home I like to relax and I think Addy does too. He goes to that EI class most mornings. Kathy pushes him a lot. She and her mom spend hours working with him. You should see all the stuff they’ve got to stimulate him and to help him learn. I know she’s working hard to help him but I think we should let up in the evenings and just be a family together.”
Family Therapy: Getting on the Same Team
Will and Kathy do have a lot going for them. They clearly like and love each other. They both love their son and are committed to raising him well. The second pregnancy was planned. They had always talked about having at least two kids and saw no reason to change that dream. Will has a good job and Kathy is grateful to be able to take time out from her teaching career to give Addy the extra attention he needs. Why can’t these two lovely people get on the same team?
Ask any parent of young kids: The early years of raising children are hard. There usually isn’t much opportunity for the couple to have spontaneous intimate moments. When there is time for romance, both often are too exhausted to take full advantage of it. Any differences of opinion about parenting, finances, free time, and chores rise to the surface.
Add the special challenges of a disabled child to the mix and the stress gets multiplied times ten. It may reassure them to hear that conflict with a partner at this stage of life isn’t abnormal. It’s a normal reaction to an abnormal amount of stress.
But this couple also is at an impasse that they need to break through if they are to stay a couple and parent well. Kathy and Will have been too tired, too busy, or too afraid — probably all three — to deal with their disagreements directly. They’ve been getting through each day okay but they also have been getting further and further apart.