Finding Our Balance After Autism
When my husband and I were newlyweds, we seemed to have an almost telepathic connection. We would say things at the same time, make the same decisions independently. We seldom felt the need to discuss or compromise; the rare occasions when we did disagree felt bizarre to both of us, almost like a betrayal. But even then, we would agree to disagree and resume an even keel.
If it was just a honeymoon phase, it didn’t feel like it. It felt like this was just who we were, who we would be forever.
But it started changing even before I got pregnant. We required fertility treatments in order to conceive and the strain of the process brought out new and very different sides of our personalities. I became a hormonal mess, responding to even small matters with the intensity of a nuclear reactor. It was a state my husband had never seen me in before, which prompted his own left turn into an unfamiliar survival mode: get everyone – including this new and challenging stranger – through a difficult phase and into calmer waters with sanity and love intact. When I got pregnant, we were probably as elated at the prospect of a child as we were relieved to see a path back to harmony. But a marriage is a living thing – it adapts, grows, constricts, then flows and changes again. It seldom stands still long enough to balance.
We both set about preparing for our child in diametrically opposing ways. My thoughts quickly focused on learning about how to stay healthy and be a good parent; my husband immediately set about redecorating our home to make room for the baby. So, when Tristan came home to a beautifully decorated room, greeted by a stuffed lion and many balloons, he also came home with parents trying to find a new balance, made more unsteady by the mere necessity of seeking it. Actual parenting only made it worse. I was breastfeeding Tristan every three hours, even in the night, which kept my husband from getting a full night’s sleep (a problem once his paternity leave ended and he had to go back to work). So, he moved into the guest room. While I had to record feeding times and remember everything the nurse told me, my husband got to interact with Tristan more instinctively and naturally. We were happy – joyous, even – but off-kilter was definitely our new norm.
When Tristan was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, our reactions pulled my husband and me in very different directions yet again. I chased every kind of therapy and training for Tristan that I could arrange, either in the Netherlands (where we live) or in India, and partnered with Tristan through all of these sessions. I sought as much knowledge as possible and applied it. My husband, however, was slower to grasp the disorder and, as he worked full time, had less capacity to pursue a fuller understanding.He could only see his fear for his son’s future.
It was quite lonely for both us, each spinning in the same whirlpool, but on separate ships. I recognize it now as grief over our own expectations, and grief is as unique as a fingerprint and as much a tightrope for relationships as autism.
By way of coping, I became the teacher and disciplinarian, while my husband became Tristan’s friend, getting to know him through play and embracing our son’s interests. I sought out books on occupational therapy and speech therapy that led me to the realization Tristan needed a trampoline and swing in his room. My husband ordered the books, and ordered and installed the trampoline and swing — but then I had the responsibility of teaching Tristan how he could use them to balance himself and his feelings. My husband wasn’t unsupportive; he made time for all appointments having to do with Tristan’s autism and tried to incorporate at home all Tristan and I had done at our training and therapy sessions, once I passed on the knowledge. But I had to learn, do, teach and correct; he just had to learn, do and play.
A distinct line had been drawn in our home, between our different roles. Our entire focus had become our child, and as we deprioritised time to connect with each other, our sense of intimacy eroded. We arranged date nights and time away, just the two of us, in attempts to repair it, but once back at home we fell into our same, parallel lives. And I increasingly felt mine was tougher. All my other identities felt subsumed by my effort to be the best parent possible for Tristan, while my husband was busy becoming the best playmate possible. I envied their fun. I resented it.
I didn’t like resenting my husband; I tried hard not to, but the feeling kept growing until much soul-searching led me to remember one critical thing: Even when we started responding differently to situations, my husband and I had always had the same goals: to have a child, to prepare for and welcome that child and — to be good parents to that child. Autism had complicated how we would achieve that last goal, but it hadn’t changed the goal itself.
The realization allowed me a new perspective on my husband’s parenting. When I watched him playing a game or trying a new trick with Tristan, rather than only seeing fun from which I felt excluded, I saw Tristan learning to manage his frustration after a loss or error. I saw him learning persistence as he and his father solved puzzles or built with Legos. I saw him learning to seek and try new experiences, like ziplining and snorkeling. I saw him learning to make eye contact and pick up on his father’s facial expressions, tone of voice, and other non-verbal cues as they monkeyed about and teased each other.
And as I started seeing the value in his way of doing things, I started finding it complementary, not contradictory, to all of the research, the routines, the structure, the therapies and appointments I provided. I found my way wasn’t the only way to be a good parent to Tristan. And I found instead of resentment, I felt respect.
And together, all three of us, we found our balance.