My husband and I have a good marriage. Some days, I would even call it a great marriage.
You might say it’s a love story of sorts; I’ve known him for nineteen years, and we’ve been married for almost seventeen.
We went through undergraduate school together, then graduate school for me and dental school for him. We were so broke at one point we could barely afford to order pizza, and we lived in an apartment where you could hear the rats tumbling through the walls in the middle of the night.
We’ve come a long way from rats in the walls and now we can even order pizza with pepperoni, but we are in many ways the same two people we were back then. We laugh a lot. We like each other’s company, and we both think Rocky II is the best movie ever made.
I still find him as attractive as the day we first met—maybe even more so since he recently grew a beard and it looks really good on him.
But I have a confession to make. It’s kind of a secret, so I need you to come just a little closer. Bend your head to me, and I’ll whisper in your ear.
We are not good co-parents.
You know, the thing where two people are supposed to make decisions together and collaborate about their beloved children’s well-being and future and whether or not they should have another cookie even though they didn’t eat a single string bean at dinner?
After parenting together for twelve years Joe and I, well, sometimes we aren’t on the same page. We’re not even reading the same book. In fact, we barely speak the same language.
I think this is mostly because I am right all the time.
And Joe thinks I’m wrong and he’s right.
But really, I am right—all the time.
If we ever get a divorce, it will be because of the kids. It will be their fault. I mean, if we didn’t have kids, what would there be to fight about? How late we should sleep on the weekends? Where to go for dinner? What to do with all of our extra money since we don’t have to spend it on diapers and cleats and college funds?
And I’m not going to play it like some made-for-television special either, and say things like, “You had nothing to do with our divorce. Mommy and Daddy just needed a time-out!”
Nope, I’m going to call all five kids together and tell them bluntly, “Of course it’s your fault we’re getting a divorce! Remember when kept us up all night and we were so tired we could barely see straight, and then we had to toast waffles and wipe your noses and try to figure out the rules for Monopoly?”
It’s hard, this child rearing thing. Like climbing a mountain hard, especially because Joe and I each think we know where we’re going and the best way to get there. We both want to be the tour guides.
On paper, it’s no surprise that we struggle to co-parent. The numbers are not in our favor.
There are five of them and two of us.
We had three kids in diapers. Twice.
One in fifty-five children are diagnosed with autism. We have one of them. His name is Jack.
Eight out of ten families with autism end in divorce.
Sometimes, it’s little things; Joe lets our daughter wear her pink cowboy boots to school after I’ve already told her she needs to wear her sneakers.
I laugh at a sassy joke 12-year Joey tells, but from across the table I see Joe’s face tighten in irritation.
I tell Jack he doesn’t have to finish his math homework, and Joe tells Charlie he can skip a bath.
No matter the disagreement, the soft, whispery subtext is always the same.
I told her no and you said yes and he’s being rude and he should learn to finish his work and can’t you just let it go?
Why are you undermining me?
Are we in this together or not?
Then, there are the big things that turn the mountain into an explosive volcano right in front of our eyes.
For example, last week I was pretty mad at Jack. He had worn down my last nerve blaring the Beatles all afternoon and flipping out because his brother ate the rest of the ice cream and then he screamed a very bad word that begins with an “F” and rhymes with “duck”.
When Joe heard me get mad, he felt he had no choice but to also get mad. I didn’t need him to get mad. I needed him to tell me to go upstairs alone and read my People magazine and chill out for a few minutes because we all know how much Jack loves the Beatles and ice cream and we’re working on the swearing.
The subtext in these situations is pretty obvious, too.
I don’t need you to interfere.
I am showing you my support by also getting mad.
I don’t need your support I need you to find ice cream.
We are not together.
I am alone.
In terms of organization, Joe and I have a pretty specific division of labor when it comes to our family workload, according to what seems to be our natural skill set. He handles big school projects and I oversee homework and math facts and spelling quizzes. I handle colds and boogers, and he is in charge of anything puke-related.
I cook dinner, and he cleans the kitchen.
He supervises bath time, and I check the toothbrushes to make sure they were actually used on teeth.
I will readily admit, from helping an uninterested 7-year old make a Rube-Goldberg for the annual school Invention Convention to wiping down the bathroom with Clorox Wipes after someone missed the toilet, Joe kind of drew the short straw when it comes to family responsibilities.
In the fact, one night after a particularly vicious bout of the stomach bug, 5-year old Henry sat down in Joe’s lap after dinner and announced he will never be a father.
“Why not?” Joe asked him.
“Because. I don’t know how to rub someone’s back when they throw up. Like you do to me.”
Generally speaking, we both want the same things for our family; happy, well-balanced, polite kids who will eventually move out of the house. But our styles and temperament are very, very different.
In terms of parenting styles, I would say Joe falls into what I’ll call Category A. In Category A, kids should listen and do what we ask and we are the parents and therefore in charge.
I am in Category B. This category is a little more flexible. It takes into account children who are overtired and 12-year olds who want to test their comedic wings. A lot of times, people in Category B feel confused about who is in charge. Is it the 6-year old demanding a new Transformer? Or maybe the 12-year old who wants to watch a PG-13 movie? We get tired easily.
See what I mean? Parenting. Hard.
Then, there is our temperament.
Joe has exactly two speeds. Ninety percent of the time he is an affable, lovable, fun, silly, affectionate guy. The other five percent, well, let’s just say someone has pushed his buttons just one time too many. He is loud. He is expressive. He is no-nonsense.
I have many, many speeds. I have my tired speed and my motivated speed. I have patience, and then sometimes I have no patience. I have a consistent speed, and a let-things-go speed. I have an ice-cream-for-dinner speed combined with a we-should-eat-more-fruit speed.
I can go along all la-di-da and then, with no warning whatsoever, have a psychotic snap over something as innocuous as a towel someone left on the bathroom floor.
And autism unravels us. I wish I could say we’re getting better—more experienced—in parenting this boy, but the truth is every week, maybe every day, brings a whole new set of worries and challenges and behaviors.
How many more years will it take until we figure out what each of us needs? How many more arguments over homework and ice cream and cowboy boots will we have to endure? Will we ever unravel autism’s tricky knots?
The answer is, I do not know.
I do know this. Parenting is hard because it is a rich combination of puke and chaos and temperament and style.
It is A plus B minus five times two. It is one in fifty-five eighty percent of the time.
It is exhausting and complicated, heartbreaking and maddening. It’s wanting to be right but feeling as though you’re wrong.
It redfines us all, but it especially redefines love stories.
Once upon a time, I thought a love story was a dark-haired college guy hoping he had enough money in his wallet to buy pizza with his fiancé.
I thought it was first kisses and wedding dresses and snuggling together in an apartment with rats.
I thought it was Rocky and Adrienne.
But it’s none of these.
It’s a dark-haired man with a beard bending tenderly over a little boy, and gently rubbing his back while he throws up in the bathroom.
“Daddy. I hope I can do it like you when I have kids too.”