Friday, February 16, 2007

Unintended Benefits

We have two children. Buddy Boy, who is now 7 and PDD-NOS, and Sweet Pea, who will be 5 next month, and apart from possibly being a little hyperactive, is NT.

Sweet Pea, like any 2nd child (I was one myself), is very competitive. She always wants to do what her older brother does, and is always trying to prove that she is better, faster, and stronger than her brother (or anyone else for that matter). She also resents anything that Buddy Boy gets that she doesn’t (like rewards for certain behaviors).

Last night we went to father's night at her pre-school, which she had been looking forward to for weeks ("We're learning a new song, daddy", "I'm going to be a rhino, daddy", "How many days until father's night?"). We both had a great time.

But I’m sure the time will come when she will confront us and ask us why we don’t spend as much time with her as we do with her brother. And of course try to guilt us by saying we don’t love her as much.

What Sweet Pea doesn’t realize, and may not believe when I tell her, is that one of the gifts that I have received because of Buddy Boy’s autism is that I am a better father, both to her as well as Buddy Boy. I’m not perfect by any means, but I’m sure that I’m better than I otherwise would have been.

When most kids are fairly young their parents are in the beginning to middle of their career cycles. This means that they usually are paying a fair amount of attention to their careers, and letting the home life take care of itself. Not that they’re bad people, but the nature of being on the upswing of your career is that a lot of your energy is sucked out of you by the workplace, and this necessarily limits what you have left for your kids. You rationalize it by saying that it’s equally important to advance your career (income) so that you can provide well for your family. And oftentimes half your kids’ childhood has raced by while you’re doing this.

When a crisis hits your family (and even though autism itself may not be a crisis, dealing with the school system certainly has been) you are forced to acutely reevaluate everything you do. Buddy Boy’s autism has forced me to decide what is really important.

Learning to deal with Buddy Boy’s outbursts when he was younger has assisted me in deciding what’s important. Reading Dr. Ross Greene’s “The Explosive Child” helped us to approach both of our kids in a more supportive and collaborative fashion. I’m sure that I raise my voice less to Sweet Pea because of the things I have learned about interacting better with Buddy Boy. Had I not been forced by extreme behavior to look for other solutions, I would have probably just bumbled along with my somewhat authoritarian nature.

As it became clear that Buddy Boy was going to need a lot of time on my wife Liz’s part as well as mine, both for advocacy as well as for day-to-day support of Buddy Boy, I had to make a decision. Either throw up my hands and say I can’t do any more, or do what most of us have done, and try to figure out how to best help my kid when he needed us. For me it first meant that I changed jobs within our department. I took a job with more predictable hours and more time at home. This meant less income, but the tradeoff has benefited my marriage as well as my relationship with both of my kids. Recently it has meant turning down a promotion and having to serve on the search committee to find the person who will be my boss. While I thought that we had gotten to a place where I could have handled this position without disrupting my home life, Liz did not think so. I respected her perspective, and again this will mean that I will end up with more time at home with both kids then if I had taken the promotion. We’ll have to manage without the extra money (we haven’t gotten anything more in our department than a token raise since 1998), but I’ve never heard anyone on their death bed express regrets that they didn’t earn more money.

So I hope Sweet Pea realizes that while I’m not perfect, I’ve been a darn site better than I would have been as a parent, and spent more time with her than I would have, because of Buddy Boy’s autism.

Joe is 208


Daisy said...

"Autism itself may not have been a crisis, dealing with the school system has been." Oh, my, I hear you. Loud and clear. Much too clearly, in fact.


I had 5 other girls before I had Beauty who is profoundly autistic, and through her I have become a much better person and parent.I live in Wales and the situation with the school system is no better here, the only thing on the plus side is that Beauty's school which is an autism specific school is 5 minutes walk from the house.

kristina said...

I'm definitely a better person thanks to Charlie----and so much better for it. My husband Jim gave up his tenured full professor position at Saint Louis University so we could come back here to New Jersey for Charlie, and my own career path is hardly such, more a series of positions taken and left.

No regrets!

Sweet Pea......I used to call Charlie that (used to) when he was little---with echoes of Popeye!