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"Our Son Has Special Needs"

Lisa wants her husband to help with all the demands of having a special-needs child, but Phil thinks it puts a strain on their relationship. Can this marriage be saved?


Her Turn

"When we adopted our 4-year-old son, Max, last year, I thought that Phil and I finally had the family we'd always dreamed of," said Lisa, 35.

"I couldn't have been more wrong. "I had three miscarriages before getting pregnant with our daughter, Annie, who's 8. Afterward, my doctor said I probably wouldn't be able to conceive again, so a few years ago Phil and I started to talk about adopting.

"We used a reputable agency that places children from Russian orphanages. The paperwork was endless, but a year after we applied we heard that a 3-year-old boy was available. We'd requested an infant, so we had some concerns. We knew about a psychological problem called 'reactive attachment disorder,' which is common in children who suffer trauma or neglect in the first months of life. Kids with RAD often have trouble feeling safe and cared for. But we decided to move ahead anyway. Who knew how long we'd have to wait for an infant?

"Russian law requires potential parents to travel to Moscow, meet their child, then wait for the court to finalize the adoption. Annie came with us and the three of us had a two-hour visit with Max. It went fine though he seemed shy. The orphanage director told us he got along well with everyone. We spent two weeks in Moscow waiting for a court date, then learned it was reslated for the next month, so we had to fly back later.

"It wasn't until the court hearing that we learned Max had been neglected by his drug-addicted biological mother and physically abused by her boyfriend. Max has scars on his torso from cigarette burns. We were angry but too invested to turn back. The adoption went through and we left Russia with our son.

"Once we got home I took Max to a developmental psychologist, who confirmed our fears: Max suffered from RAD, as well as dyslexia and ADHD. I took a six-week leave from my job as an executive recruiter, thinking it would give us time to bond. I was soon overwhelmed and exhausted. It's just so hard to be Max's parent. The first time he rode in a car he howled the whole time. He can't sit still and has a meltdown if he doesn't get his way. None of the disciplinary methods we used with Annie — like time-outs — make the slightest difference in Max's behavior.

"We hired a nanny from Ukraine, who left after a month because Max was so difficult. We're now on our third nanny. I enrolled Max in nursery school but the director asked that we withdraw him because he constantly took the other kids' toys. I should probably care for Max fulltime but can't afford to quit my job.

"Phil was as excited as I was about adoption but now acts as if it was a huge mistake. It didn't help that he lost his job a month after we got Max home. Luckily he found another one, but it's less money and the insurance no longer covers all of Max's health expenses. Now Phil wants to move to a smaller home. What could be more disruptive?

"I hardly recognize Phil anymore. No marriage is perfect, but ours was close. We talked about anything and everything. Now we hardly speak, except to argue. Phil favors Annie and has no patience with Max, whom he yells at for bad table manners and running in the house. Phil acknowledges that Max is fragile, yet a minute later he's bellowing at him for taking Annie's video game. Now, is that a criminal act or typical little brother behavior? When I tell Phil he's being unfair, he snaps that Max isn't nice to him and likes me better! He even accuses me of paying more attention to Max than to him. Excuse me? Who's the grownup here? He's behaving like a seventh grader, and I've had it."

His Turn

"The past year has been a living hell," said Phil, 40. "I went along with this adoption since Lisa wanted it so badly. I was perfectly happy with one child. The Russian authorities lied to us. Max has suffered psychological damage that may be irreversible. Still, when we were dressing him in his new clothes and I saw those scars on his little body, I vowed then and there to do anything to give this child a better life. I just never expected it to be this hard.

"I feel like a jerk. Everyone talks about the joys of adopting, even a child with special needs. So what's wrong with me? Why can't I feel what comes naturally to everyone else? This is terrible to say, but I wonder if I'd feel different if Max were my biological child.

"I'm angry and confused. How can one 4-year-old child create so much chaos and tension? He's turned our home into a battlefield. That incident with Annie's video game really got to me. As usual, Lisa accused me of picking on Max, but he needs to learn not to steal other people's things. That's one of the reasons he was kicked out of nursery school. If Lisa always rushes in to rescue him, or make excuses for him, how will he ever learn?

"I don't understand how things got so bad. Lisa and I have been through a lot together, including three miscarriages, and we've always been on the same page with Annie. My own dad was mean and critical, and I always vowed that I'd be different. But I just lose it with Max. I try not to be arbitrary about discipline, but he pushes all my buttons. The minute I do or say anything to him, he gets this defiant look and runs to Lisa, who immediately assumes, without even asking, that I'm being an ogre. Max can be affectionate with Lisa — though believe me, she gets pretty exasperated with him, too — but when I try to hug him, he pushes me away. Poor Annie doesn't know what's going on, and with Lisa so caught up with Max, I'm worried our daughter will be shortchanged. Thank God she's such a happy kid.

"Lisa and I used to get along great, but our relationship has turned toxic. We can't even have a conversation about anything other than Max. The Lisa I remember loved to talk and was always supportive. But when I lost my job earlier this year, I think she cared more about the fact that money was tight than about how demoralized I was.

"But make no mistake, money is tight. I'm not sure what to do. We've toyed with the idea of downsizing, and I think we should. We have a big house and don't need that much room. But Lisa thinks Max hasn't had much stability in his life so far and that another move will throw him even more off balance. She's probably right, but at this point we need to cut expenses. Frankly, there's so much tumult in our lives right now, it's hard to talk sanely about anything let alone something as important as moving. If we could only get a little peace and quiet, we could iron everything out."

The Counselor's Turn

As Lisa and Phil discovered, the dream of adopting a child can in very rare cases become a nightmare, and the ensuing guilt, confusion, and stress can wreak havoc on even good marriages. Their experience shook their strong relationship to the core.

"To save their marriage they needed not only to better understand their son's problems but also to acknowledge their own negative feelings. 'You expected a wonderful life once your family was complete,' I told them. 'Instead, your family is in chaos.' I reminded them that caring for any new child, even a biological one, is emotionally and physically exhausting. 'Denying that you're angry or overwhelmed only causes you to lash out,' I said. 'You need to find a way to talk safely about your true feelings, just as you used to.'

"Lisa and Phil took my advice and joined a support group of adoptive parents of children with attachment disorders. There they were able to talk openly and learn practical parenting tips. Phil especially found the meetings helpful. 'It was a relief to hear other parents talk about how hard it is to like, let alone love, their child,' he admitted.

"Phil's attitude toward Max began to soften, but tension between the couple remained high and it was hard for them to speak without irritation. I asked Lisa to consider whether there was any truth in Phil's complaint that she was neglecting him. 'In your efforts to protect Max you may be forgetting to pay attention to Phil,' I said. 'Your marriage needs nurturing, too. And snide comments about Phil's immaturity don't help.' Until their household calmed down, a weekly date night was unrealistic, but they made a commitment to talk quietly every evening after the children were asleep.

"For his part, Phil needed to curb his temper. His father had been an angry parent, and he was falling into the same pattern — not with Annie, a naturally compliant child, but certainly with Max, who was anything but. Being a caring father was central to Phil's self-image and when he failed at it he was as furious at himself as he was at Max. From reading the psychologist's diagnosis, I suspected that Max's early experiences had left him distrustful of men. I explained to Phil that his son's rejection, which so wounded him, was not personal. In fact, he should try to view it as resilience. 'What you see as aggression is Max's survival instinct kicking in,' I said. I also pointed out that Max's impoverished background was one reason he 'stole' other children's toys, including his sister's. 'He's afraid he'll have nothing again,' I explained.

"We spent several sessions talking about how to set loving limits. 'Never discipline when you're angry,' I said. 'You'll say things you don't mean and your true message won't get through.' Phil learned to say, 'I'm disappointed right now, Max. I'm angry so I need a time-out. Then we'll talk about what happened.' When Max had a meltdown, Phil and Lisa would crouch to his eye level, wrap him firmly in their arms and rock him until he calmed down. Then they'd say, 'Tell us what you need.'

"Next we turned to the issue of downsizing to a smaller house. A move would be disruptive but would ease their money worries. Happily, they found a new house near their old neighborhood in a school district known for its work with special-needs children.

"Lisa and Phil saw me for a year and made enormous progress. 'We no longer argue all the time,' said Lisa in our last session. 'And we have a wonderful new nanny who's terrific with Max.'

"'We don't always agree,' Phil added, 'but now we can talk calmly.'

"Max continues to see the psychologist and, as I predicted, his defiance and anger have gradually diminished. 'You're learning to accept your child's unique personality,' I told Phil and Lisa. "'And in the end, isn't that what any parent must do?'"

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2009.

Ladies Home Journal

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