I was sitting in our group circle, surrounded by other men on the special needs parenting journey when our facilitator made an observation.
“Y’all are absolutely wrecked with guilt. I hadn’t expected that.”
She was right.
Most people outside the special needs parenting journey see us from the outside in, as people dealing with immense unfairness and hardship. We are victims of circumstance looking up at a lifetime of difficulty. We are someone to feel sorry for.
Most of the fathers I spend time with on the journey don’t spend much time feeling sorry for ourselves though.
Instead, we spend most of the time crushed by guilt.
After my son’s diagnosis, and after I returned home from Iraq, where I was serving when we received it, I eventually had to go back downrange. One night, my wife dropped me off in the parking lot behind SEAL Team ONE, where a van and a few junior officers deploying late to join the team were waiting. The image of her rolling up the window after I’d leaned in to kiss her is burned into my head. She looked at me. Then she turned her eyes to the road, took a deep breath and drove off into the night.
I left her with a four-year-old, a nine-month-old and a three-year old that had just been diagnosed with autism. Who wasn’t sleeping. Who couldn’t be left alone for more than a few seconds.
I wouldn’t be home for months.
The guilt I felt, and still feel today, is a part of my life.
In reality, my re-deployment to Iraq was just an extreme case of what many special needs fathers endure every day. When we wander out the door to go to work or to take a business trip or heaven forbid, take a few hours to enjoy ourselves with friends, the guilt of the load we’ve left behind for others to carry is crushing.
The most common complaint that we hear from special needs mothers is that their partners don’t support them enough. The second is that their partners won’t ever take any time to care for or enjoy themselves. And that they’re living with someone miserable as a result.
The culprit for the first complaint is usually denial. The culprit for the second is guilt. This means that somewhere between acceptance and resilience is dealing with the mountain of guilt you’re living under.
Step one is being honest with yourself about how present you are in your family’s life. If you can answer that question honestly and live with the answer, then the second step is asking your spouse or partner to be clear and honest about their needs for support. And then meeting them.
If you’ve done both of those things, the only thing left to do is put down the pack.
The guilt that erodes the soul of special needs fathers is a brutally toxic force in the dynamic of special needs families. The longer you carry it around, the harder it is to shake.
Previously Published on Fatherhood 2.0