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A Father's Perspective on His child's Disability
My son has a learning disability. Along with his
dyslexia, he also suffers from ADHD, Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity
Disorder. But that is not what this piece is about. There is a plethora of
material already floating around the web, at bookstores, and at your local
library on these subjects, and to add to that would be an exercise in
redundancy. The goal is to write about my personal feelings, as the male role
model to a learning disabled child, while detailing my progression as a husband
and father. I hope to show you how we succeeded in facing this challenge
together, as a family, through an honest admission of not only my successes,
but also my failures. I think the best lessons learned are from our mistakes;
and trust me, I made a lot of them.
Too often I hear of stories of a father’s inability to accept his child’s difficulties, only to push them aside, or pretend that those real problems don’t exist in the hopes that they’ll “just go away”. I read of parents who can’t deal with an autistic child because it’s too hard or too costly. I learn of dysfunctional families that go through even worse; children whose outcome is only a grim one; children who have been abused or neglected. All of these stories surround us; we live among them. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can do better. We have choices.
One of my deepest regrets, as a father, is having fallen prey to the “tough guy” syndrome ―the idea that tough love was the only way to go. You do not need to be macho to be a good father. I will say this again: You do not need to be macho to be a good father! Being a father means much more than possessing the ability to lay down the law. I think, in retrospect, that was my greatest failure as a dad. I let my own issues come between us ―between father and son― without realizing how detrimental my own behavior had become. Although unintentional, I now realize that my own fears of inadequacy were keeping me from being the dad I should have been, and that I am now. So, although this piece targets the dad in all of us, I do think that anyone can benefit from reading about the choices I made, and how I came to correct, or change, them. Taking a hard and honest look at yourself is incredibly difficult, but I promise you, it is well worth the effort.
I may generalize at times, and I may say some things that you might not agree with, but the idea behind this is to help parents realize that we don’t always have the answers. We don’t always make the right choices, and that’s okay. We are not infallible beings and are therefore not exempt from being wrong. We do our best, and hope it all works out. In the end, I do hope that you take something positive from this; something you can reflect upon if ever you find yourself lost, or at wits end.
Part I: Making Mistakes.
My partner Wendy and I were married in August of 2001. We settled into a quaint little house in her hometown, where most of her family had lived for generations. It was a great experience, being on our own for the first time. No real responsibilities; nothing tying us down. We made our way into the real world, with nothing but the rest of our lives ahead of us. The idea of having kids was already working its way to the forefront and, even though we were living for the moment, Wendy often hinted at the idea of expanding our family.
Our first child, a daughter, came along just two years into our marriage. Although I wasn’t ready to be a father at that time (who really is?), I took the responsibility seriously and soon found parenthood to be extremely rewarding. She was born premature, and we had a few issues to deal with; nonetheless, she was an easy baby. Still, it was a trying time for all of us. We had a lot to learn as first-time parents, and Zoe had the entire world to discover. Sure, there were bumps and hiccups here and there, along with many sleepless nights, but among all the trying things came the good: random hugs, hearing her say Mama and Dada for the first time, the giggles at bath time, tickle fights and so on. That first year I learned what “family” was all about, and I loved it.
Then, along came our son who was born on August 8, 2004 ―the day my world changed. I had a son! My name would live on, as my son would continue my legacy. We became the standard two-child family, and I believed that things were picking up, getting better. The picket fence was in the near future, and we were quite stable financially. What could be better? Instead, family life would soon become very tense, and demanding. That is not to say that our lives were bad. Home life was still good. My personal stress levels however, went up tenfold, and my family would be affected by that.
So what exactly changed?
My wife Wendy and I both have different opinions about this, but I always believed that our children were drastically different. As an infant, our daughter Zoe was quiet, didn’t cry much and was easy to console. As a toddler, Zoe was quite calm, and an early speaker. She knew her colors, and began reading at a fairly young age. In contrast, as a baby Kailer often cried, and was sometimes inconsolable. During his toddler years, he often seemed to be distracted and had difficulty speaking. Indeed, he had a limited vocabulary and would never repeat after us. He possessed an endless amount of energy and couldn’t sit still for more than a few minutes at a time. What’s more, he would never look you in the eye. Although we managed to struggle through the first few years of this pretty solidly, it was nonetheless an incredibly frustrating period.
With the birth of my son, came the storm, and I will admit that I hadn’t been ready for it. I wasn’t a gifted parent. Blessed with an easy first child, I was forced to learn a whole new set of skills to deal with my second, which was quite distressing. I was taken out of my comfort zone, and I began feeling somewhat neglected of all things. I felt that Wendy was spending more time with Kailer and giving him more attention. Indeed she was, but with good reason.
And here comes the beginning of the string of mistakes I would start making: I began to force a wedge between my son and me, so that I could become closer to my wife ―to bring things back to the way they were. My son was slowly taking my place in the family hierarchy, and I was being set aside. Instead of remaining tolerant, I was slowly becoming indignant and demanding. Of course, I was a manly man; therefore, I decided to set my feelings aside, opting for evasion rather than discussion. This, my friends, is the biggest error you could ever make. Nothing good ever comes from silence. I knew how to feel, to have emotions, to laugh or cry. But to talk about those feelings was absurd to me. It was easier to hide than to risk being embarrassed. The reality is that we would have only grown closer as a couple and as a family if I would have had the inner strength to express myself in a clear and correct manner.
Keep in mind that this was a slow process; the issues came along one by one. Child care, doctor visits, unforeseen expenses, renovations. Being responsible for more than just me and Wendy was taking its toll. I seemed to be losing myself in this mixing pot of life, though I hardly recognized that back then. Spending time with friends became a chore as most of them were still childless. They didn’t seem to understand that a good-night sleep had become a luxury. So, our situation could have best been described as “the average Canadian family”: we had two kids, a nice house and a few cats. Eventually, my wife would opt for staying at home and I would remain in the workforce, becoming the breadwinner. Wendy, in contrast, would be the primary caregiver, contributing in more ways than I could ever imagine.
The plan was sound. So what could go wrong?
As I mentioned before, my son suffers from ADHD and Dyslexia. A common combination, it would seem, and one that is extremely difficult to handle when you don’t know anything about either condition ―conditions my son got diagnosed with only years later. Meanwhile, we were trying our best to figure him out (to find ways to manage him), to solve the mystery of our four-year-old son. However, the exertion would take its toll on us both. Sleepless nights came more often, and I felt that I couldn’t keep up with the pace. I was on the verge of becoming mentally and physically exhausted, burned out. Things that I would normally have shrugged off started to affect me personally, and for the first time in my life I felt weak or, rather weakened. I had always prided myself on being strong, and at one point in my life I could have been described as a gym addict. So this new feeling of weakness, of being helpless to some extent, was new and uncomfortable. I began to compensate by challenging those thoughts and feelings rather than nurturing them. Strictly speaking, I didn’t accept the situation at hand. I didn’t accept that I needed help as much as my son did, and because of that, I was slowly changing into someone else. Wendy would later describe me as being “a real jerk-face, and not at all easy to live with”. She was right.
Generally speaking, it was when Kailer first started going to school that we really began to notice exactly how different he was from his classmates. It must be said that when I say “we”, it really means “my wife”. Even though I knew my son to be hyperactive, and somewhat immature, I never thought he had a definite or “real” problem. As a child, I had been a late speaker too, and I remember having some issues with school work, but I considered myself an average child. To me, the suggestion that my child was not normal, or not average, didn’t sit well. I must admit that as a father I felt somewhat inadequate. I didn’t realize the magnitude of the problem despite my wife’s assertions that Kai had substantial issues. I labeled him as “just a boy – he’ll grow out of it”, and that “he was just like everyone else”.
By now, I think you all realize what was going on. Academically, Wendy and I were dealing with an above average daughter and an under achieving son. On the one hand, we had a daughter who followed the rules, played fair, read at advanced levels, and exhibited no behavioral problems whatsoever. On the other hand, our son could barely read, had difficulties concentrating, and was incredibly hard to control. He would often become overexcited, to the point where it was almost impossible to calm down without having to shout at him. At this point I began comparing the two together, wondering how they could be so different. Eventually, that would lead me to compare my son to his classmates and notice how different he was from them. I should have accepted that he was simply different ―a unique individual with his own strengths and weaknesses― that he was his own person with real problems that time would not fix. I should have accepted that my children were (and still are) two different beings who should never have been put into the same category. So parents, fathers, mothers; lend me your ears! If you do this, beware. It will lead you down a dark and sad path. Do not compare your children to each other, or to anyone else. It is wrong, and no good can come out of it. Do not think that just because apples and oranges are fruit, they necessarily taste the same.
So, to conclude part 1, I want to say that I made a lot of mistakes. Making mistakes is part of growing up, and remains an integral part of my life. It’s impossible to be perfect, so you either learn to live with it, or continue to fail. I started out with the best of intentions, but soon found out that family life was not as easily managed as I had expected it to be. As a parent, I needed to be flexible and adaptable without becoming hyper masculine. I needed to be open to new ways of doing things, of seeing things, without needing to be the Alpha Male. The family nucleus needs to consist of interdependent people, where they can all safely rely on one another, from time to time. There is no domineering force. There is no weakness in asking for help. It is not weak to speak of your failures. It is not a failure to recognize your need to change. Thankfully, I understood this in time to rescue myself from those deep and dark thoughts. Although it would take a lot of work on my part, my efforts would not go unrewarded.
But I’ll talk about that later. Until then, have fun and love one another.
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