Once you’ve figured out how to parent a child with special needs on your own so that they’re safe and getting the resources they need to achieve their full potential, there’s someone else you might want to start thinking about. You.
Maybe with all that goes on in your household – endless doctors’ appointments, sleepless nights, major meltdowns on a daily basis – it’s time to find some happiness for yourself. After all, a happy parent makes for a happier child. Wanting to find love again is not selfish, it’s self-preservation.
The dating world, however, can be a confusing and frustrating place. In the best of circumstances, merging two lives can be complicated. And if you’re the single parent of a child with special needs, there is a long list of things to consider before you bring someone new into the family: What should a single parent of a child with special needs be looking for in a mate? When and how do you tell a potential partner about your child’s disabilities? How long should you wait before introducing them? What if your child doesn’t accept the new relationship? What if your new partner can’t handle the type of life you’re living? Should you give up on love because of your child’s needs?
Absolutely not, says Suzanne Stevenson, Family Life Education program manager at The Parenting Center in Fort Worth. Stevenson suggests imagining each individual and task you’re responsible for – children, job, church activities – as a drinking glass. “You are the pitcher full of water, and you pour into all the glasses to fill them,” she says. “If the pitcher is not replenished with water, everyone will eventually be dry. It is necessary to replenish yourself so that you can give to others.”
Pursuing personal happiness is a worthwhile investment, adds Deborah Cashen, a certified family life educator and president of Parenting Partnerships, which counsels and educates families. “Taking care of a child with special needs can be a very demanding, stressful and emotionally draining experience, and somehow, we have to find some kind of emotional support,” she says. “If you had a child who did not have special needs, would you let that child control your life?”
Lisa Matlock, a divorced mother of two in Fort Worth who does administrative work for the government, knows all about the trials of dating. Her younger son Darrion, 9, has moderate autism, which was diagnosed six years ago. “He has speech delays, which is a major problem,” she says. “He does communicate his wants and needs, but as far as a conversation, we’re not getting that right now.
“Going shopping is no fun,” she adds, “because he’ll wander off. Often, he doesn’t sleep through the night, so I’m up two or three times.”
Two years after his diagnosis, when Matlock saw what her life was like, she asked herself, who would ever take this on?
“It’s driving me insane, so how could I ask another person to come in and love my kids when there were days when I didn’t care for them very much?” she says with a laugh. “I’ve adjusted to it, but somebody might think this is no way to live.”
Yet a year ago, Matlock’s decision to forget about ever finding love again was turned upside down when she met a wonderful man. “Even on the first date, I was letting him know what he’s in for; I was in my mommy mode,” she recalls. “I thought we’d just stay friends after I told him how things were, but he just kept pursuing the relationship.”
Soon, Matlock was inviting her new boyfriend to the house for pizza, and the boys seemed to accept him being around. “Darrion became comfortable enough to reveal more and more of his personality,” she says. “My boyfriend has seen him have tantrums, and he’s been there when we’ve tried to go places, then Darrion cried and cried and cried and we had to leave. Yet he’s stuck around. But I still have some concerns, because when he’s there, Darrion says, ‘Go home, go home.’ He doesn’t like that intrusion into his space. Hopefully, it’s just a time thing.”
Take your time
Because of the emotional loss that parents go through when their marriage ends, it’s normal to feel the need for companionship and validation, Cashen says. But when you have a child with special needs, it’s important to move very slowly and not jump right into the dating game.
“Depending on what their special needs are, this may create a tremendous emotional challenge for your child; it does for children who do not have special needs,” Cashen says. “So we ask that parents give their children time to get used to the fact that they’re now being parented in two homes, if that’s the case. Parents have to re-establish a healthy relationship with their child before they go out and try to introduce another significant adult.”
Cashen says that research recommends waiting six months before you try to introduce a new adult into the family, even if it’s just a casual dating situation.
Trying to decide how much personal information about your family situation to reveal in new relationships is always tricky, Stevenson adds. The timing will depend on how you believe the other person will react.
“Your situation may scare some people, because there are still many misconceptions and misunderstandings about people with special needs,” she explains. “A couple of dates may give you insight into the person’s ability to empathize and understand those who are different from themselves.”
Figuring out the best time to share your story also ensures neither of you invests in a relationship that cannot embrace the complete package of your family.
Cashen points out that parenting a child with special needs means there will surely be dates that are canceled or times when you’re not available, so honesty is always a good policy. “Your child’s needs have to come first,” she says. “I think people operate better when they know what they’re operating with. Be upfront before it gets too serious. I think that parents of children with special needs need to trust their intuition on that.”
What if your child is uncomfortable with any kind of change, to the point that the slightest deviation in her routine triggers an all-out tantrum? In these cases, Cashen recommends working with professionals – your child’s teacher or school counselor – to help the child understand what’s going on.
“The more preparation they have, the better they’re able to accept something,” she says. “Of course, it depends on the severity of the disability or challenge. There are some children with autism that no matter what you do, it’s not going to make a difference. If they’re high-functioning, it makes all the difference.”
If your child does not deal well with change or new people, consider introducing a partner through a photograph first, Stevenson suggests. If your child uses sign language, teach your date a few greetings and reply signs your child knows in advance of their meeting.
“Also, be sure to prepare your date for any sensory issues that your child may have, so they’re not embarrassed or uncomfortable by accidentally breaching those sensory boundaries,” she adds.
Taking the next step
After a year of adjustments and lots of patient discussion, Matlock and her boyfriend are planning their future. “We’re talking about perhaps getting married. He has grown to love my children, and I’m very happy about that,” she says, adding that single parents who are about to embark on the dating rollercoaster should make sure their potential partner is trustworthy.
“Tell them slowly about what your situation is. If they decide to hang around, bring them in gradually,” she says. “My partner always says that our relationship should come first, and that everything else will just fall together. He’s definitely brought a light to my life.”