If you're divorced, you know all too well about the numerous studies of how divorce impacts kids; what we rarely hear about is how children impact their parents' marriage. Not how tired, worried and poorer kids make us (and, yes, they do all of that), but what happens when things don't go according to plan -- like when a child has a chronic illness, special needs or dies.
"I just want my baby to be healthy," is what most parents-to-be declare. "Ten fingers, 10 toes." Still, many of us get amniocentesis, CVS, AFP and a host of other prenatal tests, which not only force us to face the reality that things go wrong sometimes, but also that we can control it.
But not always. Having a baby is what Forrest Gump's momma said about life; just like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get. Autism, Asperger's, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, bipolar disorder, cancer -- there are any number of things that can challenge a parent's idea of what raising a child will be like.
Marriage may be trying on its own but throw any of those into it and it's not too surprising that a good portion of those families often end up divorced. The percentages are all over the map, but statistics mean little when you're living with it every day.
Just look at former Playboy model and actress Jenny McCarthy. A few years ago McCarthy created rumbles on Oprah when she talked about how her son Evan's autism strained her marriage to producer John Mallory Asher, who wasn't too interested in dealing with his son's condition. "I felt very alone in my marriage," she said.
So McCarthy divorced him. Her advocacy and best-selling books, Louder Than Words: A Mother's Journey in Healing Autism and Mother Warriors: A Nation of Parents Healing Autism Against All Odds brought to light the high rate of divorce within the autism community -- as high as 80 percent. Although that number has been disputed, it helped spur the National Autism Association to create a program to help families with autistic children afford marital counseling. The program has since run out of funds.
Parents of kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) don't fare much better; they're nearly twice as likely to divorce by the time the child is age 8 than are couples whose kids aren't ADHD. And ADHD and other chronic conditions are on the rise for kids.
Sometimes those chronic conditions result in a child's death, but there's a disturbingly high rate of youth suicides, too. About 16 percent of parents who lose a child end up divorcing, according to Compassionate Friends, a national organization that offers support for grieving parents.
About the only childhood challenge that doesn't destroy families is Down syndrome, most likely because of the "Down syndrome advantage" -- Down syndrome kids are somewhat easier to raise than typical kids, studies show. But since more than 90 percent of fetuses that test positive for Down syndrome are aborted, the parents who decide to raise a Down syndrome child know what they've signed up for, and they've agreed to do it together.
And that may be key, experts say. Spouses may have different ways of handling grief, shame, anger, sadness and frustrations but they shouldn't "pass judgment on each other for having a different emotional style," says Laura Marshak, co-author of Married with Special-Needs Children. "But if there is no bridge to connect with each other as two individuals, marriages are often at greater risk."
I remember running into a father just a few months before his child died from incurable cancer. "Nothing else matters," he said when I asked how his family was doing. Maybe that's how some people make things work; they focus on other things than the niggling minutiae so many couples fight about. Instead of tearing spouses apart, it brings them together.
But that doesn't mean it's easy. As tough as it may be, however, doing it on your own -- and a good portion of special needs kids live with single moms -- is that much harder and may even have additional challenges. Just ask Jenny McCarthy. "I felt, as I'm sure many mothers with children who have autism feel, 'Who in the heck is going to love me with my child who has autism?'" she told Oprah. "I don't care how big your boobs are or blond your hair is, you're going to feel that way."
And I do remember a fleeting thought like that the year my son's OCD reached its all-time high. OCD can be so absurd that sometimes my son -- then a teen with a cocky sense of self-awareness -- and I could laugh about it. But there were times when I felt like I was losing my mind. Luckily, perhaps, I was already divorced, so I didn't lose my marriage, too.