There was more than enough suffering to go around. For the most part, the shock and awe of the original diagnosis had worn off as 49 fathers of special needs children shared their stories at the annual conference of the Washington State Fathers Network in Seattle on October 11.
Most men embrace the role of problem solvers and want to solve the problems of their child’s special needs. But it’s not that simple. The disability is a gritty and unwelcome reality that brings up difficult feelings that are hard to talk about.
For most men, it’s ok to be angry but the sadness and the worry of day-to-day life just sticks in our throats. As the men on the opening panel discussion struggled to give voice to their experiences, it seemed that everyone’s heart opened as they listened.
This typical difficulty voicing feelings is often the root of male depression and a huge problem in relationships. The diagnosis was not wanted or expected; nonetheless, these guys had fallen in love with their children all over again. Despite and even because of the trauma of diagnosis, accepting a child drastically different from the one expected often makes incredible growth possible.
Learning to speak and listen from the heart can bring us so much closer to our families. Sharing our experiences- whether they are the heartbreaking frustrations or the little breakthroughs and celebrations- is the best medicine for the isolation which is so profound at the beginning of this journey.
During an open mic session, one man shared that his 18 year old son with autism had just failed his driver’s test. He is determined to pass next time. Learning to drive was a small inconceivable miracle when his son was in early intervention.
The father of a medically fragile daughter with cerebral palsy who is not able to speak shared his anger about the birth injury. In his next breath, he bragged about how his daughter is 100 pages ahead of the rest of her mainstream class in math.
Another man’s feelings emerged in telling the story of how his son with Down syndrome took over the top bunk when his older brother went away to college. The conversation asking for permission between his sons confirmed their brotherhood and touched everyone listening.
Everyday, children with special needs teach parents profound lessons. That growth from the original trauma forges a loving identity we can be proud of.