September 17, 2019

Special dads

Parenting a child doesn’t just change the way a dad thinks, it literally changes his brain. New research from the Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University in Israel discovered that fathers (heterosexual or gay) who are the primary caregiver experience an increase in activity in their amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for vigilance and reward, causing them to experience parental emotions similar to those typically experienced by mothers. Although the study didn’t look at fathers who are actively engaged with their infants who have special needs, I’m sure their brain scans would be even more fascinating. 

When a young child is first diagnosed with special needs, it is usually the mom who assumes the lead role. As a follow-up to an assessment or diagnosis, some type of therapy — often, multiple therapies — usually starts: Physical therapy for walking/large-motor movements, occupational therapy for small-motor movements and speech therapy, sometimes a whole early-intervention program. The mother is almost always the designated person who sets this all up and ensures that the child gets to the therapy sessions.

Once at therapy, mothers tend to talk to one another in waiting rooms, sharing tips, websites and other assistance. There are tons of special-needs mommy blogs in cyberspace, and between the in-person and virtual support, moms have multiple ways to connect with other mothers in similar situations.

It doesn’t take long for the special needs of the child to become the primary focus of the mother; for the moms who have jobs pre-diagnosis, most  reduce their work hours or leave their outside employment altogether. Not surprising  in these circumstances, dads most often focus on the finances and, to make up for the mother’s lost income, sometimes have to work longer hours or take a second job. 

Fathers also often face different emotional challenges than do the mothers of children with special needs. Greg Schell, director of the Washington State Fathers Network and father to an adult daughter with Down syndrome, wrote that “men learn from an early age that they must be tough when the chips are down. They’re encouraged to ‘suck it up’ and to fix any problem that comes their way. But when they learn they have a child with special needs, they face a dilemma when they realize that even the smartest minds in the world can’t change this new reality.”

Although there have been myths circulating that divorce rates can be as high as 80 percent in families affected by disability, the research shows a different and more nuanced story. For example, a University of Wisconsin study found that parents of children with autism had a nearly 24 percent chance of divorce, compared to parents who had children without special needs, who divorced about 14 percent of the time. Other studies have found that divorce rates vary based on the type of disability, with parents of a child with Down syndrome having a lower divorce rate than parents of a child with autism. 

It turns out a majority of the dads of kids with special needs are highly engaged parents. 

Researchers at Brigham Young University looked at 11,000 children born nationally in 2001 and found that when you compare fathers of a child without a disability with fathers of children with a disability, the latter were more involved with their children in activities such as singing them a song, telling them stories and reading to them. Interestingly, these are activities not directly related to caring for the child’s disability. That is, fathers seem to be electing to do more “bonding” types of activities with their children with disabilities. 

And some of these dads are blogging and sharing their experiences and feelings, giving other dads a way to reduce their isolation. There’s Rob Rummel-Hudson of Plano, Texas, author of a blog called “Fighting Monsters With Rubber Swords” and dad to Schuyler, who was diagnosed with a rare neurological condition that left her unable to speak. He chronicles her life, including when she hit puberty: “You have to forget about Fred Flintstone, Homer Simpson and the cast of every stupid ‘Tyler Perry Presents …’ show on TBS. Because I do whatever Schuyler needs me to do, and in the past that has included taking her to buy new bras. Yes, I realize that everyone’s comfort level will obviously be higher when Julie [Rummel-Hudson’s wife] takes the lead on this particular issue (there’s progressive, and then there’s pragmatic), but this isn’t something that’s permanently outside The Dad Zone. It’s ALL in The Dad Zone. When Schuyler needs help with this, if I’m the one here, then I’ll be the one to help her.”

I would be remiss not to give a shout-out to my own husband, Aron Wolf, who has earned his Super Dad title many times over: He has voluntarily sat through at least 200 viewings of “Finding Nemo” (memorizing most of the lines as well); has never missed a special-education meeting, even those from hell; and is email buddies with our neurologist. 

To him and to all the other amazing dads out there: Happy Father’s Day.