When my wife Leslie and I had our second child, we knew intuitively — the way I think all parents do — that picking favorites was a no-no. But, as children grow and get involved in activities, there’s a pairing off that has to occur. At least to an extent. An, “I’ll take X, and you take Y” kind of thing.
This ensures that each child has the same opportunities to do the activities they love. It also allows the collective parental unit to be in two places at once.
And if we found ourselves pairing off with the same child over and over again, we attempted to mix that up. We did this not to just balance the opportunities we gave our children, but to balance the time we each individually spent with each child. If I seemed to be taking one to dance or softball more frequently, and Leslie was taking the other to therapies or Kindermusik, we swapped. Balance was important to us.
Somewhere along the way, Leslie received a cancer diagnosis.
She slowly declined over the course of about six years until she passed away. And over the course of that time, her ability to “pair off” dwindled. And eventually, through no fault of hers, I became the sole caregiver of the kids until the cancer took over. She died two years ago.
And whether it was due to grief, stress, or the sheer limited nature of time, I stopped balancing at some point.
Lily, my younger daughter, has autism. Her needs are significant. There are therapies to attend, meetings, doctors’ appointments, tests, and follow-ups. And everywhere she goes, I remain.
There’s no “drop her off and pick her up later.” Emma, my older daughter, just needs a ride. A ride to work. A ride home. A ride to dance. A ride back. And somewhere in there, I need to get things done — the cooking, the laundry, the lawn.
Recognizing the imbalance
I found myself catering to Lily’s wants to the exclusion of Emma’s: Lily’s television choices, her music, where she goes in the house. It was easier to cave in to her demands so that I could focus on dinner or laundry than it was to fight the fight.
Emma, for her part, good-naturedly played on her phone or spent time in her room. She’s a teenager. Some of that’s to be expected. But eventually I realized, I’m not really parenting either of them. I leave Emma to her own devices, let Lily hold the TV hostage, and do housework. I’m the maid in a household my children are managing.
And yes, there are a lot of reasons why being a single parent makes it hard. But, ultimately, the main reason my focus drifted is … it’s easier.
I realized a few months ago that I hadn’t really seen Emma in about a week. She began making plans with friends. She had a job. She had dance. She had school. Certainly all those things are a normal part of a teenager growing up, and I don’t want or need to eliminate any of them. But there was something missing in all that: me.
As she grows, her time at home and in my care necessarily lessens. We raise our children to leave us. (At least that’s the idea.) And when Emma goes off to college (please, let her get into college), I expect she’ll find a job and move out of the house.
And as she becomes more and more independent and starts making more decisions on her own, I hope that the confidence she builds creates a strong sense of pride and independence. But, this is it. I’ve got a limited amount of time left with her and I need to make the most of it. I need to guide that process.
How I’m trying to repair that imbalance
Having a child with special needs doesn’t mean your other child has “no” needs. It doesn’t even mean your other child has “fewer” needs. It just means that your other child has … “other” needs. “Different” needs.
There may never be a perfect balance. But there needs to be an attempt. Here’s mine:
Step 1: Recognize the disparity
I’ve been too content to allow Lily to dictate terms during the day and call the hours after she’s gone to bed as “our time” for Emma and me. If Lily watches “The Wiggles,” then Emma needs an opportunity to watch something next. I need to fight that fight. I need to deal with the stress and struggle of being a good parent.
There’ll never come a time when I’ll run out of laundry to do. But my time at home with my daughter will come to an end. I need to prioritize accordingly.
Step 2: Schedule the time
We both have work. We both want to make time for friends. But … we can schedule time away from home, together. Smartphones and daily planners help us with our other commitments. They can also be the tools to help us with this.
Step 3: Meet her on her own turf
We should spend our time together doing what Emma wants to do, instead of what Lily can tolerate. That doesn’t mean abandoning the time we spend all together as a family — that’s equally important!
But this is different. Movies, camping, shopping, dinner, miniature golf, bowling, amusement parks … these can be big-time commitments, but that’s what schedules are for. It can’t be passive time. It has to be active. No phones (except for social media shares, obviously).
Step 4: Follow through
Establish a routine. Help her understand this isn’t a flash in the pan. This is something she and I do together, just the two of us. It’s important to me. Maybe it won’t be every week. But it’s the new routine.
My time with my kids is limited
Last week, Emma and I went to the mall. We shopped, talked, laughed, and grabbed a bite to eat at the food court. It was long overdue. She’s probably been to the mall more than a dozen times in the past six months, always with friends, but never with me.
She asked if we could take a road trip. That’s next. We’ll take a day and drive someplace. We’ll stop and take pictures and spend the night in another city.
School starts in six weeks. Routines will change. Homework will dominate her nightly schedule again. A play or musical will eat away at whatever free time she has left after dance and homework. But we’ll carve our time out. I’ll do a better job of balancing my time between her and her sister.
Learning to make time for all of your children doesn’t happen overnight. The hardest part will be staying consistent and establishing the new routine. I’ve spent two years establishing this passive stance. Taking her out to the movies isn’t going to fix it.
She doesn’t have “special needs,” but her needs are special to me. It’s time to prove that to her.
Jim Walter is the author of , where he chronicles his adventures as a single dad of two daughters, one of whom has autism. You can follow him on Twitter at .