“I just know that when I chose to answer my child’s call to ‘come out and play,’ I began to travel down one of the most rewarding roads I have ever traveled ... I have talked with hundreds of dads. One thing we all have in common is the sense of the loss of the dream we had of what our child may do and be … I have learned to take life at a little slower pace. I understand so much better the stages of development and how each builds on the next. You will hear a lot of us say that our children have made us much better fathers than if we had not experienced this world of disabilities.”
Family Connection of South Carolina9
Experts note that parents of children with special needs often experience grief as they struggle to adapt to their situation. Different kinds of grief exist, and fathers should understand there is not a “typical” grief process. Fatherhood programs have an opportunity to help fathers of children with special needs cope with grief that may stem from living in vastly different circumstances from what they might have anticipated. In her poem “Welcome to Holland,”10 Emily Perl Kingsley compares the experience to planning a fabulous vacation in one place, but then having to get accustomed to being somewhere very different. She pointed out that “the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever, go away because the loss of that dream is a very significant loss,” but if you spend your life mourning you may never be free to enjoy the special things about your new destination. Practitioners can help both fathers and mothers navigate what can ultimately be a rewarding journey of resilience.
“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door we do not see the one which has been opened to us.”
Helen Keller, Author and Activist11
“[There are] two tasks for a family with a new diagnosis: first, you must make a place for the disability in your family; second, you must put the disability in its place.”
Bill Doherty, Professor, University of Minnesota12
Ways to Help Dads Cope:
- Offer men support to understand and feel they “are not in this alone.”
- Look for opportunities to connect them with other fathers, particularly those who have had similar experiences.
- Set up social occasions for fathers to meet, exchange ideas, and promote father involvement with their child.
- Schedule father-and-child activities that enable fathers to spend time with, and learn from, other dads and their children.
- Host informal meals or social events to offer a non-threatening environment where men can develop contacts for ongoing support.
- Plan family-friendly activities where both fathers and mothers can get tips from other parents, observe family interactions, and experience a fun time that can increase fathers’ confidence in their parenting and relationship abilities.
- Use strength-based terms such as “fathers’ network” or “coach” rather than “support group” or “parent support.”
- Help men recognize that they cannot “fix” health problems or disabilities, but can take action to improve outcomes for their children. For instance, they can learn how to navigate the Medicaid and healthcare systems and take advantage of various tax breaks.
- Research information on local, state, and national resources; develop partnerships with local organizations that support families with children with special needs; and share relevant information to help fathers with specific issues.
- Engage dads in activities and discussions that focus on identifying and understanding special needs and learning how to help a child who has challenges.
- Encourage fathers to communicate with schools and healthcare providers to avoid feeling like they have to rely on second-hand information from mothers.
- Highlight couples communication. Mothers often are at the center of child-related activities, which may contribute to maternal burnout and the father feeling like a student who must learn and take cues from the mother. Couples workshops or counseling may help mothers and fathers share the work and strengthen their bond.
- Help fathers acknowledge their emotions so they can deal with their grief and strengthen their family relationships.
- Fathers of children with special needs can benefit from a general fatherhood group, particularly if staff are trained and aware of helpful resources. Support groups, either in person or online, with fathers in similar situations also can be beneficial for dads with unique needs.
- Work with local fathers to start a support group if one does not yet exist in your community for fathers with children with special needs.