The first time I knew my husband was going to be more than just
your average stepdad to my three special needs children was three
years ago when my oldest son lost his "transition item"-a small,
rubber toy bat from Halloween many months before. He carried that
bat everywhere-he ate with it, slept with it and just didn't feel
right if he didn't have it.
And then he lost his bat.
This was the first classic, colossal autism meltdown that my
now-husband, Rich, would experience:
"Where is my bat? I have lost my bat. There are no more bats. I
have zero bats. My bat is gone forever. I will never have my bat
again," with wailing and crying and titanic trauma over a
three-inch plastic bat. At one point, we looked into my son's room
and he was upside-down on his bed, standing on his head, screaming
about his bat.
Rich and I ducked into the hallway and we began to laugh.
Uncontrollably. And I felt such joy in that moment because I
normally would have felt stress and sorrow for my poor
anxiety-riddled son and now, I had an outsider checking my
perspective and helping me to see the humor in the situation.
An upside-down kid howling, "I have zero bats!" was pretty
funny. And, to this day, when we are stressed out, all we have to
say is, "I have zero bats," and our understanding is immediate.
The next day, Rich spent hours driving all over the suburbs
until he found a replacement bat. And his commitment to fulfilling
the needs-special and otherwise-of my three autistic sons has not
stopped since. With four children of his own who excel in every
possible way-school, sports, and socially-there was a real
adjustment for Rich when "learning" my kids. But Rich was a quick
and willing student because he loved me and he loved my kids, and
so his crash course in a real-life autism immersion program made
him an "expert" in no time.
In a short while, my children's classroom drawings placed Rich
at the head of our family. They referred to him as "my other dad"
to their teachers, and he came with me to take them to school and
speech therapy. He helped them with homework, bought school shoes
for them, taught them how to ride a bike and put them to bed at
He became a father to them in every imaginable way.
Because my children were born to me, whatever special challenges
my sons face, I face, because they are mine. But I am always so
fascinated (and grateful) that Rich just signed up for this,
without even flinching, knowing that it isn't easy.
Someone once told me that no one would ever marry me (again)
because my life was so complicated with three special needs sons.
And then here comes this guy, who not only volunteers for the job,
but ROCKS the job, better than I do on most days.
So when I asked him, "Why did you still want to marry me knowing
that I have three special needs kids?" he stopped laughing long
enough to answer.
"Don't be ridiculous," he said. "They may have just been your
kids before, but they are OUR kids now. And all seven of our kids
are the same to me, because they all have needs. Our oldest needs
sports to do his best, so we take him to football and soccer
practice. Our youngest needs therapy to do his best, so we take him
to speech and occupational therapy. Different kids with different
needs, but still OUR kids and always our job as their parents to
meet their needs. But it's the same job, either way."
Rich's capacity to simplify things helps us all. I complicate
things enough with my mommy-worry. When I am crying because my son
no longer gets invited to birthday parties, Rich simplifies the
situation: "Look at him; he is happy. He is SO happy. Be happy that
he is happy."
But it is the way he connects with my most "spectrum-y" son that
melts my heart. They have developed a secret language, nicknames
and rituals that even I am not part of.
For the better part of the last two years, Rich stayed at home
with all seven of our kids while I attended law school downtown.
And part of this "job" was teaching my three boys how to dress and
groom themselves. My 10-year-old would wear "soft pants" (sweat
pants) to school every day if you let him. So Rich instituted "Soft
Pants Fridays," and now my son knows exactly when he gets to wear
One day, when it was my turn to put the boys on the school bus,
I shepherded them into the bathroom to brush their hair. When I
peeked in to check on them, I found my eldest with a towel draped
around his shoulders. He had wetted his hair and was gently combing
it to one side. I started to cry. For years, I had been trying to
teach him how to do this. And there, in a perfectly quiet moment, I
saw that Rich had taught him what I never could manage.
Rich is, for my kids, the things that I cannot be. He is
patience and promise. He is exactly what I always wished for myself
and for my boys.
Before we were married, when we were covering all of the bases
about our future together, I said to Rich, "Are you sure you want
this? My son could be living with us forever, you know."
And he just laughed at me a little and said, "Good thing I like
And I can just see it, 20 years from now, the two of them on the
couch playing XBox together, eating pizza-and wearing their soft
Jennifer Wheeler Wood teamed up with her husband, Rich, to write this essay about their very special family.
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