Special needs stepdad gets what he signed up for: Love, learning and laughter

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 night.

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 them.

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 him.”

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 pants.

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