I don’t know that it’s easy for any couple to decide to have a second child, especially while the first one is still screaming through half of the night. From the moment I knew that our first child was a boy, I wanted to try for a girl. Wifey wasn’t entirely convinced.
When we got DarMar’s cerebral palsy diagnosis, around his first birthday, we thought twice. When it took Dar until 17 months to walk, we thought twice again. As more months passed and Dar seemed uninterested in talking or communicating in any way, we thought twice all the time.
How much was the increased risk? Most sources we read claimed that if your first child is special-needs, the odds of the second one being special-needs are about twenty percent. I wasn’t sure I believed that number; how would they really know? I joined two different special-needs email groups at that time – and my opening emails were like “Hi everyone, great to be here, thanks in advance for your support. Little question just to get the ball rolling. Has anyone here tried for a second child after knowing that the first was special needs?” I got a weird combination of HI WELCOMEs! and crickets. Lots of parents of special-needs kids chimed in to mention their other, neurotypically functioning kids, but none of them said they’d chosen to have them with quite our set of reasons to fear the worst. By decision time, we suspected Dar’s autism, even if we didn’t have the formal diagnosis (which is generally postponed until the child is 2, anyway).
Wifey and I talked and talked. Someone has to have special-needs kids, plural. Why not us? We could look at it like doing a lifetime of training and then only attending one Olympics. At that point, with your considerably expanded skill set, shouldn’t you go for two? Wifey came up with her own percentage; she said that if the second child was special-needs, that wouldn’t double our troubles, but only make things perhaps ten percent worse. I wondered.
And what exactly were our expectations for Numero Dos? If we were honest, we had to admit that those were hardly the same as they’d been for Numero Uno. On some level that was difficult to talk about, we wanted support from #2. We hoped that #2 could help out the older brother a little bit. Maybe look out for him, maybe teach him things. In an ideal world, maybe serve as a little baseline – perhaps DarMar would find it hard to regress past the point of a hypothetical neurotypical sibling. (If and when the sibling got 50 words, Dar would have an extra competitive reason to use those words; if and when the sibling got 200 words, perhaps Dar would at least try to keep up with him/her.) And really, the most important reason: to help manage Dar’s affairs after their parents are dead. We know it’s hardly fair to demand that a neurotypical adult keep a room in one’s house for one’s disabled brother, but assuming we provide all the relevant money, at least this hypothetical neurotypical sibling might check up on Dar in some institution to be sure he’s not being terribly mistreated.
As a side issue, I did think about how this looked to outsiders. Would we be those crazy parents who had an autistic child and dared to have another? Is that like putting Colin Farrell in yet another movie thinking THIS one will finally be his hit? Were we refusing to learn from mistakes? My wife and I weren’t that old – not yet 40. But would people look at us for the rest of our lives and say “They should have known better”?
I did, I do, have moments of despair. Was I going to live my life without experiencing real parenthood? After wanting to be a father my whole life? After everyone telling me what a great Dad I would make? I once told a friend of mine, after his 2-year-old was diagnosed with autism (but before mine was), “You still get to show him the world. They can’t take that away from you.” I thought I was being clever. I was wrong. They can take that away from you. They can leave you nothing but the crying. Some kids don’t look at things that you point at; some kids don’t know you. No matter how much parental love you bring to the table, some kids aren’t a child to be enjoyed but a situation to be managed. Did we really want to sign up for a second situation?
All my life, I felt myself on the outside looking in. People always seemed to have things I didn’t – looks, love, money, a better education, you name it. It’s no coincidence that after the time I let go of jealous feelings and learned to love myself came the time when I met the woman who became my wife. When DarMar was born, it was part of the happiest few years of my life. Were we being punished for hubris? Was that window of happiness closing? Would I, could I now be jealous again, and forever?
I was on the outside again, facing a Hobson’s Choice that 95% of my parent friends couldn’t possibly understand. Or perhaps they could? Maybe it was time for me to stop saying things like “parents of special-needs kids are to parents of neurotypical kids as parents of neurotypical kids are to non-parents. You know, like, ‘oh, sure, right, you think you get it but you don’t, maybe someday.’” Maybe. Well, that’s why the blog is here, and why it’s this honest.
In the end, as many of you know, we went for it. We chose life. Wifey got pregnant again. We had Dar’s brother. He will be two years old in May. And now?
Well…the jury is still out. #2 does a lot of things well, but his speech is rather delayed, to the point where he’s in speech therapy. There are a few other weird signs. I almost didn’t write this post, because I have more reason than most parents to believe in jinxes. But…#2 is at least different. He’s not DarMar. I could name 100 reasons that’s true, but here’s a few. He brings us things. He runs to one of us the moment we enter a room, he cries the moment we’re leaving. He points to things (well, he gestures, but that’s more than Dar). He says no, without doubt, and he kinda-sorta says a few other choice words, kinda-sorta including “daddy.” He laughs when Wifey and I laugh, even and especially when he couldn’t possibly get it. He wants to imitate us, and those simple five words – “He” “wants” “to” “imitate” “us” – may turn out to be the greatest blessing of my little life on this planet.
And #2 loves his brother. He follows him, he touches him, even though Dar rarely notices him. And…lo and behold…Dar is doing things he never did, or forgot about. Dar loved puzzles, then hated them, then saw his brother loving them, and now he seems to like them again even when #2 isn’t around. Dar is petting the dog after seeing his brother do it. Dar jumps and wants spins now.
There was a guy named Rick, owned a bar in Morocco. He got his heart broken, not unlike myself. But after the dust settled, he looked around, and things weren’t as bad as all that. I look at Dar and his brother, and I remember the last thing I heard Rick say. “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”