Is shared parenting in a special needs family possible?

With the same jarring sense of realization that I’ve left a load of laundry rotting in the washing machine, this Sunday’s Boston Globe article Learning to Share reminded me of my intention, pledged back in the last millennium, to equally share the parenting load when I became a mother. What’s shared parenting? As the article so aptly puts it, “it’s the difference between being willing to drop off the enrollment form for summer camp and realizing, months ahead of time, that the right camp must be found; between picking up a box of Huggies on request and knowing when supplies are running low.” It may sound tricky (and according to the article, it is) and maybe it isn’t everyone’s dream, but when I read the article, I remembered that it had been mine.

In the idealistic-yet-oblivious flash of social justice insight that only 20-something’s get, it was obvious to me that if I wanted my future daughter to be able to balance a family and a career, I would have to do it first. And with almost eerie prescience, I sensed that simply learning to juggle more wasn’t going to cut it; equal opportunity would start in the home, and that meant shared parenting, not just being a mom who could bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.

Looking up from my coffee cup twenty years later, I realize things aren’t quite what I planned. Influenced by aptitude, interest or culture, when my husband and I divide household chores, we party like it’s 1959. Him: breadwinning, carpentry, car repair, pay the bills, IT service, comparison-shop for large household purchases, mow the lawn, kill vermin, assemble the tent, load the bike rack on the car. Me: cook, grocery shop, laundry, clean, de-clutter, mend (well, feel guilty about not mending), volunteer for PTA, buy teacher gifts, do all gardening except mow the lawn, schedule playdates, shop for back-to-school clothes.

Having a child with special needs seems to cement the roles even further. It’s fairly common to have a “case worker/bread winner” division of labor in special needs families, a la Kristina and Adam Braverman in Parenthood. (Love it or hate it, but that show and its companion blog nail my experience as special needs parent in so many ways.) In our family, I’m the one who schedules appointments with our son’s eight doctors and three therapists, chauffeurs to therapies, spearheads IEP meetings, special orders medication and medical supplies, badgers the insurance company, keeps track of the big picture in both kids’ development. Perhaps it’s possible to split this work down the middle, but I honestly can’t see how. In my son’s case there is simply so much information to keep track of and synthesize that my husband and I would spend as much time getting each other up-to-speed as doing the work itself. To make it possible for me to do this, my husband gets to take on the high-stress role of sole breadwinner while keeping up with one heck of a honey-do list. (Is it my fault that he’s the only one who knows how to solder?) We both work incredibly hard, but we are definitely not sharing parenting. I don’t even think this is strictly a gender thing; I’d wager money that same-sex special needs parent couples find themselves in the same bind.

Reading that article, I felt a little disappointed in myself. Somewhere deep inside I’m still that idealistic young woman who hoped to change the system instead of punting the problem forward to the next generation. Caught in a daily grind of unloading the dishwasher and reading neuropsychological evaluations, it became so easy to lose sight of that.

Without creating unnecessary pressure to hold myself to ever increasingly impossible standards, I want to continue to think about this. I would love to hear from other families (especially one who understand the challenges that special needs add to the mix) on how they share parenting. I need some good role models and some inspiration. And maybe simply some hope. Am I the only person thinking about this?