Doomed to Divorce?
Two hours after our daughter Penny was born, a nurse called my husband Peter out of the room. When he returned, his face looked different—sad, and kind, as if he didn't want to have to speak. But he sat down next to me and took my hand and said, "The doctors suspect that Penny has Down syndrome."
We both moved into a period of what I now see as transition and growth, and what felt back then like grief. Peter plunged into what he described as a pool of darkness, but he emerged quickly as a proud and grateful father of a beautiful little girl. My emotions ebbed and flowed between fierce love for our daughter, strong hope for our future, faith that God had a purpose and plan for our life as a family, and debilitating fear.
My fears ran the gamut, from Penny's health to our ability to care for her to our ability to love her to whether we could and should have other children to what other people would think of us. Then I circled through those fears around and around some more. I also wondered if I should fear for the health and stability of our marriage.
Doomed to divorce?
I had heard statistics about parents of children with disabilities in the past, and I remembered alarming rates of divorce. Those statistics didn't lead me to conclude that we might divorce, but they served as a flashing light warning: Danger Ahead!
As it turned out, though many writers still suggest that as many as 80 percent of marriages with children with special needs end in divorce, recent studies don't actually bear out this claim. In 2010, a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology demonstrated that the divorce rate for parents of children with autism is 24 percent. While this rate is 10 percent higher than that of the average family in this study, it is still a far cry from the 80 percent number that gets bandied about. Moreover, this study demonstrated a lower rate of divorce among parents of children with Down syndrome than the general population.
Statistically speaking, my marriage wasn't in danger. And on a more practical and personal level, we went into parenting with a lot of support in place. We had been married for six years when Penny was born. Both of us were active and growing Christians. We had good health insurance and we lived in a state with comprehensive early intervention and free preschool for children with special needs. My mother, a preschool teacher, offered to come down for one night each week both to have time with her granddaughter and also to give us time for a date night. And Peter's own mother had died two years before. The experience of her death prepared us well for the birth of our daughter.