I remember feeling like a voyeur as I watched Heather give little Ben a bottle. The TV was turned off, the sky nearly black. The room felt safe, like the warm blanket in which Ben was lovingly wrapped. He grasped Heather’s fingers and played with each one (a sign, only in retrospect, of his autistic tendencies) while his mother held his bottle. This became their routine. The intimacy between mother and baby was beautiful to behold. But I was an observer, not a participant; or worse, an intruder.
Divorce is too frequently the outcome for families with an autistic child. But in my case, Ben’s autism was not the cause, only a contributing factor; remove it from the equation and our marriage would have remained on a slippery slope, sliding inexorably toward divorce.
Now I find myself a single dad living with my 81-year-old dad in the suburban home in which I was raised. I have the boys Thursday through Monday every other week. It’s taken me a while to develop my confidence, to find my way as a dad, but lately I have made considerable progress.
One example is the post-dinner routine, to which I am now well accustomed. It works something like this: I fill the tub and Ryan invariably whines that it’s too hot.
I get them in, give them a little play time, and then take a wash cloth over their lean bodies. At this point, it’s time for jammies, kisses for Papa, a book (on a good day), a little cuddle time, and lights out.
Except for one problem.
My boys are pretty much incapable of putting themselves to sleep. They require that I get under the covers with them and coax them to sleep. It can probably be traced to the fact that they regularly slept with their mother from day one, contrary to what most friends and family counseled us. During our marriage, while Heather was nestled with the boys, I was relegated to the guest bedroom. Once again, I was the intruder in my own home, or at any rate that’s the story I adopted. One time, when Heather was putting Ben down, I tried to crawl into bed for a brief family cuddling session. I sorely needed the connection with both of them, but Ben quickly rebuffed me: “Daddy, go.” I looked at my boy with disbelief. And then again: “Daddy, get out.” I made the long walk back to the downstairs bedroom with my tail between my legs.
The directness with which my two-year-old could banish me from my own bed, and his apparent disregard for my feelings, didn’t hurt as much as baffle me. For Ben, it wasn’t anything personal—it just happened that I was disrupting his nightly routine. That this behavior showed signs of trademark autism was completely lost on me. I just thought he was really into his mom. He was and is, of course. But he’s also really into his routine.
So here’s my dilemma: I’m finally ready to put the boys to bed, but they’re lobbying for me to get under the covers with them. That’s not ten years’ hard labor, as my mother used to say. On the other hand, I have writing to do, I’m facing deadlines and, truth be told, I want to watch a movie with my dad, which is our routine. If I close my eyes now, I’ll be down for the night.
It’s decision time. I tuck Ben and Ryan under the covers and try to sneak out of the room as unobtrusively as possible. Ben, a light sleeper like many kids with autism, is wide awake and senses my movements amid the darkness. Ben’s verbal communication is usually limited to practical one-word utterances. So it comes as a great surprise when, just as I am about to sneak away, he says, “Sleep with me, Daddy.” When you hear your little boy utter those simple, beautiful words, it’s hard to resist: the deal’s done. And the father who can resist doesn’t have his head or heart in the right place.
This little breakthrough causes my anxiety to recede—who cares now what challenges tomorrow brings? Accordingly, I get under the covers and immediately feel the warmth of Ben’s sun-bronzed body melt in my arms. Ryan doesn’t want to be left out, so he maneuvers to my side. It occurs to me that my boys are jockeying for position, competing for my attention – and for a long moment I relish the idea. There is no one else in the room with us—not their mother, not my father, not the lawyers, not the judge or jury: no one to witness this perfect, unguarded, somehow sacred moment but me and my maker. Ben and I hold each other in that fixed position throughout the night, our bodies wrapped in close embrace.
The silver lining of my divorce is the empowerment being a single dad brings me, the increased responsibility that is demanded of me, and the rewards, for assuming that responsibility, that are mine alone to relish. I am no longer voyeur or intruder, second fiddle or second string. On Thursdays through Monday, twice a month, I am the center of my boys’ universe.