At Holiday Time, Follow Your Heart

After a tense pre-Thanksgiving dinner out, our young son climbed into my soon-to-be ex’s station wagon and they left for five days. Staring at the setting sun from the parking lot, I realized I’d be alone the whole time.  My family lived far away, my friends were busy and I was too proud to interrupt anyway. My mood fell into the classic single’s “nobody cares if I live or die” feeling. Drifting around town that Saturday, I bought a sparkly white almost-prom dress with lipstick-red flowers, a discount-rack promise that I wasn’t dead yet and might actually wear a pretty dress again. By Christmas Eve, I was meeting new male and female friends for holiday drinks, and I moved into a cute condo behind a convenience store on a rainy New Year’s morning.

A festive but drama-filled year and a half after that miserable Thanksgiving, I flew home from the Memorial Day Autism One conference in Chicago. Reluctantly doing my dating “homework,” I paged through the weekly listing of singles from an online dating service, and found Tony—who’d posted a profile just for the three-day holiday weekend. My brief note to him was a near-miss as he’d planned to take it down within minutes!

We soon met for a three-hour lunch and although I was afraid of marriage, I knew by its end we would wed. After I spent the July Fourth weekend in Virginia with family, Tony met my son for the first time at the airport. That night, he gave me a card pledging his love and commitment. I wore my prom dress with red flowers to his company winter holiday party, and we were married in August 2009 at an old Tennessee plantation.

Holidays are emotionally risky for singles, but their original purpose was to mark death, rebirth and the change of seasons. If you’ve just realized your relationship is over or have just become a solo parent, begin your break-up recovery with seasonal inspiration, planning and celebration.

Set your expectations to slightly non-normal

Becoming single or divorced as an ASD parent “…is not the same as other people who are divorcing. You work a lot harder than the average parent,” says Dr. Kathy Marshack, a Washington psychologist specializing in ASD families. She advises surrounding yourself with people who understand life with an ASD kid, such as an autism support group.

If you’re breaking up with the child’s parent, separations may reveal a huge difference in parenting styles. You two may not get along, but kids who know both parents love them are not very troubled by this, Dr. Marshack says. She cautions that ASD traits in other family members may add to the stress of the separation.

Wrap up a short-term survival plan                       

Make sure you have some cash in the bank and a credit card. Ensure your living arrangements offer you a temporary place for peace and some alone time, even if you have to cohabitate with the ex temporarily (something I did but don’t advise—stress and lack of privacy causes problems). Hire a sitter if the other parent isn’t available—childcare may be a legally sharable expense.

Call your local developmental agency, United Cerebral Palsy or YMCA and ask for additional respite, homecare and daycare aide services for you and your child if needed. Seek new mental health services if you feel very stressed even if it’s strictly a romantic breakup. ASD parents are pre-burdened with stress so reaching for help is right for us even if other people wouldn’t.

Write it down—and feel better

Crawl into your bed or behind your favorite coffee shop table with paper and a pen. A study showed 100 new singles gained comfort, relief, thankfulness and wisdom when they wrote about the positive aspects of their breakup for 15 to 30 minutes a day.

Put those silver linings down on paper and see if your mental black clouds lift. Then burn them ceremonially over a Yule Log or a cheap candle—the flames are quite satisfying. Or call a friend for a burning hearts party!

Start “singling” with style

Holiday decorating is fun. Go big and paint a wall—the kids will love helping. Pull out some beloved items for your child’s emotional stability, but also buy that campy white artificial Christmas tree you always wanted—the one that made the ex recoil. Order the designer menorah of your dreams.

Change eating or fasting times to suit you or the kids. Buy a nice dress or shirt in a style you never wear; the compliments will cheer you. Discount stores and ethnic markets carry many affordable décor, gift and clothing items. Hang a floral garland and feel a bit happy. Hope comes from the smallest things.

Good plans make good holidays
If your breakup involves child custody, that first holiday just feels wrong. Legal agreements often involve splitting or alternating birthdays, Christmas, Ramadan, Hanukah or New Year’s days. Cooperative parents can horse-trade holidays: let her take Halloween if you really want Fourth of July. “I try to make custody choices a win-win,” says Jeffrey Gottlieb, an Orange County, California special needs attorney. “If there are mixed religions, winter break might be for Muslims and the Christian spouse could always get Christmas Eve and Day.”

Discuss the care of your ASD child, especially for nonverbal or sensory children. If your ex’s boisterous family has a loud Christmas Eve party, keep a noise-sensitive son home and send him back for Christmas brunch. Both parties should agree in writing to dietary restrictions, and stock alternative holiday treats and foods, such as hot chocolate, cookies and candy (shop for your ex if he won’t). No need to add food to their list of disappointments. And handing back an ASD child amped-up from dairy, gluten or sugar is a sure way to start a custody war! Remember, courts may uphold dietary restrictions if doctor-recommended. And parents who don’t cooperate on medical or therapy arrangements risk losing legal custody, says Gottlieb.

In his practice, where he serves an estimated “ninety percent female” clientele, Gottlieb finds parents of special needs kids return to court more frequently than other parents because “there are more conflict and money issues as the child ages.” The initial feeling of wanting vengeance is not useful, he says. “Even if you hate your ex-husband if he was unfaithful, you will still want him in your life because there are going to be issues when the special needs child is fifty and you are in your seventies. Child support can go for decades beyond eighteen in California.” Still, he cautions, “Don’t be so nice you can’t feed yourself or take care of your child’s special requirements.”

If it’s a romantic breakup and the ex was close to your child, ask him to drop off or mail small gift cards for the kids (you can offer to pay). This way, the kids feel noticed and no reminder toys are lying around. If they notice his absence, tell the kids as much of the truth as they need based on age and remind them it’s not their fault.

Preparation is a Present for Your Future

A family breakup means splitting current income between parents, or sourcing new funds through new employment or social services. Managing this process is harder than assembling a bicycle with no directions and missing parts. Much depends on whom you’re divorcing. Dr. Marshack outlines three types of divorce: friendly, business-like or high conflict. High-conflict breakups, which may involve a spouse of either sex with ASD traits that hamper empathy and social understanding, can breed parenting troubles and litigation (going to court). The average American twenty-five-thousand-dollar divorce can be avoided by legal mediation, but mediations fail when one person has more power or threatens litigation. Court outcomes are unpredictable and judges urge parents to hire attorneys; you can represent yourself but you must fill out multiple legal forms and present written evidence of specific claims.

All this trauma diverts money from the communal Christmas stocking, so ask for the basics to live safely and decently and let the smaller stuff go. Basics may include support and retraining for a nonworking spouse, special needs items such as therapy fees, medication and insurance co-payments, special diet foods and your half of family assets.

Expert advice makes a difference

Other specialists can help you plan. Douglas Baker, a Torrance, California, special needs financial advisor and autism parent, notes that state agencies may take a share of your child support and income if a child is placed in a group home. Many divorce attorneys aren’t familiar with these pitfalls.

Statistics from the Organization for Autism Research show most women and some men with ASD kids aren’t fully employed due to caring for their child, so support payments should allow for a part-time parent if possible. Doctors and therapists can write letters outlining your child’s needs. And tax experts may tell you that temporary spousal support payments aren’t taxable income for the recipient, but permanent court-ordered payments are.

Support is usually tax-deductible for the paying spouse. The existence, wording and filing of separation and divorce documents is a crucial part of tax determination. Call several tax preparers and divorce attorneys for free consultations before you sign anything.

The sooner you start, the better you get
For most divorcing people, the first two years after separation are very hard but improve after that. Most also pair up again. Research shows that having a new committed relationship at the two-year mark is a predictor of doing well after divorce. That doesn’t mean you should run out and find someone within two years—it probably shows that people who thrive in relationships tend to find them. Those who can’t, don’t.

“You’re in the stage of life when you need a partner to lean on or help you out. You have time to look,” says Dr. Marshack, who advises waiting six months to a year, because grieving means you may find companionship but not a long-term relationship. Of newly single people, she says, “Their logical adult brain is trying to say, don’t date yet, but the hole in their heart is so big. I’d tell them to surround themselves with friends, because you’re often more isolated with ASD kids. Call support groups, go to church, go out with groups of kind people rather than looking for a date, although people hate it when I say that!”

Of this she is sure, “There will be new friendships and new sweethearts.”

Says Faith, the mother of a very behaviorally challenged teenager receiving crisis services, “I was just going out dancing with my friends and met a guy right when I first separated. He ended up being the best thing that’s ever happened to me, other than my child.” Still, her life is “bi-polar,” she says, referring to her 50-50 custody schedule. “Either it’s fantastic when I’m with my boyfriend or I’m crazy and feeling thrown under a bus” when she has custody. However surreal her problems appear to typical single parents, she’s enjoying special holiday and birthday moments with her boyfriend’s family, who genuinely care for her and her son. Faith shows admirable coping and resilience despite parenting experiences beyond most people’s imagination, even hers.

“Kids with autism are resilient,” says Dr. Marshack. “We have to be resilient too.” Facing single life over the holidays can teach us how to live in the moment.

Taking small, joyous actions for yourself and giving your kids simple pleasures creates contentment instead of chaos. Start exercising your personal freedoms and these strange new days will shine more brightly than you thought possible.

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