The Caregiver and the Breadwinner
With a diagnosis like Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, oftentimes parents take the strategy of “divide and conquer” in order to meet the new demands of family life. Often, one parent will become the main breadwinner, while the other may leave his or her profession to become the expert caregiver.
Unfortunately, the choices/strategies that seem to work well at diagnosis, may not work so well for the marriage in the long run. The initial “divide and conquer” that worked so well in the beginning can set the stage for partners to engage in “the resentment dance.”
The main caregiving parents may have little to no relief. For those parents, the care of the child may become so consuming that they give up their own interests and end up resenting the breadwinner.
The breadwinners, on the other hand, may experience extreme pressure as the sole financial provider. They may give so much at work to ensure financial stability that there are little to no reserves left to help at home. Even if there are extra reserves, the fear of providing care “in the wrong way” or the caregivers’ resistance to supporting the breadwinner’s learning curve very well may frustrate the breadwinner to the point of abandoning attempts to help.
In addition, there may be cultural factors at play delegating caregiving to just one gender. Both mother and father can feel trapped in this situation with one feeling overwhelmed by the responsibilities and the other feeling significantly shut out from the child’s life. And yet, any attempts at changing expected gender roles may add even more social stress to the family.
Partners’ differences – which tend to be so exciting at the beginning of the relationship – may cause tension over time, particularly as stressors increase. Different emotions, values and childrearing practices can all become a significant source of frustration and irritation.
In addition to the caregiver/breadwinner dance, different emotions that emerge over time – especially grief – can easily alienate partners, both immediately upon diagnosis and also slowly throughout the years.
But there is hope.
There is hope that the marriage won’t dissolve. There is hope for a stronger relationship. It will take self-reflection, communication, creative and collaborative problem solving, but even small changes can reap big rewards.
Thank you to psychologists Dr. Laura Marshak (author of Married with Special-Needs Children and Going Solo) and Dr. Natalie Truba (of Nationwide Children’s Hospital) for providing insight into these complicated dynamics.
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