[Editor’s note: This is a post in a series on egalitarianism and autism. The first post, written by Jeannette’s daughter, Katia, can be found here.]
I grew up longing for fatherly acceptance and love.
My dad was very creative in putting my sister Shari* and I down. Shari’s nickname was Big Pig, and mine was Little Pig. We soon learned that he didn’t think we were very smart. He often sang the following to the tune of a famous classical piece by Schubert:
Nette is a gob of goo,
And Shari is a gob of goo, too.
If we made a childish mistake, he would say we were dumber than four hogs, among other things. We learned to stay out of his way because when he was home and spanked us, it was painful. Thankfully, his spankings were rare, but the verbal abuse was nonstop, resulting in a lifetime of pain.
I can understand Dad’s attitude toward little girls. He had to help raise his three younger sisters, and never finished high school because of his responsibilities at home. Still, it is difficult to get over the rejection. Dad had a massive coronary when I was 22, and we had a talk that lasted two hours in the coronary care unit. He apologized for his verbal abuse and we mended fences, but the damage was done.
After his coronary, we would talk for hours on the phone about books we had read, people we had known, and current events. One day we were talking and he gave me the only compliment that I can remember from him He said, “Nette, you know I like talking to you. Your step sisters look fantastic in bikinis, but I cannot have an intelligent discussion with them like I can with you.” Memories of that compliment have helped ease the pain of his abuse.
Praise God for my mother. She went through some very trying times that I have only recently begun to understand. The older I get, the more I understand. She needed love and affection, too. Mom made sure we attended church regularly, always without Dad. I’m sure it was painful for her, sitting in a congregation of women sitting with their husbands. I wonder how often she heard “you must not be submitting enough…” After her divorce, it must have been much worse sitting alone as a single Mom. I still struggle with this situation. Should Mom have kept on going to church when Dad didn’t want her to, or should she have submitted to him and stayed home? The elders and ushers in our church were all men. There was a lady in the church who was a school teacher who taught an adult class for a while, but the class was taken away from her because there were men in the class. Gender roles were definitely observed. Where did my mother fit in?
When I met Roy, I fell head over heels for him. As you can imagine, I felt like he was too good for me, and was really surprised when he asked me to marry him. He didn’t even mind the fact that my parents were divorced. He is a good fella, will do anything for anybody, and can fix anything. I should also mention that I was a nurse at the time, working in pediatrics at a local hospital. Recently I learned that individuals with HFA are instinctively drawn to those in the nurturing professions.
At the time, I was attending a good conservative church, and assumed that the men there would be Christian leaders. However, Roy came from a family where his mother was the leader because his father was an invalid. Most of the men in his background were either absent or died young. Needless to say, he was lacking in male leadership examples.
As far as we know, none of Roy’s family, except his mother’s sister, Agnes*, noticed anything amiss with Roy. Aunt Agnes told me that during his visits when he was little, he would point, grunt and dance to get what he wanted instead of asking. She would make him dance until he asked.
After Roy and I were married, he handed me the checkbook and told me to pay the bills. What a surprise! I thought that men who were leaders did that themselves. But there were more surprises. Roy turned me down when I offered to subscribe to Patriarch Magazine so he could learn how to lead a family. We bought the men’s material from a family-oriented organization but I soon realized that he was not going to start leading any time soon.
In fact, he was usually too busy for spiritual matters. He had a full time job, but would take roofing jobs on the side, or remodeling jobs for friends. Friends and family told me how lucky I was to have a man who was handy. When I approached our pastor to ask how to encourage my husband to lead, he told me I wasn’t submitting enough. That was the advice I heard over and over when I tried to get help in the following years. Submit to what? I was lazy. I wanted someone to take care of me and tell me what to do. Instead I had to pay the bills, take care of the children, and make sure everything ran smoothly. Recently I learned that this is one of the classic traits of high-functioning autism. Projects and interests are more important to individuals with HFA than interpersonal relationships. Many times over the years I have cried myself to sleep, longing for tender loving care. I didn’t get it from my father, and I wasn’t getting it from my husband, either.
Homeschooling was the one area where I refused to submit. Roy did not want to homeschool, but if I was going to have children, I was not going to put them on a school bus or send them off to be taught by their peers. Even though he wasn’t in favor of homeschooling, since I was doing the bulk of it, he didn’t care. I should have realized back then that I could have gotten away with a lot more if I had been more assertive.
My goal always was to be a good wife and mother. I came across a book advocating for patriarchy titled Me? Obey Him? and devoured it, believing that it held the key. As a result I began to give in whenever what he wanted conflicted with what I wanted. And so it has gone over the years. I have completely lost myself in serving my husband. I don’t want to go places without him because if the car acts up he can take care of it. We go out to eat and the waitresses know what we are going to order and that we both are going to order the same thing.
When Katia was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, her problems took priority for a while. It had been pointed out to me how her eccentricities matched the characteristics of HFA, which I had never heard of. We dealt with that for a while, coming to grips with it and realizing that we had done some things right without knowing it. She’s had many ups and downs since then, but I thank God for her problems now, because they have made us stronger.
Shortly after her diagnosis, I began to realize that Roy was exhibiting some of the same characteristics such as lack of eye contact, improper personal body space observance, over-sensitive senses, and obsession with his projects in preference to his family. I let it go because I believed that I was the one who needed to change, and even if he did have HFA, wouldn’t God honor my submission to him anyway?
When Katia began to share her new egalitarian views, it woke me up. My husband was not in the place of God for me. We were equals meant to be working as a team, not a servant working for a master. Roy was working on his projects ‘helping people’ while I was supporting his ‘ministry.’ Instinctively I had known that this was wrong, but couldn’t put it into words. Katia’s research helped me put it into words, and in theory I became a liberated woman. Now, how to share it with Roy? Though I started to talk to him about it, his reaction was like a deer in the headlights due to his inability to comprehend abstract concepts.
My hunch that Roy had HFA grew by leaps and bounds. I began to research husbands with HFA. The first thing I found was an article about wives of men with HFA by Karin Friedemann. What she described was exactly what I was going through. What I wasn’t prepared for was the number of responses to her blog. She wrote it in 2009, the very year I had first suspected HFA in my husband. The sheer number of responses from women who related to her words floored me. How had this gone on for so long and no one noticed? Thankfully someone is noticing, and we are not alone.
Since then it is both a relief to know what I am dealing with, but for now the “how” escapes me. We are working on it. Life is a battle right now and I feel stuck.
But nothing is too difficult for God. My eyes are on Him.
*Names have been changed.