When my son was diagnosed with autism, my husband told me "we don't have to keep him"
One tiger mummy’s account of prioritising her son above all
People say that where I grew up is a now a big city, but I feel our community is still very traditional and small-minded. I always knew I was going to have an arranged marriage. As soon as I got my college degree, the hunt for a prospective groom began. I didn’t have much of a choice. We grew up believing that as girls, you don’t have a major say in the matter.
When Jiten* and his parents came to our house, he seemed pleasant enough. We had half an hour to ourselves that first day. We spoke about our hobbies, how many kids we wants (both of us said one at the same time), and where we wanted to travel. Jiten had settled well at his job at a travel company and was ready for family life. Our next meeting was a big family lunch, by the end of which our marriage was decided upon by our parents. Those 30 minutes is all I got to get to know my future partner. The next time we were left alone was our wedding night.
Within the first few weeks, I realised that my new husband and I were drastically different. We didn’t seem to agree on anything. He was a lot more controlling than I had expected when it came to every aspect of our life. Where we would live (with his family), what all I was allowed to do (help with housework) and who all I was allowed to meet (my parents, on big occasions). When I told my parents that we weren’t getting along and that I had my doubts about this working out, they kept telling me to give it time, that everything would settle. Abhi abhi toh we got married. I should have listened to my gut instinct but I agreed to give it time.
I have always had a mothering nature. Being the eldest of three children, I would help my mother look after my younger siblings while our father worked. I was struggling to get pregnant, but then it happened in the third year of our marriage. The families were thrilled, and not-so-secretly hoped it was a boy.
The desire for male children is still very dominant in our country. The idea that the son will be the family heir, voh humara naam roshan karega (they will make us proud) is still very common, no matter how educated, cultured, or progressive we like to think we are. My in-laws were no different. They have a big family business and were already imagining a future where their grandson would take over. I laughed it off initially. In the back of my mind I thought, it doesn’t matter if it’s a daughter. Why can’t she take over the business?
I was heavily pampered when I was pregnant. They all took very good care of me. When the baby was born, mithai was given out to friends and neighbours. There were proclamations of badhaai ho, beta hua (Congratulations, it’s a boy)!
Big plans were made for our son. His entire life was being planned out before he even turned one. But as he got older, something didn’t seem right. Most babies say their first words and start talking, at least in phrases and gestures, in the first year. He didn’t, and couldn’t understand an angry ‘no’ or ‘come’. The doctors said he was just a late talker. But there was something else. He would cry a lot. We’d rarely get any eye contact even when once he turned three. That was when one of my sisters, who is a teacher, suggested that he may have a developmental delay or disorder of some kind.
My initial reaction was panic, but she made me understand that with early professional intervention, it will be fine. Even if a child has a disorder of some kind, that doesn’t mean they won’t grow up to be healthy and happy. When I first suggested we seek a specialist’s help, my husband outright refused. He got angry and told me not to bring this up in front of his family.
No matter how much I insisted, he kept refusing. Eventually, I went by myself to a specialist my sister suggested. It took a couple of visits and interactions with Aman before the doctor said that he may be on the autism spectrum.
When I told my husband, he got physical with me, screaming, shouting, and in the end, a slap. How could I have gone behind his back when he explicitly said not to do anything? But I had to do what I thought was right for our child.
The next day he seemed to have seen reason and agreed to come to the doctor with me. But he rejected the entire notion, right to the doctor’s face. “There’s nothing wrong with my son. How dare you say that!” he screamed. Being told that his child was on the autism spectrum was an insult. The doctor explained that having a child with autism can be difficult at first, but with time we will know more about his level of functionality.
Coming home after our session, we sat everyone down – in-laws, Jiten’s siblings, their spouses and so on – and told them everything. Us having a child with autism shocked them. “How could this happen?” The doctor had to be wrong. Maybe I was the one to blame, having done something wrong while I was pregnant that made this all happen. Then one of his uncles said, “Koi baat nahin. Pehela baccha thoda defective nikla, doosra kar lo (There’s no problem. The first child is slightly defective, you can have another one).”
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I could not believe my ears. More than that, I was shocked that my husband did not utter one word in response or in his child’s support.
The next few weeks were filled with stress. Jiten and I grew distant. When I was doing exercises with Aman that the specialist recommended, Jiten refused to be involved in any way. It was as if he couldn’t even look at his son.
When I told my parents-in-law that I didn’t want to have another child, that Jiten and I had decided on only one baby, that’s when the taanas started. With every passing day, it felt like it was me and my child against the rest of the family.
The breaking point came when one night, my husband said, “We don’t have to keep him, you know? There are homes for children like this. People will look after him. We can start over.”
I knew then that his family would never accept him, no matter what I did or said. It turned into an ultimatum: I was given the choice of my son or my husband. I walked out of that house with Aman and never went back.
It’s been almost eight years now since we’ve been divorced. I’m a single mother and my son is happy, healthy and thriving in life. We had many teething issues. There are good days and bad that any parent or person with autism will tell you. If I’m being honest, I was afraid my parents would not accept us either, but they welcomed me with open arms. We live together, and Aman loves being with his doting grandparents.
Having a child with autism is nothing to be ashamed of. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared at first. Not only for my son and the obstacles he’d have to face in his life, but also the difficulties that I would have bringing him up. With my parent’s support, we have raised Aman. Both my parents were salaried government employees who now get a pension. I started a small home-cooking business to help support us as well.
It’s only very recently that I opened myself up to the prospect of meeting someone again. My parents have been very enthusiastic about my dating or being in a new relationship. I think they feel guilty about having arranged my previous relationship, and they’re trying to compensate now. But they know that I don’t blame them. I have no qualms telling people that I have a child with autism. I think it’s better if they know. Some men I have met through friends were jittery about it, but not everyone.
At first, I did reopen a channel with my ex-husband so that my son and his father could have a relationship, even if his parents weren’t married anymore. But Jiten didn’t seem interested in it. Now, they speak on the phone every other week or so. It’s up to my son if he wants this relationship or not, I will never force him into it.
People have told me that I should have stayed longer with my husband and tried harder to make it work. But I had learnt everything about his way of thinking and his character that I needed to know. My child became my priority. As parents, it was our decision to bring him into this world. It is our job to give our children all the love and support they need to be the best version of themselves.
Some of the other moms joke and call me tiger mummy. It’s true. I will always ferociously protect my cub.
*Names changed upon contributor’s request and to protect the identity of a minor
As told to Sara Hussain