30 years in...

Somewhere along the way, Leila McDowell & Tony Head found happily ever after

TO BE: Head and McDowell's quick marriage has been a lasting one.
TO BE: Head and McDowell's quick marriage has been a lasting one. (Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)
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By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010

Leila McDowell didn't give much thought to the future when she married Tony Head on New Year's Eve in 1979.

At 26, McDowell was a free spirit who had moved from Seattle to the East Coast for college, become a political activist and traveled through Africa on her own and wasn't interested in being tied down.

Head was a government worker trying to make it as an actor. He'd spotted her in the audience while performing in a musical the previous March. They moved in together three months later. Leila regularly reminded him not to get too invested in the relationship; she had a list of qualities she was looking for in a man and he didn't possess all of them.

Still, she was touched by the sweetness with which he nursed her following an operation, and after nine months of dating, they decided to get hitched.

"It was very casual," she says. "My thought was, if it doesn't work out, I can get divorced."

Her parents had divorced, as had both sets of grandparents, plus most of her aunts and uncles. It was, she says, a "family tradition." Her friends predicted the marriage would last two years, tops; McDowell wouldn't have been surprised if they were right.

The relationship turned long distance for several years as Head pursued acting jobs in New York and McDowell moved to Harrisburg, Pa., to work as a TV reporter. They wanted kids, but doctors insisted she wouldn't be able to get pregnant.

They were wrong. In 1983 she gave birth to a little girl, but their "miracle baby" had mental retardation and Turner syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the development of sex characteristics. Later, she was also diagnosed with autism and a seizure disorder.

Layla required round-the-clock care. Throughout her childhood and into her 20s, she would sleep just a few hours a night, often only when Head slept on the floor near her bed. With no family around to help and babysitters who would come once and never return, her care became their sole focus.

The couple, who now live in Fairfax, gave up their dream jobs for more practical careers -- he in sales, she in communications -- and for the next two decades, they almost never vacationed, dined at restaurants or went to the movies.

"It was a grueling experience, physically," Head says. The two had little time for each other but were living through something no one else could comprehend.

"We ended up having so much in common because we traveled this journey together," says McDowell, now 57.

There were fights and moments where each privately wondered if the marriage was worth the struggle. "But we had the resolve to resolve everything that happened in our relationship," says Head, 58.

In 1990, the couple adopted a 4-year-old boy, Kwame, who'd been in foster care. Three years later came another surprise: McDowell was pregnant, this time with a healthy son, Anthony.

Eventually Layla moved in with a caregiver who lives nearby. Head began taking acting jobs again, including a small part as a police major on HBO's "The Wire." By next fall, both sons will be away at college; an empty nest, McDowell says, "is something we're actually excited about."

When McDowell thinks back to that laundry list of qualities she'd been looking for in a man, what stands out are the characteristics that were missing. "Humor, kindness, generosity of spirit -- none of that was on my list," she says. "And yet those were the ingredients that made for a healthy relationship that did endure a lot of tough times."

And that endurance, she says, is more rewarding than she ever expected. "What I like to share with people in new relationships is that old relationships are really nice. You become very, very close friends," she says. "I say, 'Hang in there, because if you work through it, what you get on the other side is something that you can't even imagine -- it's a very beautiful thing.' "

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