This post was originally published on The Squashed Bologna in October 2011. I came across the link and decided to retroactively publish it here too. Hard to believe that was over two years ago…
Dynamic Family Dynamics
Often when asked about the level of chaos and drama in my house, I’ll say that “I have a special needs child, an explosive child and a girl.” That pretty much sums it up.
But let me backtrack a bit.
I have three children – Oliver, my six year old, and George and Eleanor, my five year old twins. And just in case you’re wondering – no, that age difference was not planned. Nor was the two-for-one pregnancy. But no matter how dramatic and chaotic it may be, I never lose sight of how lucky I am to have these three entirely unique people in my life – to be able to watch them grow.
Like any other parent, I once looked into my children’s newborn faces and dreamed about their futures. I imagined them as happy and healthy kids. So close in age, they would be friends. They would grow up together and then go on to attend college, find careers… have families.
I always knew that they were really just on loan to me. I would raise them, but they would eventually leave to find their own way in the world. And I looked forward to watching it all unfold.
We had some basic expectations for the roles they would play, of course. Oliver would be the big brother, and look out for his not-that-much younger siblings. Eleanor would be a daddy’s girl because they all are in my husband’s extended family. George would be the middle child – even though he is only a minute older than his sister – and as a loud and demanding infant, he seemed destined to be a handful.
And some of this ended up being true. Eleanor is a shameless daddy’s girl and George has taken the term “handful” to a whole new level. But Oliver is not your average, everyday big brother. He is my special needs child.
The twins were born when he was 18 months old. And around that time, it was becoming obvious that he was different from other toddlers. His speech wasn’t developing with the lightning speed that I witnessed in other kids. He wasn’t as social and trusting. He was more interested in throwing blocks in than he was in using them to build towers.
Years later, after special needs preschool and various therapies, Oliver is sweet, handsome boy with severe sensory processing disorders. He also has an Autism Spectrum label: PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified).
The behaviors and challenges that qualify him for a Spectrum label are primarily noticeable in his communication and language skills, but he also has some more subtle problems with motor skills. We’ve been lucky to find a couple of alternative therapies that have been nothing short of magic as far as I’m concerned. And Oliver is always making progress – moving forward. But it’s never fast enough for him to catch up to, let alone keep up with, his peers.
And it’s not just other kids his age anymore. Oliver is now officially behind the skill levels of his siblings. Over time, George and Eleanor have become my barometer for what Oliver will hopefully learn how to do.
People are confused by our oldest son because he “looks normal.” But they haven’t witnessed Oliver’s daily struggles with things that have come so naturally to his brother and sister. Like sustaining conversation, understanding the rules in games and making friends. They don’t understand why it’s George who plays light sabers with the older boys across the street while Oliver plays with Thomas trains in the dirt. It should be the other way around, right?
They also have no idea how incredibly painful this is to watch.
For all of my love for them as individuals – all of my gratitude for their health and happiness – it breaks my heart to see my oldest fade into the background while his younger brother and sister become such stars. To see the babies of the family take over so many of the older sibling roles that should have been Oliver’s, by right.
And I know that sounds petty and unfair – to expect that the oldest would automatically be the front man for the band…the leader of the pack. But that’s the typical family dynamic, right? And didn’t I expect to have a “typical” family? Didn’t we all?
So my husband and I have had to put aside some of our new parent dreams and expectations for our children – our family. It was hard. And sometimes I still feel a little sad. I worry.
I worry about the near future when the twins start asking questions about why they can do things that their big brother can’t. So far, they haven’t. They don’t compare our family to others. It seems normal to them that George is the one who complains about Oliver messing up his…whatever it is he’s doing (remember – George is my explosive child, and there’s always a crisis). Or for Eleanor to act as spokesperson for her big brother when people ask him questions he’s not yet developmentally capable of answering.
But as we become less insular and spend more time with the rest of the world at large, it’s inevitable that my two younger children will wonder why we’re different from other families.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve avoided thinking about this for a long time. On some level, I’ve been wishing that Oliver would just become “normal enough.” That therapies and IEP reports aside, the kids in our neighborhood – and George and Eleanor – would see him as just another kid. Maybe a little goofy or quirky sometimes – but not so much that he couldn’t fly under the radar.
Then maybe someday when Oliver would be capable of engaging in a complex discussion, we could all talk about his personal challenges. Together as a family – with Oliver participating in this conversation about him.
It shouldn’t matter, I know. But I just really hate the idea of talking about Oliver to his siblings before I can talk to HIM about everything. I would feel like a betrayal. Like it was now me denying him his right to be the older brother.
I may have to do that someday – but I’m not ready. Not yet.
In a way – these ideas are entirely new for our family. We haven’t had to think about them.
So I don’t have personal stories to tell about how our children work around the special needs that make Oliver different from other six year olds. As of yet, the twins don’t really recognize that Oliver is different. He’s just Oliver. And I’m selfishly holding on to that as long as possible with no plan for the future.
Until now, I guess. Until I began writing this and reading about the experiences of other families with “special needs siblings.”
I’ve written numerous posts about Oliver’s special needs on my own blog, but this is the first time that I’ve actually addressed the issue of how those special needs affect his relationships with his siblings. And because I’ve always taken the Scarlett O’Hara approach of dealing with what I have to today, and leaving the rest for tomorrow – I’m now in uncharted waters.
I love the idea of Oliver being the big brother an taking care of his little brother and sister. But for now, and possibly for a long time (possibly forever) that’s not going to be our reality. In a couple of years it may be the younger brother and sister standing between Oliver and bullies on the playground. It’s still too soon to tell – but not so far off that I can’t imagine that possible future.
Will they stand up for Oliver? I think Eleanor would. As a girl, she has an innate maternal side. She seeks to nurture in a way that her brothers just don’t. But George? I don’t know about George.
He is so full of enthusiasm for life, that he doesn’t always notice other people as he races to grab the brass ring. He means well – but he’s a scrapper. He may unwittingly trample Oliver in his efforts to follow the older boys with their war games and skateboard ramps. I just don’t know.
But I do know that this is going to be painful at times… and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified by the uncertain future. That I didn’t wonder how many more of my dreams that future will will steal from me.
But I find great comfort in the fact that some of my dreams are already coming true. My children are happy and healthy. They are friends. They are growing up together. They may or may not all go to college, but each one of them can find a purpose in life – something they can consider their career.
Probably the most important dream I have for them is family. The families I once imagined for them included marriage and children. And right now I have no reason to doubt that this is possible for them. For all of them.
My dream of them all having their own families might actually come true. And it might not. But it doesn’t matter because whether they get married or not – have children or not – they will always have each other.
They will always be a family.