One Fish, Two Fish … Big Brother, …???

One of the things that prompted me to finally start writing (after years and years of Martha and I saying that we needed to write a book) was finding some pages of a journal I kept the summer before my son was entering first grade. That was 15 years ago … July 1998. My two sons (“Jimmy”, age 6, and “Joey”, age 4) were taking swimming lessons, and I started using that small patch of time to record some of what I was going through.

It’s a surreal and painful experience to see the “me” of 15 years ago. Here’s a sample, which I wrote while sitting within hearing distance (but not viewing distance) of my son’s swimming lesson. The previous day’s lesson had been a disaster for “Jimmy,” whose sensory issues made putting his head in the water (and getting his body to move correctly) a complete nightmare.

I’m sitting here outside the swimming lesson … against my better judgment, I agreed to hang around during the lesson today. He seems to have pulled himself together somewhat, but he still doesn’t want to go underwater again. That’s the real issue.

I know that “Jimmy’s” particular needs are a big part of the reason I’ve felt so trapped recently. I try not to let them run my life, but inevitably, they affect everything I do, everything we do as a family, the way I treat the other kids, etc. … I’m continually tensed waiting for the next shriek … Even here, sitting in front of the house where the swimming lesson is, I’m writing this, but I’ve got one ear trained on the pool, listening for the instructor and seeing if her tone of voice indicates any problem with “Jimmy,” and listening for the cry from him that I am almost constantly tensed to hear.

The anxiety practically jumps off the pages of my journal … and the constant questioning: Am I doing the right thing? Why isn’t anything working? What else – and who else (I have two other kids…) – am I screwing up now?

Martha and I have written about how our kids’ “issues” have affected people around them, and in particular, their siblings.

But what about how having “neurotpyical” siblings (or whatever the politically correct phrase is) affects kids with issues?

Because it does … in ways that are painful and difficult for them, as well as for us, as parents.

My “Jimmy” – aka “alphabet soup issue kid” – was flanked by an older sister and a younger brother … two siblings to whom everything came easy: sports, friends, academics … you name it. As you can imagine, it was not easy for him to have an older sibling who excelled at everything … but in many ways, that’s kind of typical. What was SOOOOOO much harder was to have a YOUNGER sibling (especially one of the same gender) who excelled at everything, too. Because in addition to making him feel even more unsuccessful, it completely upset the whole big brother/younger brother “natural order” … and led to many conflicted feelings for me as a parent.

Here is what I wrote a week or so after that entry above. Remember, Jimmy was a sensory-sensitive kid with anxiety and dyspraxia … not a great combination for learning to swim. His younger brother, on the other hand, was taking to it like … well, like a fish to water.

Big news at the pool today – Joey is swimming with his face in the water. He did it by himself … I have such an angst about him learning to do it before Jimmy, though … This is one of the (many) hard things about having a child with issues like Jimmy’s. I wonder and worry if I should sometimes be holding Joey back a bit instead of letting him surge forward (especially athletically) – and most likely right past Jimmy. I worry for Jimmy’s feelings and self esteem, but is it fair to hold Joey back from what he could clearly do well? … It’s always such a balancing act with siblings anyway, but when you start out with the scales tipped, how do you address everyone’s needs – not just the “special needs” child, or not just the “normal” siblings …

Wow, looking back, I can’t even believe I wrote that I would even think about “holding back” one child in any way in order to somehow ease the blow for another! … not that you can, anyway, on either front … but I can see it was a reflection of seeing the pain in Jimmy’s eyes every time his younger brother surpassed him. Which was so often, in so many ways …

For example ….

A few years after the swimming lessons, Jimmy finally learned to ride a bike without training wheels. It had been a looooooooong struggle; it took him two full years to learn, and his success that day was a huge cause for celebration!

Then … that same day  … within minutes, in fact! … his two-and-a-half-years-younger brother exclaimed, “I’m going to ride without training wheels, too!” And he took off his trainings wheels and rode down the street.


So much for Jimmy’s moment in the sun … Of course, we were thrilled for Joey, too …. but still, I felt conflicted. Couldn’t Jimmy at least get one day when he was the success?

A few years after that ….as Jimmy watched his little brother go off on yet another playdate, he said to me, crying, “How come Joey always has playdates, and I don’t?”

What could I tell him? I don’t even remember ….. I think I just hugged him and told him I loved him. And I probably cried, too. (It still makes me cry, now …. even though he is now an engaging, funny, caring and compassionate young man with a great girlfriend and wonderful friends.)

It breaks your heart for your one child … and yet you are so happy for your other child’s happiness and success.

Need I say that my sons hated each other growing up? (There was a different reaction about all this from my oldest child, but I’ll write about that at another point.)

Like Martha’s sons, my own two boys have come into their own as individuals and young adults, and are now friends. Just yesterday, they actually decided together to unload the dishwasher and reload it with the dirty dishes from the sink. What made me even happier than the fact that they decided on their own to do this (without my asking or nagging) was that they decided together, and did it together. It was a little thing, but it made me happy … especially when I think back on how it used to be.

We have all come a long way from that summer 15 years ago. But as I have mentioned before …. I may think I’m over it … but one memory can bring back the hurt and anxiety like it was just yesterday. (And if it’s that way for me, I can imagine it’s also that way for my kids.) I’m not exactly sure what to do about that … except to keep writing, and sharing, in a way that – I hope  – promotes healing and community and connection, not just for me, but for all of us who have been through this and/or are in the thick of it now.

Oh, and by the way, we did finally solve the “hating to put his face in the water issue” –