Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Immutable Bonds Of Brotherhood (A Dad's Perspective on Sibling Issues)

I always wanted two kids. I grew up in a two kid family. It provided the chance to have a boy and a girl, if genetics and luck allowed it. It was just part of my life plan. That is, until I had my first child with Rachel. One child seemed like a fine number after surviving a colicky newborn. Rachel was not convinced. Her life plan included a sibling for our son, who so clearly relished every opportunity to play with other kids. She wanted a playmate for him when he was young. She wanted a him to live in a household where the world did not revolve around only his needs as he grew up. She wanted him to have someone to share the burden of taking care of us when we got older. It was a compelling case that took about three years to make. The plan was set. But, as they say, the best laid plans often go astray.

We welcomed Nate into our family, and watched with satisfaction as Isaac took so naturally to the role of big brother. He had an extraordinary ability to keep calm as Nate shrieked and bellowed in the back seat with him on car rides. He was gentle and kind. In that first year, before we were certain of Nate's special needs, much of what we hoped for was happening. Isaac needed to adjust to a world where his brother's schedule was factored into the family calendar. He got to see someone else be doted on and given gifts. Typical stuff for new siblings, and things Isaac handled relatively well.

Rachel and I knew Nate had special needs far before Isaac ever did, and it weighed heavily on Rachel. Not only was Isaac going to miss out on having the playmate we wanted for him, but now he was going to have to take care of his brother as he got older. He would likely never have the confidant she envisioned. I worried that Isaac would eventually be embarrassed by his brother's odd behavior and feel the need to make fun of him when with friends or at school.

Isaac never had an inkling of our master plan for him, and we certainly did not share our growing concerns about Nate. For him, Nate was his brother. A brother that was capable of certain things, and incapable of others. He was a brother that liked to wrestle, watch cartoons and often made all of us laugh. Nate was also a brother that might break his things, scream at him for no apparent reason, and annoy him and his friends when they were trying to play Xbox. He was his little brother.

Nate knew nothing of our plan or his limitations either. He saw a boy who wanted to play with him and hug him. He saw a boy who he desperately wanted to impress or make laugh. He saw a boy who brought other boys to the house that laughed when Nate did something funny. Nate wanted to do what Isaac could do. He wanted to be like his big brother.

Siblings have no ability to choose one another. They just are. We have all seen brothers and sisters that are fit together like hand in glove, and we have seen brothers and sisters that cannot occupy the same space without touching a nerve. These phenomenons are curiously caused by the same thing: shared genes and shared experiences. Siblings know each other in a way nobody else does.

The language barrier has made it difficult to assess Nate's feelings for Isaac. He often has trouble understanding what is going on around him, and lashes out at Isaac in frustration. He will accuse his brother of being, "Not nye!" (punctuated by a pointer finger disapprovingly wagged in his face) for transgressions ranging from Isaac offering to help him with a problem on an iPod game to events that have nothing to do with Isaac like Mom or Dad asking Nate to come to the dinner table. Isaac takes his fair share of abuse from Nate.

Mike Isaac, enjoying an afternoon nap in the Sun
I see how hard it can be for Isaac to give and not receive with Nate. There are many moments of fun and happiness, but not a lot of clarity. One such moment came recently when we welcomed a new member to our family. Nate's class at Sunday school was asked to bring a doll in for a baby naming. Nate eagerly brought his baby doll to class, and emerged eager to share the baby's naming certificate. On it, the name read, "Mike Isaac." Or, in Nate speak, "my Isaac."

Nate can't say much. But the words he chooses speak volumes. It does not matter that he has trouble talking with his brother. Plenty of siblings have trouble communicating. What transcends language is action and intent.

Nate trusts Isaac. He loves Isaac, and Isaac loves Nate. They make each other better people, and us, better parents. Their relationship will continue to grow and change. They will be drawn together and pushed apart, but they will always be brothers.

Monday, April 1, 2013

I've Got the Family-Dinner Blues (A Mom's Perspective on Sibling Issues)

It's 5:56 pm.  The kids are hungry, and I am sweating.  I'm running around like crazy, making dinner, setting the table, feeding the pets, keeping the kids from getting into trouble, and pouring the correct type of milk into each child's preferred cup and pairing it with each child's preferred type of straw. Exhausting.

By 6:04 Dad has walked in the door from work, the oven-timer has beeped, and it is finally time to sit down for dinner.  This should be the moment where my hard work, large effort and flop sweat pay off.  This should be the moment that I look around the dining room table at the family I love and rejoice in sharing a meal as we go over the highs and lows of our day.  

Should be.

In my house, this is the moment where things usually go down-hill.  It starts with trying to get Nate to the table.  He doesn't want to come.  He wants to continue doing whatever it was he was doing the minute before I said "Dinner's ready!" It continues it's downward spiral with Nate's insistence that he's too sick to eat, that the food is "yuck", and that he's "all done" (his language is limited, but not his ability to make excuses not to eat).  Once forced into his chair, Nate climbs in and out no less than a hundred times, drops his fork, feeds a few bites to the dog who is smart enough to always station himself by Nate's feet, spills his milk, occasionally throws food at my head, and insists he has to go to the bathroom.  

It is usually at about this time when Nate's older brother interrupts the festivities to ask "May I be excused?", and just like that the family dinner is over.  

Oh, did I not mention that Nate has an older brother (Isaac, 12) who is subjected to these nightly family dinners?  Did I forget to say that while Hurricane Nate is taking place to my left, my other son is scarfing down his dinner in the chair to my right?   I'm not surprised I forgot.  I occasionally notice that my entire body is pointing towards Nate while we sit at the table as I attempt to anticipate the next catastrophe.  I have to intentionally remind myself to turn my body around and direct my eyes at Isaac. My mom-guilt meter is through the roof because with all the chaos of "dinner with Nate", it is sometimes hard to remember that Isaac is sitting there, also wanting/needing/deserving my attention. 

I'm not proud of this.  As I write it, my heart breaks a little bit.  Isaac deserves peaceful family time and his mother's full attention during dinner.  He deserves the opportunity to share the ups and downs of his day, and to take part in a genuine, age-appropriate conversation.  But Isaac is the sibling of a child with a disability, and so his needs sometimes get overlooked.  

Isaac's life with Nate is not all bad, and I would even go so far as to say that it's mostly good.  My boys love each other in a way that makes my heart sing.  They snuggle, they treat each other with kindness, they laugh hysterically together, and gang up against their parents in the way that brothers have been doing for ages. Isaac has learned such patience, acceptance, open-mindedness and generosity because he has Nate for a brother.  He has learned to be comfortable around a wider variety of people. He believes in inclusion. He knows to define people by their personhood, and not by their disability. He makes me proud every day, and I know his experiences as Nate's brother will help to shape him into a man of integrity and goodness.

Knowing Isaac will be better because of it doesn't erase the frustration and sadness I feel about our challenging family dinners. Similarly, suffering through impossible meals does not erase my understanding that a family dinner is important for both my boys for a thousand different reasons.  Therefore, I will keep making dinner, sweating and rushed though I may be, so that our family can sit together each evening.  I can guarantee you it won't be quiet, peaceful or involve in-depth conversation, but it will involve the people I love most in the world so how bad can it be?

We'd love to hear what family dinner is like in your home. Please share your stories of siblings, dining and family together-time!  Thank you!