Mother’s Bitter Little Helpers

Today’s letter to Abby comes from a mother who has three children: two daughters and a son, who has “some social and developmental issues.” The girls feel that the parents favor the son and that they’ve been generally slighted in family dynamics. The parents have had the son’s psychologist explain to the girls that the “circumstances are different” and give them all the reasons why. Abby’s reply struck me as particularly dangerous and highly unlikely to bring about the desired effect:

DEAR CHALLENGED MOM: One conversation with the psychologist obviously wasn’t enough for at least one of your daughters, and my first suggestion is that you and your husband consider some ongoing family therapy for a while.

If your younger daughter is old enough, involve her while you are taking care of her brother. This will help her see for herself how time-consuming it really is, and what your responsibilities are as the mother of a child with special needs.

Equally important, if at all possible, arrange for respite care for your son once or twice a month to allow you to have some special one-on-one time with your daughters. Perhaps then they will feel less slighted.

Now, every family operates differently. Growing up, my brother and I were so close in age and so into different activities and things that there was very little sibling care back and forth–basically after about 5 years of age, anything I could do, he could do better, so doing daily care for each other was not part of our lifestyle. However, I know that in many families that is NOT the case–such separation may not be feasible or even desirable. Where there are more kids, or a wider age or developmental gap between the kids, many families expect and thrive on full engagement from all siblings in taking care of and raising each other. And that’s a great and fulfilling way to be a family too–when everyone is into it, or can’t imagine life any other way.

That being said, I think for that to work, it needs to be a part of the fabric of the family’s values and attitudes all the way through, and it has to go both ways. The girls need to truly believe that they’re benefiting in some way from engaged involvement in their brother’s care. Whether it’s in confident faith that the family would care for them the same way in dire circumstances, or treasuring a special bond with the brother that comes through knowing him better and more deeply, or simply acknowledging that their family life has made them capable and responsible at a young age, and turning that to their advantage in the world…there has to be something in it for them. It would be nice if it were love and altruistic, saint-like understanding. But anything would do. And I don’t think that Abby’s advice has much hope of leading to that end.

The daughter feels slighted…so you set her on tending to the needs of the very person she feels slighted by? Although I understand the POINT behind Abby’s strategy–to give the daughter a taste of the reality of caring for a developmentally challenged child–I don’t think it’s the right approach. First of all–since they all live together, who has a better idea of what it takes to care for the brother than the sisters? Whether they’re visibly involved or not, they can probably rattle off his schedule, and the things he can and can’t do, without thinking. After mom, they’re the primary witnesses to his life. They’re not oblivious to what’s going on, and asking a psychologist (his) to tell them about what they see day in and day out seems almost patronizing.

It would be one thing if, for example, an aunt came in, baby-sat the challenged boy, and when the mother returned said, “I had no idea what you go through, I have so much respect for the way you manage your life.” That’s not the case here. The daughters know exactly what’s going on, because they live it too. And odds are they don’t hate or have it out for their brother because of his challenges. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have needs too. I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t be involved with his care. Ideally they absolutely would be–most likely to some extent they already are. I just don’t think that the way Abby presents it, and the reasons she presents, are the right ones.

Further, I don’t think this is really a great attitude to convey to your children:

“Mom, I feel like you love Jimmy more and favor him.”

“I don’t love him more, he’s just such a millstone around my neck. Try it, you’ll see.”

Trying to make yourself a martyr to your own daughters, and demonstrating to them that caring for their brother is a burden that eats all your time and energy, is not going to win their sympathy or their support. Even if it’s true, and you’re exhausted, I don’t think it’s appropriate to reveal that your children. That’s not the right way to get them to understand what you’re going through. And really, it’s not their job to understand what you’re going through. They’re your KIDS. And until they’re adults, it’s YOUR responsibility to take care of THEM. It’s absolutely not a partnership of equals, and no one ever said it was. Revealing to your kids that one of them makes your life more difficult than the others is possibly the only thing worse than revealing to them that one of them brings you more joy than the others.

Speaking of which, it really bothers me that mom and dad passed off to the psychologist what should be a part of living every day in their home. It would be one thing if the brother were suddenly stricken in an accident or medical crisis and his needs changed drastically and unexpectedly–then a psychologist exploring the imminent changes with the daughters would be very helpful. And I’m not suggesting that therapy in general wouldn’t be useful for this family. But the understanding that meeting the brother’s extra needs does not diminish the daughters’ value should NOT be a one time conversation with an outsider. It should be woven through the parents’ words and actions every day.

Rather than trying to prove to the girls how hard her life is, I think this mom would be better off expending that energy listening to them and working with them to adjust ALL of their lifestyles. Abby turns it into a stand off of who’s right, and who has the harder time of it, rather than a conversation about what to do. The girls feel that she’s putting her brother’s needs above theirs–Abby’s solution just puts the brother’s AND mother’s needs above theirs.

When the daughter says “You don’t pay any attention to me,” rather than having someone else give her a list of all the reasons why your life is too complicated to include her, say something like “I didn’t mean to make you feel that way. How can I make sure I hear the things that are important to you?” or, “If you can help me get dinner ready, I’d love to hear about your day while we’re in the kitchen together.”

P.S. Where the heck is dad in all this? Mom writes in “we,” so he must be around. And yet he’s totally absent from the story.

I would love to hear from folks who have more experience with this than I do. What was it like in your family? Were there times when the needs of another family member seemed to always overshadow your own, and how did you deal with it? Or on the other hand, were you the one who needed a lot of extra help at home and in life? And how’d you turn out, in the end? Is there anything your siblings or parents did really right or really wrong?

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