Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sibling Issues Strike Again: It's True, Life IS Unfair. (Now What?)

In my post about the school picnic, I said I reached a new level of acceptance regarding the expectations I have when taking Max to activities or events. What I didn't mention was the fact that there is a slightly different set of expectations involved when the activity is not one specifically for Max.

I still feel a lot of ambivalence about how to include him in certain activities where the challenges may not be as acceptable.

Now, I'm not talking about issues of accessibility. We don't have a wheelchair to maneuver. We don't need ASL translation. I'm not even talking about community attitudes or tolerance (though that certainly does have an effect). I'm talking about our own, personal expectations.

I've heard families make the blanket statement, "Our child is part of our family; if she's not included, we don't do it."

I've also heard parents insist, "It's important to do things without him sometimes."

Frankly, I can see quite clearly from both perspectives, and place my personal viewpoint somewhere in the middle, sliding further towards one side or the other from time to time. (What that looks like is this: we do much less than we used to and frequently find ourselves turning down invitations or avoiding activities; and then when we do venture out, it is quite often without Max.)

As we get closer to summer vacation with all its trips and practices and campouts and sleepovers and picnics and parties and etc....well, this whole topic is weighing heavily on my mind. I want to stay balanced -- as a parent and as a family. It's not always clear to me how to do that, though. (The real question is not "To be, or not to be?" but, "HOW??")

Our decisions about what we will and won't do vary from day to day and case to case. Sometimes, sadness at leaving Max out -- or an unwillingness to do so -- is the stronger pull; other times the frustration or worry about bringing him along wins out. And, frankly, there are things that we know in advance will be extremely challenging for him, or simply aren't compatible with his needs or moods, which makes the decision to exclude him simpler.

(Well, it's simpler assuming we have the option and the childcare it requires, I should say. But that's a topic for another time.)

Sometimes the decision is based on purely selfish reasoning -- I simply don't have the energy or motivation to try to make it work. Or I need to be able to focus or participate in (or, simply enjoy) something without the distractions he can bring. Or, bluntly put, I want a break.

The times when the issues seem stickier -- or, occasionally, clearer -- are when the activities or events are for Max's siblings. When his brother or sister is being honored or acknowledged or celebrated, it doesn't always work to share the limelight, or divide our attention, or split the parental unit.

I'm suddenly reminded of a song on a Hap Palmer children's tape I used to play frequently when our daughter (the oldest) was a toddler. The song was called "Baby's First" and the chorus always came back to the phrase, "Everything is baby's first!" One day my husband said, "It's SO TRUE! -- Everything is All About The Baby now!" He had misunderstood the lyrics (which mentioned a whole list of milestones in the verses, like "Baby's first bubble" and "Baby's first bottle" and "Baby's first steps") to be a hierarchical command of "Babies First!" or the contraction of "baby IS first." We got a big kick out of his misinterpretation. We also got a lot of mileage out of the profound truth -- and caution -- it seemed to hint at. I think of it now, because Max is the baby in our family. (And I mean that on several different levels.) It seems as though the refrain is too often coming across as "Max is first."

So, anyway, all that sibling and inclusion stuff? They were the issues that bobbed to the surface yesterday, yet again. And that is the story I originally sat down to write about.

Max's older sister had her first track meet yesterday, which is when it all started. It was a gorgeous day, the meet was short, everything was outside -- basically, it was the perfect type of activity to take Max along to. He was very content and enjoyed cheering and watching all the action and was the model of good behavior. BUT he had to go to the bathroom during his sister's event! TWICE. My husband took him and they could watch from the sidelines as they walked along. But, really, it was just such lousy timing. It didn't seem like he was trying to manipulate or steal the attention or anything (and we certainly want to encourage his use of the toilet!), so they went. It wasn't a big deal, really. Except that it kind of was.

Later that evening, Max's sister had another special event. An essay she had written won 3rd place in a contest and she was invited to attend the City Council meeting to read the essay and be recognized by the mayor. I knew there would be at least a few other kids there, too, along with their families, and our town isn't all that big. So even though it was a rather formal setting, I thought it appropriate for our WHOLE family to be there, to cheer her on and offer our proud support.

(Plus, it's the City Council. Where ordinances are passed and community issues are decided. I should think it's an appropriate setting -- at least in theory -- to inclusively welcome ALL members of our community. But again, that's a topic for another time.)

I told Max where we were going and what we would be doing there and what behavior was expected of him (and even reminded him of a few things we would NOT be doing). I kept it simple. I repeated it over and over -- at home, again in the car, and whispered more in his ear as we sat and waited for the meeting to begin. He said "church" and I said yes, it was a lot like church. He signed "music" (we just attended a band concert last week, with similar instructions & rules) and I had to break the news that there would be no music this time. He was disappointed, but sat quietly and nodded and watched everyone.

And then, just as the meeting was called to order and the first item on the agenda was announced, Max fell apart. He would not stay seated. He grabbed my daughter's essay out of her hands and crumpled it. He struggled and squirmed. Then he started to yell. He spit on the floor and thrashed himself around. My husband wrangled him out of the room with little delay, but his shouts were still audible from the hallway.

They ended up going outside for a bit so Max could calm down, then slipped into the back of the room so they wouldn't miss the very thing we were there for. Frustratingly enough, when I cautiously looked back at them to see how they were doing, I briefly made eye contact with Max (how DARE I??) and he started to yell again, and they whisked back out, briefly, one more time.

They made it back in before our daughter had her moment in the spotlight -- thank goodness -- but it was touch-and-go there for a while. And even though my husband was present in the end, he was sitting in the back of the room. Frustrated. Embarrassed. Annoyed. And, once again, separate from the rest of us.

This is the thing: even when we do "whole family" events, we are generally split in two distinct groups, with my husband and I doing tag-team or parallel activities. They don't really feel like "whole family" events.

In this particular case, while my husband was dealing with Max in the back, I was sitting with the two older kids towards the very front of the room, and they were visibly shrinking in their seats. My daughter, in particular, was terribly uncomfortable. I could see the look of pride drain from her face, as her smile crumpled and her face turned red. Her nervousness was being trumped by self-conscious horror and the fear that Max would destroy her essay (quite literally, as it were). In addition, she was worried that her dad might miss the whole thing.

This particular situation had a (relatively) happy ending. Max was quiet and cooperative through the actual reading of the essay, which was the critical moment for us. We left as soon as that part was over, making it out of the meeting hall without further ado.

Her big moment.

We didn't linger or visit or chat. We should have. But instead, we just got in the car with sighs of relief and left.

So Proud (and relieved it was over!)

At home, I took some pictures of my daughter with her award. Even then, Max was saying "cheeeeese!" and trying to worm his way into the photo. I insisted his sister had the spotlight alone for a number of shots and that he wait his turn.

And when his turn came, all of the acting out transformed immediately into delighted grins.


I don't think these sibling issues have clear-cut solutions, and we continue to fumble our way through. Sometimes we fail, sometimes we succeed -- but each situation is different, so there isn't always a lot of carry-over wisdom. What works one time might not work the next; then again, what fails one time might work the next. We're working without an instruction manual, relying heavily on trial-and-error.

It's not fair that the squeaky wheel always gets the grease.

(But then again, isn't that WHY it's squeaking in the first place? Because it needs that grease??)

So then I decide that applying the right grease to the right spot will make the squeaking stop. And then the ride will be smoother and more enjoyable for everyone, when all the wheels are turning smoothly and efficiently along together.

(But how do we know we're using the right grease? How do we know the squeak isn't actually being caused by some other, hidden part that's out of alignment or cracked or weakened or just plain missing?)

Either way, the question remains -- How do you fix a chronically squeaky wheel without bringing the entire vehicle to a dead stop? Surely there's a way.

(But then again, sometimes aren't you better off just leaving the wheel in the shop for some much-needed maintenance work instead?)

I'm obviously not a mechanic and I clearly haven't figured out the best way to maintain all these wheels.

I could really use a manual. (...and also a new metaphor!)

I'll keep thinking about this one.

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