Should siblings be responsible for each other? And if so, is that okay?
When parenting a child with a disability many people offer advice or opinions from their perspective of what would be best for a family like ours. People are not shy to give voice to the potential problems which they believe we face. Specifically, people assume that when non disabled siblings are raised with a sibling with a disability, it will cause some level of hardship in some way to the non disabled sibling. The idea that non disabled siblings will be responsible for their disabled sibling, is frowned upon. This blog post, like most posts that I write, is about giving insight into our lives in the hope of giving other families the vocabulary to speak their truth.
When Michael and I became pregnant with our second child Talisa, we had no fears about anything concerning the new baby. It might have been due to my new-found faith or it might have been that I was still in the honeymoon phase of my marriage. When Talisa was born unlike her elder sister, she was not a person with a disability. She was a demanding baby though and tested my resolve in many ways. But I was happy to have two children. We were very hopeful about the future for our family.
Sadly few people shared our delight. Some people thought that they should educate me about all the problems Talisa was going to experience because of her relation to Savannah. One person thought that Talisa would likely have poor speech because Savannah had a speech impediment. Another piece of unsolicited advice was that it was very unfair to Talisa to be born into a family with a person with a disability as she would be “burdened” with her sister. Someone else suggested that I should limit the time that the girls spent together. The list goes on.
In hindsight I think most people were expressing their own fears about parenting a child with a disability. Of course, it was challenging. Especially in the early days when in many areas of development, Savannah and Talisa were on the same level. Even though there was a six-year age gap between them. While adjusting to mothering two girls with different demands, I was also trying to learn all about Savannah’s diagnosis. Savannah was a diagnosed with cerebral palsy. She was non speaking and had other issues that I could not quite understand. She was only diagnosed as being an autistic person when she eight years old. I can only describe the first three years of Talisa’s life as the ‘twilight years’.
By the time Eli came along we were a little more settled as a family unit. Both girls were besotted with him. Together all three formed their own unique relationship. I know many of my friends who have a child with a disability and non disabled children, often testify that having more than one child is the best thing they did. For those parents who choose to only parent their child with a disability, I understand that too. Raising children today is demanding in many ways, and at different times I struggled with the demands of being a parent. More so I struggled with the enormity of Savannah’s special needs. Please do not ask me if it is better to have more children or not after having a child with a disability. There is no better or worse when it comes to children. It is just about working out how to be the best for yourself and for your child or children.
So fast forward to the present day, when Savannah is twenty-two years old, Talisa is sixteen years old and Eli is eleven years old. Talisa and Eli have some responsibility for Savannah. I was aware when both children began assuming certain areas of care for her. While those old voices sometimes echoed in my mind that my younger children shouldn’t be responsible for their sister, my children kept me in check.
My first check was a few years ago when Talisa spoke at an awareness event. She said that she does not often tell people she has a sister who is a person with a disability because she does not want to hear “Oh shame.” She continued to explain that when she meets the non disabled siblings of friends, she never responds with “Oh, shame”. She is a cheeky girl. Her point simply being that Savannah is just her sister like all other sibling relationships. While their relationship has different nuances to most siblings, she does not appreciate that “Oh, shame” is the response it should elicit.
A few more checks came as Eli grew. Being a boy, he easily slips into the role of protector. He enjoys teaching Savannah pranks and jokes. He helps her with: tying her shoelaces to assisting her with her communication software to exercising with her. When Michael is late in returning home, Eli helps Savannah with her bed time routine. (She does not stay asleep whenever I help her to bed, and somehow sleeps better when Michael or Eli put her to bed). I had to stop thanking him for what he does when he asked me to “stop making their sibling stuff awkward with my mum stuff”.
In homes like ours, where one person is vulnerable and will remain so for the rest of their lives, the levels of care and protection that develop between the family members are unique and precious. Few people outside this type of dynamic will understand it. We are always thinking about what might be too much for the non disabled siblings as far as being responsible goes, against what is vital to building strong sibling bonds. For many families siblings are more trustworthy than a professional care giver or another adult. In truth, one day they will be the only people who will oversee the care of their sibling with a disability.
This week as Savannah began her new therapy program, we created a group on WhatsApp for the team so that we can easily transfer information between home and therapy. Both Talisa and Eli are included in that group. As her siblings they share all her milestone moments with her as well as her day-to-day life. It is offensive to them when they are excluded from important areas of Savannah’s life. Talisa asked me once why people make a big deal about her role in Savannah’s future? She said that most siblings have some level of care and loyalty towards each other. How can anyone expect her to be detached from Savannah’s life when they both become adults?
In raising our children, we did not heed the advice of anyone who thought that Savannah would be a burden to her siblings. We simply raised children in a home with a family that loved each other. Like all children, Talisa and Eli go through all the usual issues and triumphs of life as they grow. They have their own challenges, their own dreams and their own goals. Unlike other children they learnt a little something about tolerance and patience early in life. I think the best lesson they learnt is about accepting people for who they are. They are not angels or better than other children. They are simply siblings who get to understand loyalty and love much quicker than most.
For all parents of children with disabilities, we live with a constant fearful thought that we try to ignore. What will happen to our vulnerable children when we die? When we have more than one child, none of our children will be alone in the world. Especially our child with a disability.
Each family is different and every sibling deserves a life that is true to who they are. As parents we are responsible for building that life. Please think about that when you meet a family raising both disabled and non disabled children.
If you found this post helpful, you might also enjoy reading about Being Courageous Even In Uncertainty.