Parenting: Is it unfair to other siblings, when one child has a disability?

Parenting: Is it unfair to other siblings, when one child has a disability?

This is my first blog post in three months. Time is a monster in my life but today, I had to write this, as short or long as it may turn out to be. In a time when parenting has become a central focus for many families, it is appalling to me that many people hold to a belief that in families where a child has a disability, it will always be unfair to the siblings of that child.

A family holiday

Now before I offer some insight into why this blanket opinion is appalling; let me acknowledge that there are families where siblings of a child with a disability have complex emotional needs. Their parents may not be as available to them as they might be to the child with a disability. Consider the myriad of demands on parents in typical parenting units. Can you only imagine what the demands are for parents who parent children with different needs? If you can’t imagine it, then let me offer this first piece of advice here – please do not make any comments or assumptions about what happens in families where disability is part of the dynamic. Zoe Gow’s shares her insight about this – Siblings and special needs: the life of the other child.

I can stand on my soap box here and rant about how if you are not raising a child with a disability, you cannot know how hard this is. You do not know what never-ending exhaustion is nor the mental and emotional stamina we must have everyday to be consistent in therapies and medications while also often trying to keep up with a mind that dances to a tune to which the lyrics and harmony are unfamiliar to the parents. And just when we think we have figured it out, the tune changes again.

Michael pulling Savannah up some stairs so we can browse a bookstore together.

From my soap box, I can also add to my rant that you cannot fathom, the love that keeps us doing this again and again, everyday.

But I won’t stand on my soap box to wax lyrical about that. Instead, I want to offer a different perspective from my own true story:

I am a survivor of childhood and teenage trauma, sexual abuse and domestic violence. I was a mother at eighteen years old to Savannah who is autistic and has cerebral palsy, and other stuff (her description of herself). I was made to feel ashamed by my family and my community because I had fallen pregnant out-of-wedlock, and also that my daughter had a disability.

Savannah taking a short stroll with me .

When I finally got my happily ever after, my parents decided to end their marriage as the sun dawned on mine. While I tried with all my might to bask in the glory of my husband and the fact that Savannah had a dad, the embers of my parents dying marriage caught at my soul and burned me. At the same time I was trying to recover from the loud ringing in my ears that announced that Savannah was “severely disabled” and had no hope of a future. I’m guessing you are piecing together by now that I must have had a couple serious emotional problems. I did but the demands placed on me meant that there was no space to acknowledge my own emotions about both events.

Still I wanted to have another baby. Yes. I selfishly wanted to know what it would feel like to have a child who was more like what I thought a child should be. But people would not let Michael and I have that. When we were pregnant for Talisa, we were told that it was unfair to bring a child into the world who would be burdened with Savannah someday. I was told to limit the time the new baby spent with Savannah because she would pick up Savannah’s “bad habits”.

Later when we had Eli, we were told thank goodness we had him, atleast Talisa will not be alone. (Huh,she wasn’t. She had Savannah.) We were asked how would we manage financially and if we thought about how much Talisa and Eli will be deprived off because Savannah will deplete us.

And while I would not describe our financial situation that way, it wasn’t untrue. But it stung that all people saw was a thing who was here to destroy our lives. They did not see a person who deserved dignity, a good quality of life and who had dreams and hopes for herself. Just because her physical form and her mind had some variants to the rest of us, they wrote her off as no one and nothing. As if no good could come from her. An inconvenience.

Eli asleep on Savannah’s lap while travelling to our holiday destination.

Now all these many years later, Talisa and Eli have actually been “burdened” to care for Savannah, within their capacity. And shocker alert…there are days when Savannah is burdened by the bustle of two neuro-typical siblings. Their unstructured routines mess with hers and they encourage her to do crazy things like play cricket and then horror of horrors they want her to go out and mingle with people. They share insane plans with her about when Talisa has her drivers licence and how they will all three go out partying till late at night.

Oh and yes, those people were right. Our finances have been depleted because caring for someone with a disability in this country is not considered a human right but rather a fantastic opportunity to make money off desperate families who want to ensure their person with a disability is not deprived of care, medical attention and necessary supports. So we can’t give Talisa and Eli everything their hearts desire. However, often what their hearts desire is not what is necessary for a happy childhood. I sleep easy when I remind myself of that.

But maybe all those people were right. This life has been unfair to Talisa and Eli.

Savannah, Talisa and Eli on a recent visit to a Basothu Village.

Then I ask, what of the unfairness to the girl who was molested, watched domestic violence and adultery rip her family apart before she was thirteen, who was responsible for her parents marriage both in its existence and it demise, who was a cutter and a suicidal teenager and who understood guilt, rage and shame as normal. Why had no one told her parents that it was unfair to raise children that way?

Quite simply because somewhere we have lost our way and have aligned good parenting to a standard of living that is defined by where we live, what we drive, where our children go to school, what brands we wear, what technologies we own and what level of entertainment we can afford. Good parenting is none of that. It is very simply having a relationship with your children where you see each other, honestly and openly. The CNN reporter Anderson Cooper said of his mother Gloria Vanderbilt after her passing “I knew her and she knew me. And there is great comfort in that”.

Now I am no expert, but if my heart is my guide I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Michael and I have done something right in how we fostered our children’s relationships with each other. Their lives speak these truths:

  • While I talk about Talisa studying away from home after her school career ends and if that is right for her; she is in no big hurry to leave home. People who have had this discussion with her are always touched by her contentment and that her personal plans do not include fleeing from her sister and us.
  • Both Eli and Talisa’s plans include having a family. They talk about marriage and children so matter-of-factly and with such pride, that I’m the one who is stunned wondering what is wrong with these children.
  • They frequently joke with each other and with Savannah about where Sunday lunch will be held when they are adults, and which of them will take Savannah shopping to get the salad ingredients. They fully expect her to contribute to the lunch by making a salad. You know if she doesn’t, it would be unfair (snigger).
  • This morning I overheard Eli telling Talisa, that he was up playing on his PS4 till late last night and he heard Savannah call. He said “I was glad to have heard her before dad, because atleast I got to her before he awoke. She just needed help to turn over.” When I approached him about it, he said: “Mum, stop making it weird. She is my sister. And I’m not emotionally scarred from helping her.”

So maybe Talisa and Eli have grown up too fast. Maybe they have more responsibility than they should. In light of what many children are allowed access to on television, the internet and in their gaming, as well as that many children are still living with domestic violence, narcissism and so much worse; I’m going to say that developing selflessness, compassion, kindness, empathy, loyalty and sibling love that no one will ever understand, is not the worst thing that can happen to my children. And no I don’t think it’s unfair to them at all.

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