I have two children. My son is eight years old and is nonverbal with Autism. My daughter is eleven, doesn’t have Autism, and she has no problem verbalizing anything – good, bad, or sarcastic.
One of the biggest fears I, along with many other parents in my position, face is finding balance of time between these two kids. While Lucas might have an abundance of special needs, my daughter’s needs are special to me too. I strive to let her know that she is equal to her brother and, in my eyes, just as important.
I do it for her, but also for him. I don’t want her growing up with the warped view that he was the dominant force in our household – even if that’s a true statement at times. Not only am I concerned for her own self-esteem, but also for the view she holds of her brother. One day, they will be adults. The last thing I want to do is breed resentment now, when they’re young.
That means a lot of extra effort on my part. It means bringing him to every single performance or ceremony that she wants us all attending. It means looking up at her, while having an in-seat wrestling match to keep him in place at an auditorium concert and giving a thumbs up amid the chaos. It means making an otherwise simple outing into a difficult one all for the sake of family.
The biggest issue is that, to an eleven-year-old, even my caretaker moments with Lucas can appear to be “quality time”. This exact thing happened yesterday and, in a moment of weakness, almost became an example of what I don’t want to be.
My son needed a haircut and, despite becoming better at standing for them, he is still a long way from sitting in a barber’s chair. So we were in the bathroom, buzzing away. He had his iPad and I had my clippers. I was cutting. He was blocking. It was what it was. As we were doing this delicate dance, Olivia showed up in the doorway.
Will you play ball with me?
I was dripping in dead head follicles.
Oh. You’re busy.
I am. But how about after? Go in the backyard and practice while I finish up and I’ll meet you.
She said all that in her bored kid tone. It’s a cross between a whine and a whimper. Some days, it pulls on your heart strings. When you’re pretty tired and covered in Lucas hair like it’s a winter storm, though, it doesn’t have the same effect.
She went outside as I completed the cut. Then, I tossed him in the shower, washed the remnants of his mop top off the floor, and took his clothes into the laundry room. The whole process took about fifteen more minutes from when she left to go “practice”.
As I came out of the laundry room, I saw her coming back inside through the sliding glass doors. She was holding a bright blue ball.
What are you doing? You’re coming back inside?
Yeah. I got bored.
She was using that same tone as earlier. I could tell she was unhappy with the waiting but not enough to cause a fuss. I could also tell that, given how much I had just done and how exhausted I was, this was the perfect out. All I had to do was say “OK” and maybe offer her a TV show instead. But, I didn’t.
So you’re just coming back in? Why? Because you’re scared I’m going to kick your butt at ball outside? Huh? Little punk? Little scaredy punk?
Her face lit up and she hopped with excitement. It was like I had just changed her batteries.
Nah ah! Let’s go!
And she darted outside. I mustered up all the energy I could find and followed.
Once we were outside, we played kickball, catch, and updown ball – which is basically catch from the second-floor deck to the backyard patio. Eventually, she asked to help me water the garden, but instead doused both of us with the hose. By the end of the hour, we were soaked, and she was the happiest I had seen her in a long while.
During all this, I went to the screen door by the den where Lucas was watching TV to see if he wanted to join in.
Hey. Lucas. Want to come outside? Come play with us?
I made the come-hither hand motion and he stared at me like a museum exhibit. He didn’t care so I didn’t push it. I didn’t make Olivia wait while I forced him to come play. I didn’t turn this daddy-daughter moment into a personal victory for my son instead. No. I simply said, “OK. Buddy. You can play in there.”
I knew that putting the playtime on hold to coax him out would be another minute of time taken from my daughter. I feared that it would cause her to see him as burden and his inevitable meltdown at being dragged from the Wiggles would only solidify that. Instead, I left him be and focused on her.
Because of this, I would see her run up to the screen door during random times while we played so she could tap and call out, “Hi Lucas!” I smiled every time. He wasn’t a burden. He was her brother.
When we came back in, he continued watching Ready, Steady, Wiggle while she went upstairs to shower. Me? I unexpectedly passed out for forty minutes on my office couch. I wasn’t kidding when I said I was exhausted.
Being a parent is all about pushing yourself to do more for your kids when your body begs you to lie down. It’s about finding balance. Even moments of great parenting, like haircuts and bathtimes, can be strikes against you if there is another child watching from afar and hoping for your attention. It can be hard to notice that it’s even happening.
I’m not saying that I get it right every time, but when I do, it makes a world of difference. Only one of my kids may have “special needs” but they both are special and they both have needs. And one day, when I’m not here, they’re going to have each other. Whatever I can do to strengthen their relationship now, I gladly will…no matter how exhausting it can sometimes be.