Several parents who write for this site also contributed to the book Easy to Love but Hard to Raise, whether in the form of personal essays (Penny Williams, Adrienne Bashista, Frank South, and Pamela Hutchins) or insightful quotes (Kelly Miller and Tammy Murphy). Even though I co-edited the book, and thus had an “in” as far as having a piece accepted, I didn’t submit an essay for inclusion in the book.
I started to write an essay, but I never finished it. One reason was that I was too busy editing other people’s essays to have time to work on mine. Believe me, that was a valid reason. But I also got caught up in not knowing how my essay should end. Maybe that’s because the real-life saga at the heart of my essay is still very much a work in progress, a sad fact that became all too clear last Sunday night.
A situation developed that led my 15-year-old neurotypical son, Aaron, to express feelings of hurt and resentment about how he’s treated by his dad and me, in comparison with his sister, Natalie, our 11 year old who has ADHD. This wasn’t the first time this has come up—far from it. And ever since we adopted Natalie, when she was 2 and Aaron was 6, it’s been one of my biggest concerns. (See: “Bouncing Off the Walls,” “The Icing On the Cake,” and “Can I Get a Little Respite?”) Out of respect for Aaron’s privacy, I won’t detail our conversation. But I will say that it left me sobbing—loud, moaning, gulping-for-air sobs. I was so upset that I couldn’t stand to be in the house. I had to leave, first for a walk, and when that didn’t help, for a long drive.
The next morning I emailed Penny Williams, knowing that if anyone would understand, it was her. I knew this because of her essay “Seeing Emma,” one of the two essays she wrote for Easy to Love but Hard to Raise. (“Seeing Emma” is a revised version of Penny’s blog post, “what about siblings of ADHD?”.) Before long Penny was calling on my cell phone to offer support. (Thanks, Penny!)
The essay that I started to write for Easy to Love but Hard to Raise was about this very topic—the very different, admittedly inequitable roles my two children play in the interwoven, ongoing drama that is life in our family. Here are some excerpts from that unfinished essay:
“I think of my 14-year-old son, Aaron, as a shadow child. He sometimes fades from my consciousness for hours at a time. When he reappears, from hiding away with his video games in the basement, or from behind the closed door of his bedroom, I’m actually startled. Oh, yeah, I think. Aaron’s home too.
My mother-love should be a light source, emanating from my heart to shine on my children 24 hours a day, bright enough that they always see it, warm enough that they always feel it. So what could possibly stand between me and my son, blocking that light, throwing a shadow over this child I gave birth to?
It’s a small girl. At first glance, she seems too inconsequential to overshadow the boy, as tall as his is, now taller than his mother. But she does. Yes, she’s small, but she out-moves him, out-louds him, out-needs him; demands me. She’s 10-year-old Natalie, the child we brought home from Russia to be Aaron’s sister.
We didn’t set out to adopt a child with special needs….”
“Integrating an active toddler into a family is wholly different from bringing home a dependent baby, and this particular toddler was even more active than most. After six glorious years as an only child, Aaron had to adjust to this new sibling, who usurped 95 percent of his parents’ time and attention.
One morning, during our first week home, I put Aaron off with one ‘Just a minute…’ too many, and he ran, crying, to his room. I left Natalie sitting strapped in her highchair, a snack on the tray, and followed him. I had just reached Aaron’s room and sat down next to him on his bed, when I heard a crash. I ran back to find Natalie on the floor, screaming, the overturned highchair beside her. Soon all three of us were in tears. Natalie’s basic needs would trump Aaron’s emotional needs many times in the years to come….”
“It often took a more than an hour to get Natalie to sleep at night. I’d lay her down, she’d pop back up. I’d cover her with a blanket, she’d kick it off. I’d lie next to her, shush her, sing songs, pat her back. By the time she fell asleep and I snuck out of her room, Aaron had long ago gone to bed on his own—without mom there to tuck him in, give him a kiss, tell him goodnight.
About two months after Natalie arrived I was due to resume my part time job at the local public library. During my work hours, Aaron had been cared for by the same in-home daycare provider, Millie, from the time he was nine weeks old, and the plan was for Natalie to go to Millie’s house too. I arranged for Natalie to have a couple of short stays at Millie’s during non-school hours so Aaron would be there too, to ease the transition. One week before my first day back, Millie phoned. It wasn’t going to work out for her to take care of Natalie, she said—this woman who was Aaron’s third parent, who had been raising her own and other people’s kids for over 20 years.
This was our first big reality check about the neediness of this child. And, perhaps more significantly, the first time Natalie’s path diverged from full inclusion in the routines of our family. Her need for constant attention and close supervision, coupled with her extreme sensitivity to light, sound, and visual stimuli made it too hard to take her places, keeping her on that divergent path. We learned to hire a babysitter for Natalie when we went out, ostensively as a family, to our dinner club, to Aaron’s baseball and basketball games, even just to a restaurant for dinner.
Caring for Natalie soaked up so much of my time and energy that I felt like I never saw Aaron, never did anything for him. He took to hanging out in the basement, passing the time playing Xbox. He stopped having friends over, because he was too embarrassed by the mess in our house, and eventually, he began spending tons of time at his best friend’s house.
‘ Shouldn’t we make Aaron come home for a while?’ Don would ask, when Aaron had been at Zach’s house for most of a day.
‘Why? It’s not like we can spend time with him if he comes home. He’ll just be alone in the basement,’ I’d say. ‘Let him stay.’ We even joked that it would be Aaron’s ‘other parents’ who would have ‘the talk’ with him when the time came….”
“By the time he was in first grade Aaron would wake up and get ready for school on his own. He did his homework with no prompts or supervision. I never checked his planner. When his friend Jake’s mom asked me how he did on a certain project or assignment, more often than not, I wouldn’t have a clue….”
It’s been a year since I last worked on this this essay. If someone asked, I would have said that since then things have gotten better. Sunday night’s drama proves they haven’t improved enough.
I’d give anything to know that someday, some way, I’ll finish writing this essay—and that it will have a happy ending.