It occurs to me often that it has to be really hard to be the sibling of an extra-special kid. I think it is especially hard to be the older sibling of an extra-special kid. S is a 12 year old 7th grader. I think that most of us remember those turbulent years of middle school - the self-consciousness, the budding self-awareness, the beginning of awareness of others (okay, let's just say it - boys), the straddling of wanting more independence, but not being sure about it. It's an interesting time for anyone.
I know to expect that S will think that life's not fair, we like her sister better than her, and we are the meanest parents on the planet because "all of my friends" have or are doing xyz. What I think is heightened for an older sibling of an extra-special kid is that perception that we really do like the younger one better than the older one. It's easy to see where S could get this idea. She was 2 when K was born, so by the time that she really started forming lasting memories, I was beginning to investigate this mysterious "something" that didn't seem right with K.
And S is extra-special in her own way. Not special needs, but boy, oh boy, can she be high maintenance! She's been that way since she was born. Born 5 weeks prematurely, she spent 18 days in the NICU. We would go to the hospital to be with her and come diaper changing time, she would start wailing like we were sticking bamboo shoots under her toenails! Every other little preemie in there was just quiet or making small, little, kitten-like cries. Once we brought her home, I'm pretty sure we didn't put her down for the first 7 months. There were times when I had exactly 8 minutes to get a shower because that is only as long as she would sit in the bouncy seat before going ballistic. Although high maintenance, she remains a keen observer of life, a grounded girl with good values, extremely close to us in her family and while she has an intensity about her that occasionally holds her back from new experiences, her ability to love the people in her life has no limits.
S has grown up with the expectation that K's needs will come first. It isn't exactly true in our hearts, but in practical application, it kind of is. That is not to say that we like K better than S. We have to be practical. K requires more "stuff" to get her from point A to point B. With S, I could just send her to school and know that she'd come home with homework and go back again the next day. It has never been that easy with K. Yes, our lives do often revolve around the things that are needed for K. Yes, I do have to manage their schedules and K's schedule sucks up a lot of our after-school time. S knows that if I can't be two places at once, I am more likely to find someone to take up the slack with her than I am with K. What she doesn't realize is that I make that choice because I can. Because of S, I have become good friends with the parents of her friends. It seems to happen that way with the first born. It's not that I don't want to take care of S, it is that I know I can comfortably call on someone to help me out with her because I simply know those folks better. If I'm honest. sometimes I'd rather just take care of S and skip all the extra stuff with K, but I don't have that same luxury with K. I simply haven't quite developed the same relationships with the parents of K's friends.
My challenge as a parent is to temper my expectations with the person that S really is. There are times when it is so hard to be patient with her, especially when she is being nasty with K. There are times when I want to tell her that I expect her to intervene for her sister, stick up for her sister, help her sister. I struggle with this one. I want her to be caring and sympathetic, in general, and in particular toward her sister, but I also don't want to burden her with the responsibility of taking care of her sister. It isn't her job. I tend to demand more from her because the demands on me are so much more and I think she is up to the task. S is an individual with her own needs and for her entire life, much of our household has - and will continue - to revolve around K's needs. She doesn't necessarily see her sister as extra-special. In fact, sometimes I think she sees K as extra-specially annoying, if anything. I can't blame her for that! K does have a gift for the drama and can be extra-specially annoying. None the less, S is living a life in a family where the scale isn't always balanced.
These days I try to remember that even when S isn't living up to my ridiculously perfect expectations (my problem, not hers), it is because she really doesn't see her sister as extra-special. She treats her sister the way I generally hope everyone will treat K - like she isn't extra-special. S knows K has her weaknesses and she knows K's strengths too. Just like any other sibling would do, S can manipulate both to her advantage. She loves her sister, though, and that is never more evident than when they are playing together in harmony or she is guiding K during playtime with other friends.
It is up to me to remember a bit more often to see K as S sees her - not extra-special, just special in her own way. S really does set the example for me. Good or bad, she doesn't treat her sister any differently than she would if K wasn't extra-special. That is a gift. S sees beyond the extra-special parts. I need to do that a little more often, too.
S is a great kid and whenever I am asked who is learning more - me or her - the answer is, undoubtedly, me.