Monday, February 1, 2016

Let's Talk About Typical Siblings

A few days ago, I read To the Typical Siblings, written by fellow blogger and friend, Ellen Stumbo.  Reading it made me wonder about how my own typical siblings felt, growing up with a sister who was more obviously physically disabled.  (My twin sister was also born with Cerebral Palsy, but because hers was less involved, she was raised by our family as if she were typical, even though she had surgeries and went to physical therapy afterward like me.)  As we are all adults now, I thought it was important to hear everyone's thoughts about what it was like growing up with a disabled sibling (or siblings).

Based on what I have read, I was expecting my siblings to have a certain response.  Many of the accounts of typical children involve negative feelings such as anger, resentment or sadness toward the disabled sibling.  I don't want to minimize that experience.  It is valid.  I will say, though, I was surprised to hear such calm, loving and reasonable responses from my sister and brothers, because my research set me up to expect something altogether different.

Did you ever feel overlooked by our parents?

Tara, 34:  I was never overlooked!  I was always called on as the oldest to help or baby-sit or achieve to a respectable level.

Tye, 30:  I would definitely say that I never ever felt overlooked by Mom or Dad. At least that's how I see it now.  If I thought I was at one point or another, I was just over dramatic or acting crazy, because I was never ever overlooked. I got a lot of positive attention playing sports and other things. And I got a lot of negative attention when I got caught acting like a jerk, but either way I wasn't overlooked.

Trent, 29:  I never felt overlooked.

Tanner, 19:  My answers will be different as I am the baby by quite a few years.  I feel like my childhood was pretty normal for someone as young as myself with siblings as old as you guys.  I was and still am spoiled by Mom and Dad and never really felt overlooked.

Did you feel like you had to sacrifice certain things because of me?

Tara, 34:  To be perfectly honest, I think I used the idea of you needing me as an excuse not to do things more often than you actually hindered me from doing anything.  I was shy and liked the idea of social gatherings much more than actually participating in them.  So, this excuse was a comfort and a convenience as much as I may have tried to convince myself otherwise.

I sometimes resented the adults in the family who were constantly reminding me to help you.  As if it was the sole purpose of my existence.  As if I wouldn't have done it otherwise.  As if you couldn't ask me yourself if you needed help.

It's hard to determine where any potential resentments may originate - whether they stem from being the oldest, the "more able-bodied" sibling or identity issues that come from being a twin. 

Tye, 30:   I don't think that any of us ever had to sacrifice anything. I feel that when you grow up with a person or people who have a disability, whatever it may be, that is your normal. Anything you can or can't do isn't a sacrifice, it is all just your normal. 

I can completely understand how anyone disabled may have those thoughts for many reasons, but that would be another conversation. 

I remember getting to sit in the front of rides at Valley Fair and stuff like that. I also remember feeling bad that you couldn't do certain things, but as a selfish and self-centered child, I'm pretty sure I never had to sacrifice anything. 

Trent, 29:  I don't think there was anything I couldn't do because of you.  Nothing comes to mind, anyway.

Tanner, 19:   I do not ever recall feeling limited because of you.  We didn't do as much as a family by the time I was into my childhood.  I feel like you guys were all pretty much a well-oiled machine with traveling and whatever else we did together.

Do you feel like you gained anything specific having a disabled sibling?

Tara, 34:  I gained awareness about accessibility issues, as well as a basic understanding that pitying someone because they are disabled is unwarranted.  I learned to always presume competence and ability to communicate regardless of disability.

Tye, 30:   I definitely think that there is a lot gained from having a sibling with a disability. You learn from a very young age that they are normal human beings that have feelings and can do everything that anyone else can do.  And they actually have to be smarter and more adaptable to do certain things that people without a disability never think twice about. All that being said, I think generally it makes people a lot more open-minded and less judgmental. 

I also think that I learned empathy from it. As a kid, my thought about my sisters were that they are just as strong as everyone else, and they are a lot smarter than anyone else - they just have some trouble walking. That's how I would explain it to people when I was younger. 

I also think that I gained different insights and had different life experiences than other people, and I would definitely say those are positives.

Trent, 29:  I think just things like patience and respect when I was a child.

Tanner, 19:  I feel like I was brought up with a lot more empathy and understanding of different people's situations because of you (not just people with physical handicaps either).  It also left me with a much more positive outlook on life, seeing as how much you have achieved and influenced others seemingly without being hindered by your physical limitations.

You and Tara probably disciplined me more than anyone else, and kept me from being a bigger [butt] head than I could have been.  You made my childhood awesome with all of the reading and movie watching and everything else we did.  I am extremely grateful for that, as Mom and Dad lived pretty busy lives and couldn't have done that for me themselves.

What do you think about parents feeling sorry for typical siblings - pitying the normal childhood they didn't have?  

Tara, 34:  Did I ever fantasize about having less responsibility - sure.  That's not unusual.

 My experience is not exceptional, it is normal.  It's being part of a family.  So, to be severely praised or conversely pitied for living my life with my siblings?  It's kind of weird, to be honest.

The emphasis within our family was on success and pulling one's own weight regardless of ability.  I never felt like Mom and Dad expected less of you.  So, as such, I also never felt like I had to succeed based on my ability level.  Also, placing undue pressure on someone to succeed solely because their sibling is disabled feels unfair and potentially harmful.

Tye, 30:   I'm not sure that I'm understanding correctly, but I don't at all feel like it was something that happened in our family. 

I'm sure that it is something that is fairly common, and it's a horrible thing. I'm also sure it would be very easy for someone to feel that way, too.

Trent, 29:  I think that you only get this one life, and one family, and to look back and regret that your children grew up in a unique situation seems silly. I would tell them to remember: that is quite literally what family is for.

Tanner, 19:  I think it's normal and understandable for a parent to feel pity towards the siblings, though I do not feel it is necessary.  

Going off of what Tara said: Siblings are there to be siblings.  They are there to understand, help and grow with one another in a whole spectrum of different ways.  I think most siblings (at least ideally) are understanding of each other and our various strengths and weaknesses.  That's just part of life.  

I'm also a firm believer that struggle is a natural and necessary part of life.

What is one thing our parents did that other parents could do so that their typical kids grow up feeling valued and not less important than a disabled sibling?

Tara, 34:  Helping out at an age-appropriate level is a great skill to learn early.  ("Bring Daddy that toy, please."  "Can you hold your sister's hand?")  It promotes a sense of purpose and emphasizes the importance of teamwork within the family.

Tye, 30:  I think positive reinforcement is one of the most important things a parent can do for their kids, so they grow up confident from a young age.  So they are not ever afraid to try new things, not afraid to fail.  So they are confident with humility.

Trent, 29:   Although very busy, I think Mom and Dad did a good job [nurturing] whatever it was we enjoyed doing. Creativity, sports - whatever it was at the time.

Tanner, 19:  Tara mentioned everyone pulling their own weight earlier, I think that was a really good example of that.  I feel it's important to remain somewhat similar with expectations between children.


Having researched the perspective of typical siblings a bit prior to conducting this interview, I find my siblings' responses to be a rare light in an oftentimes dark conversation.  To them, having a disabled sibling is normal, and the overall impact of having me in their lives has been positive.  It's my sincere wish that every disabled child grows up with siblings as amazing as mine.

{Photo is of my siblings and me.  November, 1996.  Photo credit to my dad.}


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