How becoming a big sister gave my daughter with special needs a big confidence boost

My second pregnancy wasn't planned, but a younger sibling turned out to be the best thing we could have given her.

Illustration: Allison & Cam

Until my daughter, Phoebe, was about four years old, I used to joke that she had embraced her English side—I’m from the UK—and was giving John Cleese a run for his money with her silly walks. But as she grew, the adorable pigeon-toed gait turned into a foot-dragging lurch that wore out the toes of her shoes, and I knew something was up. After years of literally dragging her from one paediatric expert to another, I finally received a diagnosis that made sense: “spastic diplegia in her lower limbs,” also known as mild cerebral palsy.

Phoebe has since also been given the additional diagnoses of ADHD and autism. For a girl who has trouble with her balance—she can crash to the ground because of a slight rise in the sidewalk—adding the impulsivity of ADHD is like lighting a cigarette at a gas station: explosive. Phoebe moves before she thinks, and I’m in a constant state of high alert, anticipating each obstacle and leaping to the rescue.

Over time, I had begun to feel that as well as being Phoebe’s helpful guide and advocate, I’d also become her hindrance. She needed to get out of the spotlight and have the space to grow up, but I couldn’t relinquish my instinctual role as her hovering protector. It was impossible not to intervene when I watched her struggle with daily tasks, like putting on her shoes or pouring water into a glass (and not all over the table).

When I found out I was expecting an unplanned second child at the grand old age of 43, I alternated between excitement and nervousness. I was thrilled to give my daughter a sibling, who would accept and love her as she is, but anxious about my energy levels as an older parent. Another child would make it impossible for me to focus only on her, and she’d be forced to be more independent.

Even during my pregnancy, Phoebe began to embrace the role of older sister. On walks to school, she’d earnestly discuss how important it would be that “he wears him [sic] helmet” on his scooter. She was going to teach her brother not to throw his food (this from the girl who Pollocked my walls with purées). She drew the line at changing diapers, though. (“That’s gross.”)

The panoply of professionals in her life—physio-therapists, developmental paediatricians, psychol­ogists—were worried she might be overly jealous, but I knew differently. If there’s one area Phoebe was given superpowers in, it’s love. Her heart opens wide with empathy for any child crying anywhere, for the flowers she won’t walk over because she believes they’re homes for fairies. She even finds benevolence in wasps. “Toronto wapps [sic] are nice wapps, aren’t they, Mummy?”

When Markus was born, Phoebe’s love burst out. Her nine months of anticipation were finally realized in flesh and blood, and all she wanted to do was hold him. We were worried she might be rough—our cat and her dolls have barely survived her “sensory seeking” behaviour—but from the moment she met her little brother, she was nurturing and gentle, stroking him and warning me about how “delicate” he was. Every morning since then, she has insisted they lie in bed together and hug. When he cries, she immediately shouts out, “Don’t worry, Markus—just a minute, Mummy’s coming,” as she races over to make him laugh away the tears. She covers him with a blanket and chastises me for letting him get cold. But more important, she is doing more by herself. There is now someone at home who is far more helpless than she is, and it seems to give her a sense of everything she can do, rather than what she can’t.

The other day when I was feeding Markus, Phoebe kept telling me she was hungry, too, and I kept insisting that she had to wait until I’d finished. The next thing I knew, Phoebe grabbed two slices of bread, a plate, and some jam from the fridge, and made herself a sandwich. She even cut it in half on her own. All this, despite the fact she has a tremor in her hands and her fine motor skills are so compromised that she only started holding a pen properly last year. She has such trouble stabilizing her core that she often drops or spills whatever she’s carrying.

So I tried not to over-praise her for something every “normal” seven-year-old can do. I kept spooning the food into Markus’s mouth, casually asked her if she was enjoying her sandwich and smiled to myself as she sat up a little taller, humming with pleasure at each bite.

This article was originally published in March 2017.

Read more:
5 ways to prepare your firstborn for a sibling
10 truths about parenting a child with special needs
7 secret tricks and tips from parents of more than one kid

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