It’s no secret that siblings fight. Arguments, disagreements, the pilfering of someones favorite toy or hairbrush are common themes in sibling relationships. The siblings closest in age are typically the biggest competitors.In a stable household siblings may fight and argue, but at the end of the day there are enough resources to meet their basic survival needs. Even in stressful situations they have adult supervision, enough food not to go hungry, and no imminent threat of physical danger.
For siblings raised in consistently traumatizing circumstances, the opposite is true. Our kids spent their early childhoods in a very scary and unstable place. There wasn’t always enough food. Carl and Mary spent toddler years climbing in the kitchen and reaching whatever they could in order to eat. When Mary first came home she thought Baccos Bits were a good lunch option. Sometimes affection came in small doses between their birth mom’s mental health episodes. If Carl or Mary didn’t get her attention then, they would have to wait weeks and even months for her to get out of bed and start interacting with the family again.
This all leads to a different type of sibling relationship. Mary and Carl are fiercely loyal to each other and protective of each other. In outside settings, they cling together and block out the world around them. Throwing a mom and dad into that relationship shifted their dynamic. All of the sudden they had a resource that they both desperately wanted. Deep down, they still believe this resource is fleeting.
That brings us back to this week. It’s been disastrous in terms of health. The stomach bug has swept through our household like a plague upon humanity. Mary was sick first. I cradled her head in my lap on the bathroom floor for about five hours. She was feverish, wrapped in a cocoon of blankets, and snuggled into me for all she was worth. Mary alternated from deep sleep to intense vomiting the entire time. I held her hair back, cleaned up her face, and rubbed her back until she slept again.
Meanwhile, Luke was fast asleep with a fever as well. He wasn’t sick to his stomach…yet. Carl was fine. He wanted to play with me outside. He was utterly mystified that I needed to stay in the bathroom with Mary for hours. This is where his trauma history and attachment problems came out to torment him. Soon Carl was convinced that I didn’t love him. I only enjoyed being with Mary and I would never want to be with him again. He yelled at me for never loving him and stomped away downstairs.
I’d like to say that he found something constructive to do. I’d be happy to think that he played with his hundreds of toys or read one of his many books or even played outside. Mostly, Carl watched TV all day and complained that he needed a better family to spend more time with him. Every attempt I made at comforting him was met with thinly veiled contempt. By evening time, Mary was so dehydrated that Luke had to wake up and take her to the ER for IV fluids. The poor girl couldn’t even keep down ice chips. I spent the evening worried about her. Carl celebrated that she was gone. At 8:00 PM he gleefully suggested that we could go outside to play now that she was “finally gone!”
Of course, it was time for bed. I did my best to give him some extra snuggles and mommy love. My aching back protested and my energy was completely drained. Still, I withstood hurricane Carl’s emotions as he railed at me for the unfairness of bedtime. He voiced his disdain at parents who didn’t know how to “do anything right” or spend time with him.
The next morning, Mary stayed home from school. She was sick in the bathroom with diarrhea while Carl was getting dressed for school. He stormed through the house screaming at her for smelling so bad. He yelled that he shouldn’t have to have a sister like her because she stinks. He was mad at me for going to work. He was mad at Luke for staying at home. He was mad that Mary was home from school because, “we loved her more” and just “wanted to spend time with her.” Carl was convinced that he was missing out on a great party we were all having without him.
The thing is that Carl cannot see beyond his own fear. He confuses his wants with his needs. He feels like he NEEDS time to play outside with me, no matter what is going on. If his sister is getting attention then he NEEDS to be there in order to ensure she is not taking up all of the love and attention that is supposed to be his. He believes this. He is afraid we will stop loving him. I am afraid my back will never recover after 5 hours of sitting on a tile floor.
So here we are. This is just one of the many times we will weather the storm of Carl’s trauma. It isn’t rational, it doesn’t come at the opportune times, but it is there nonetheless. Yes, we can give him extra attention. Of course we will try to show him how much he is loved and valued and treasured by us. We will delight in what he does and love him. Families have to bend, though. On this day and many more to come, our family had to bend in order to take care of it’s members.
I cannot erase his past trauma. What I can do is just continue to be there even when his sister seems to be “winning” in the attention department. Even when I’m tired and depleted and I’m pretty sure my backside has a permanent tile imprint on it. I’m still here for Carl. I hope someday he knows that. Until then? May the odds be ever in his favor!
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.