Susan's Blog

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Polar Extremes of Brothers

My pride in my 18 year old son, standing by the sink peeling potatoes, is as brilliant and sharp as my sadness for my 21 year old son, banished from Ned’s stepmother’s kitchen.  In the past years both have learned their way around a kitchen:  Max from his girlfriend who studies and thinks deeply about the existences of all living things, and Nat from his group home where everyone is expected to pitch in with meals.  Max is embraced and pulled into the gravity of family excitement and anticipation, his large, capable hands grabbed and filled with gifts and tasks.   Nat is a force unto himself, walking with knife-like strides through the family clusters, making his route, a long flat figure eight from living room to dining room to sitting room.  The eight should include the kitchen, but this is not allowed.

I am having a beautiful afternoon, bruised by this one thing.  Why is the kitchen welcoming to Max and not to Nat?

I don’t know why I so often see things as what one has and what the other one does not.  I come from a family of four; we were two girls only 19 months apart.  Many families do the “X-sister and the Y-sister” thing, convincing themselves that whatever one sibling is, the other one can’t be.

I don’t want to see things this way because such thinking diminishes both children, actually.  Outwardly Max gets to be the ultra-accomplished child, so easy to be around and to love, in contrast to his puzzling older brother.  (And I am not even going into the dynamic of the third brother, 12-year-old Ben.  Not in this post.)  Seems like it’s great to be Max, but what if Max wants to fuck up?  Does Max get to be a pill?  Does he get to be a gloomy teenager, someone who makes you frown sometimes?  What does it feel like to be so easily loved by the world?  Is there a downside?  Probably not much, but emotions and situations are never simple, never unblemished.  I want Max to be able to be ugly if he needs to be.  No living person should be beatified.  We all need our uncertainties, our flaws, our disabilities and our inabilities.

I completely understand that we all figure out our ways to make it through life, to navigate our way around the many strange and varied souls we come across.  And that this is what was happening yesterday with Max and Nat and the kitchen; it is easier for some to go with the apparent flow of Nat as “out of it” and someone to manage and maintain, rather than to dive into his depths and see what there is to grab onto.  I float lightly around him myself at times.  But I can’t help it, it hurts, it really does, to see others making assumptions about Nat that are so ignorant.  I understand that they don’t reflect Nat’s reality at all.  Still, I don’t know what he might feel about being viewed this way.  Maybe he doesn’t notice.  But what if he does?

What is cutting into me is that maybe I could have helped with all of this but I did nothing about it.  I did not know what to do about it.  I wanted to enjoy myself, with Ned’s sister Sarai, and her baby Willie, and everyone else.  I did not want to upset anyone or ask awkward questions, like, “What are you afraid is going to happen if Nat wanders into your kitchen?”  I did not feel up to being a teacher, and saying, “hey, did you know Nat could help with the potatoes, too?”  Or maybe I could have merely shown everyone, taken the Teaching Moment to say, “Nat, please help Max by rinsing off those potatoes.”

Here’s the crazy-making thing:  I also wanted Max to have his star moments of being this great guy helping out.  Look how far Max has come; he used to be just like Baby Willie. Blond, beautiful, pink-cheeked, laughing, running, breaking stuff, spilling, proudly telling us the colors and the noises of each animal.  Filling up everyone’s hearts with Baby Goodness.

And so did Nat.


Susan, it’s complicated, it keeps getting more complicated as you so eloquently expressed. And my guys r only 9 & 6. I’m taking your new book on vacation in a couple weeks to get some insight on the sibs thing, and also just because i love your perspective, so close to my own!

— added by Storkdok on Sunday, December 26, 2010 at 9:35 am

The phrase “I just wanted to enjoy myself” resonated with me. My 14 year old just sat in my room and watched her new dvds yesterday while family was over celebrating. I dragged her out for food and gifts but she was obviously so uncomfortable – therefore everyone else was too, that I just let her mostly stay away. I SHOULD have facilitated conversations with others and had her help but I also wanted to enjoy myself and my other children, too. I convinced myself she was happier watching Toy Story 3 but in my heart of hearts I ached.

It is complicated.

— added by Susan on Sunday, December 26, 2010 at 10:23 am

I feel I need to say this. If you keep an eye on Nat, he should not be “banished” from any room in the house…I think that is very demeaning if anyone makes such a rule, and it probably makes you feel like crap. A holiday gathering of family is supposed to be a joyous time of love, acceptance and gratitude. Otherwise I hope you have had a great holiday season, Susan. Blessings to your family for a great new year too.

— added by Candy on Sunday, December 26, 2010 at 10:47 am

I agree that it is so complicated. And it is hard to be on and advocating ALL THE TIME. I think that sometimes it’s okay not to. Your posts always make me think, and having three sons of my own, this one especially.

— added by Stimey on Sunday, December 26, 2010 at 11:11 am

I had a childhood friend whose father introduced her and her sister as “the smart one and the pretty one”; never noticing that he was effectively calling one of his daughters stupid and the other ugly.

I worry about this with my own boys, even though they are much younger than yours. I think what we all want for our kids is for others to see them as whole people, in all their complexity. But it’s much easier to categorize them: the difficult one, the good helper, the one who’s always happy.

These labels don’t do anyone any favors, but it’s hard to challenge them every time they come up — especially with family members who have spent an entire lifetime thinking this way.

— added by Sarah on Sunday, December 26, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Candy, of course you’re right. I wrote this because I feel that way, too, and I could not say it at the time.

— added by Susan Senator on Sunday, December 26, 2010 at 12:28 pm

I always exist in that space of ‘should I use this moment to instruct my child, or to allow him to float and do what he likes and be happy’…that voice is always whispering to me (and not to any one, I notice) to make the most of every moment, even when I want to visit with family members I haven’t seen in a while, or maybe just spend some time singing with a brother, tickling a niece, hugging a SIL…I get the same feedback from family – “Let him be, he’s doing fine!” (as my 16 yr old son with autism walks around doing movie talk, or staring into space, obviously more comfortable in isolation than looking to visit with cousins)…how could he be doing fine??? I am ashamed of wanting to make him work harder to look more ‘normal’, and guilty that I don’t seize every moment to facilitate his social skills. Is there a balance between these 2 issues? I haven’t found it yet.

— added by Sher on Sunday, December 26, 2010 at 1:53 pm

I am new here ! I’m just “taking in,” at the moment. I am dealing with my 43 year old daughter’s Aspergers. I don’t know why…she is married and out of the house. I just found out about her aSPERGERS…i GUESS THIS JOLT IS MAKING ME TRY TO FIND AS MUCH INFO. AS POSSIBLE. pROBABLY, SO i CAN BREATHE EASIER.

— added by Patricia Steffens on Monday, December 27, 2010 at 1:00 pm

I watched my oldest child pace back and forth at my sister-in-law’s house on Christmas with a toy to his ear, and sometimes my heart ached at the discrepancy between him and his younger sibling, so engaged with his cousins. But each time I approached him, he just looked at me and gave me his gourgeous smile, and I had to remember he was probably having just as good a time as his brother, in his own way. I keep wondering exactly when I’ll learn to accept this…

— added by kim mccafferty on Monday, December 27, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Jared made it easy for us. He’s been sculpting with modeling clay for years now, and is given almost half his weight in clay for the holidays. Well, this was the first year that he consented to use colored sculpy and bake his creations. Anyhoo, he would make 5 or 6 dinosaurs and would call us in collectively or individually to check them out. His father is a painter and I make jewelry, so he sees us pass out these items as gifts and it’s something that is just dawning on him. He makes things that people enjoy and it’s making him happy to give them out. Thomas, his younger brother is quite the draftsman, but he totally acknowledges his brothers prowess with the clay. On Christmas day, Jared methodically cranked out these little figures while Thomas ran around in his underwear, spazzing out about getting the wii set up. Oh, and if you need garbage taken out, Jared’s your man. Enjoy the snow and the new year!! Lisa

— added by lisa on Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 10:05 am

How terribly sad for you to see your son barred from the kitchen. Families can be mean sometimes. My own MIL spilled some orange juice at a party at my SIL’s house one time and because she was cowed by my SIL’s late mother (a very confrontational, angry woman), she blamed the spillage on my son, who was eight at the time!
I was not in the room at the time and I heard about it late from my hubby. I was furious that a grandmother would blame her grandson for something she did, but that’s how some people are — easily frightened and unkind.
Your step-mother-in-law was rude to bar Nat from her kitchen but it is her kitchen and I suppose she gets to make the rules. You don’t have to accept them but you have to weigh defending Nat against your desire to see your in-laws and the needs of your other sons and your husband.
I guess that if Nat wasn’t upset by not being permitted in the kitchen it was OK. maybe he liked walking around and checking things out. He was probably aware of the dynamic but decided it was no biggie to stay out of the kitchen.
Are you on good enough terms with your Step-mother-in-law to discuss the situation with her to see if maybe it can be prevented from happening in the future?

— added by Sunni on Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 7:09 pm

I don’t know, Sunni… maybe I’ll see if it happens next time we’re there and try to find out what it’s all about, and see if I can “reassure her” that it’s cool for Nat to loop in and out of the kitchen. That he won’t do any harm. It’s true, she does get to make the rules but I feel bad about it. For now, blogging about it makes me feel better.

— added by Susan Senator on Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Your mother in law needs that teachable moment.
More than she can possibly know, at present, not yet having been confronted with it. If she doesn’t experience it, she will never learn.
To make an omelette, one must break eggshells.
Go for it.

— added by Phil Schwarz on Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 1:42 am

I’m at the point where I’m very outspoken when it comes to my son. It’s so heart wrenching to see our children being excluded. Whenever possible, I try to keep my cool and turn situations like that into a teachable moment. It’s not always easy when you’re filled with strong emotions (sadness, defeat, anger, frustration.)

— added by Barefoot Liz on Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 11:59 am

I envy you your strength if you are able to do that.

— added by Susan Senator on Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 12:07 pm