Sibling love is strange. Why should you love a sibling? A sibling is a random person with whom you must live throughout your childhood. Unlike a friend or a lover or a spouse, you do not choose a sibling based on attraction or affinity. Unlike a parent, or at least a good parent, a sibling has usually not been devoted to your care and seeing you flourish. A sibling is a person with whom you must compete for resources. A person with whom others will readily compare you: who is the best-looking, who is the smartest, etc. Yet siblings, on the whole, remain in touch and fond of one another into adulthood. The rate for adult siblings who stay in touch at least monthly (about 50%) seems as if it must be higher than even close childhood friends, college roommates, and army buddies, although I’ve seen no data on this.
Some people, of course, have awful siblings and awful sibling relationships. At holiday dinners at my cousin’s house we all brace ourselves, shoulders hunched, for the digs my cousin will make at his sister and her children. That’s if the two of them are even on speaking terms at a given holiday. Other people, of course, have abusive siblings.
But when there is sibling love, it can be as profound as it is incomprehensible. I love my brother and I know he loves me. This is mysterious to my husband, an only child, who doesn’t understand what I mean by that. My brother and I don’t call each other, almost ever. He lives near my parents, and our families spend time together when we visit my parents, but we don’t seek out alone time. We email each other maybe every other week, or comment on a Facebook post. Our emails usually consist in basic information exchange, a link to an interesting article, or a joke. We do not generally emote in front of one another or ever say we love each other. We do have endless inside jokes, mostly silly memories (we don’t usually discuss serious ones), shared irritation with my parents. How that is enough to hang love on — a truly deep love — I don’t know. But it is.
I think about sibling love a lot watching my own three sons. I think about that mysterious tie of those who share a childhood home. And I wait, and I worry, and I hope.
My first boy, William, was born in late 2007. His brother, James, was born in late 2009. During my pregnancy, everyone told me about that brothers two years apart were just like best friends. Even though I knew that could not always be true, I let my mind run on the thought: brothers playing together, fighting each other, growing up together, always close, sharing secrets and hiding them from me, best men at each others’ weddings.
When my husband and I realized, a few days after his birth, that James would be severely and perhaps profoundly disabled, we held each other and cried that whole worst night. A significant part of that grief was mourning the loss of the relationship between the brothers I had created in imagination. A still deeper grief was was my belief that William’s life was now irreparably burdened with this passively needy sibling, who seemed at the time a mysterious interloper, with whom I didn’t yet realize I would fall madly in love.
The research on the well-being of families with kids with disabilities reveals a mixed bag of results. Some parents and siblings of kids with disabilities are as happy or happier than families with all typical kids. In general, though, in such families there are higher divorce rates, more anxiety, more depression, more health problems in parents. Those negative effects, though, can be mitigated. If the child has a mild disability rather than a more severe one, the family does better. We are, alas, out of luck on that score. Parents who stay married and who are more highly educated do better. All right, we’ve got those down, at least. When the child with disabilities is socially engaged and has few behavior problems, that helps. Getting better! And, surprisingly to some, the more siblings in the family, the happier everyone is. Our geneticist also suggested the best thing for James’s development would be to have a younger sibling. We had always planned on 3 or 4 children anyway. So at Christmastime 2011, along came our youngest, George.
People sometimes express pity for my oldest and youngest son. They assume William and George are jealous of all the attention James must receive. There is, I think, a popular idea of a kid with disabilities sucking all the parental resources while the typical kids excel or flounder unnoticed. That may well manifest in some families. Not in ours. James is easy-going and non-verbal. He amuses himself happily, and doesn’t ask for much. If the other two brothers decide they need my attention, they are excellent squeaky wheels. If anything, I worry I do not pay enough attention to James. James does have health issues that the others do not, but we have always found ways (so far) to attend to the other two during health crises.
For now, William and George appear indifferent to the looks our family gets in public. William tries to hitch rides on James’s wheelchair all the time. Neither is ever embarrassed to be seen with James, although I imagine that time will come. It helps, I think, that James goes to a different school from William. Most of WIlliam’s friends are indifferent or friendly to James, except one who is markedly uncomfortable. Once, William showed off in front of the uncomfortable friend and called James a freak. That…was not a good day for anyone. William, I think, felt worst of all, and locked himself in his room weeping bitterly.
The main sibling rivalry, such as it is, is between William and George. They play, they fight, they try to scare each other with zombie faces. But both are almost always very affectionate with James, unless James pulls their hair or grabs one of their toys. William tells me all the time that he loves James, “although, Mommy, you have to admit he’s a little weird.” (Yes, I do admit that.) Both brothers are James’s prosthetic voice. They run to tell me if he is crying. They tell me if he has gotten hold of a choking hazard or needs a diaper change or he has pulled out his feeding tube. They tell me when he is pulling to stand or performing some other amazing feat.
George and James have an extra special relationship. They share a room, and often end up sleeping in the same bed. After his own bed is zoologically equipped to his satisfaction, George ascertains that I have distributed all the remaining stuffed animals and soft blankets to James. Alone in their room, they are partners in crime. I walk in their room never knowing what I’ll find: fingerpainting the floor with diaper cream together, their hair white with baking soda smuggled from the kitchen, all the clothes emptied out of the drawers.
About a year ago, I read a news story about a boy who was maybe 9. He ran a race pushing his brother in a wheelchair. The boy was receiving paeans. William watched the video accompanying the news story, and said it made him both proud and sad. William admired that brother, but (and he didn’t quite put this in words, but this is what I gathered) he felt burdened by that brother’s angelicism. He thought he wouldn’t be able to be that kind of brother.
Here’s the worst thing about having a kid with special needs: it would be a surprise, but not a huge shock if James died before me. He has health issues. It could happen. I can hardly bear to think about it.
Here’s the other worst thing: I can hardly bear to think about what will happen if I die first. James will be alone. Unable to reach out for help if he is abused or neglected. Unable to object simply if no one loves him — and he is a boy (and will be a man) who loves deeply.
I don’t want to pressure George and William. I don’t want them to feel they must push their brother in a wheelchair race or be thought unloving brothers. Most of all, I don’t want them burdened with James’s care after we die. I don’t want them to feel all the financial and practical worries that my husband and I do.
But. If not them, then who?
So here is what I hope. That I will not pressure them, consciously or unconsciously, and that I will understand if they cannot take on the burden of James’s care. But I also hope that one or both of them will feel that mysterious sibling love, the one that lasts and lasts, despite the mere accident that distributes siblings to one another. And that they will always love James and care for him not out of guilt, but out of that unique love.