Divided Attention: What It Means to Be the Sibling

“Tarica gets all the stuff,” she said, eyes intent behind her glasses. “All the medicines and attention.”

I put my hands on Jenica’s shoulders, and she slid her arms around my waist, head tipping back to hold my gaze, brown locked on brown. “Are you jealous?” I asked.

“Yes, and I’m humble enough to admit that I am.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have laughed. Such words from a seven-year-old. She laughed too, sheepishly, and I hugged her tight. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I don’t know what to do about it.”

She went upstairs to bed, and I stood rooted in the kitchen, thinking of her words. Her jealousy didn’t surprise me. It was born of a child’s need for security: Mom, do you care about me? Am I important to you?

I shouldn’t have to say it, but let me state for the record that we love all our children equally. We have no favorites.

But life is asking us to love our children differently and in unequal portions of time. We have Jenica, the self-confessed jealous one. We have five-year-old Tarica, the daughter whose epilepsy flares up in uncontrolled seizures. We have nineteen-month-old Micah, who daily increaseth more and more unto naughtiness.

Right now, Tarica is seizing multiple times a day. She is the one we most worry about and talk about and pray about. Her siblings—they get the leftovers.

Jenica senses it. Perhaps Micah does, too.

“I love you,” I tell all our children, but Tarica is the one I mention at church as a prayer request. Tarica is the one whom people ask about, the one whose story is told. Tarica is the one with appointments and medications and hospital stays and . . . and . . . attention.

For children, attention equals love. This is why Jenica thinks I love Tarica more than I love her.

We aren’t given extra hours in our days just because we have a child who needs more care. We have the same 24/7 everyone else does. What is a mother supposed to do?

Should I try to compensate for our focus on Tarica? Maybe I should take Jenica to the library—just the two of us—where we can revel in our shared love of reading. Perhaps I should take her on a walk up the mountain behind our house so we can talk uninterrupted. Maybe I should read more stories to Micah and rock him more often and get down on the floor with him and his red barn. They deserve to know I love them enough to spend special time with them.

On the other hand, I want my children to understand that life isn’t fair. It’s not fair that Tarica has to live with seizures; it’s not fair that Jenica and Micah lose some of the attention that might otherwise be theirs. This is life, and sometimes it hurts. Better to learn it now than later—or never. If I try too hard to compensate, they lose opportunities to practice compassion and to sacrifice for the sake of another, opportunities they will also face as grown-up followers of Jesus. Why not teach some of these lessons now?

Or is that too much to expect of our children?

I wish I had time enough for my children to get equal portions. I will try. I will take Jenica on that walk. I will read another story to Micah. I will look into their brown, brown eyes and tell them over and over that I love them all the way up to the moon and all the way back.

I try. But when Tarica crashes to the floor, I put Micah down to kneel by her, stroking her cheek as she seizes, blocking Micah with the other arm so he doesn’t pounce on her. When the seizure is over, I carry Tarica to the recliner. She slumps in my lap, weak and exhausted, and Micah weeps on my knee, abandoned, and Jenica says, “Come out and see what I did in the garage,” and I say, “I can’t right now—I’m holding Tarica.”

But in my heart, I’m holding them all.

Stranger on the Doorstep

This experience happened last winter, about a month before Tarica started seizing. Now that snow is flying again, I remember this and wonder if I did the right thing.

* * *

The doorbell rang while I was in the middle of changing Micah. When a second peal quickly followed the first, I scooped up my diaper-clad baby, wrapped a blanket around him, and raced down the steps. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I glanced at the sofa, grateful to see the doorbell hadn’t awakened Tarica. She had been stricken with the stomach virus less than two hours ago.

At the door, a stranger waited, wind-blown and worried-looking. Snow swirled around the young man, catching in his red beard and on his narrow shoulders. Before I could say a word, he said, “Sorry for bothering you, but could you give me a ride to Kettle Road?”

I snugged the blanket around a small bare shoulder, mentally scrambling for something kinder than a flat refusal. “I’m sorry, but I can’t. My daughter is sick, and I need to take care of him.” I gestured toward my wriggling bundle.

“No one else is around that could give me a ride?”

Was that a leap of fear I felt? “No, I’m sorry. Not right now.”

He bounced on his toes. “Do you think anyone’s home over there?” He pointed to a neighbor’s house through the trees.

“I have no idea,” I said, realizing I could fit what I knew about those neighbors in the bowl of a spoon. They had kept to themselves ever since moving in last summer. I pointed in the opposite direction. “You could try the people on the other side of us. Someone is often home during the day.”

“The next house down?” He began a retreat down the drive.

“Yes.” Something pinched inside me. “Did your car break down?” I asked.

He turned back. “Yeah, it did.” He shook himself and thrust his hands deep into his pockets. “It’s cold out here.”

That was an understatement: It was a brutally frigid day, with a wind that cut to the bone. “I hope you can get a ride.” My words sounded lame in the face of his plight. “Sorry I can’t help you.” I closed the door as he walked away.

From a window, I watched his hunched form swing down the driveway. Doubt squeezed my heart. Had I done the right thing? I couldn’t bundle my sick daughter into the van right after she got sick. My baby needed to eat as soon as I got him dressed. But I had just said something very close to “depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled.”

The young man turned onto the road and soon was out of my sight. I frowned at the spot where he had disappeared. Had I turned away an extraordinary opportunity? What if that young man with his red beard and thin coat was an angel? Far-fetched, maybe, but it was possible. That verse in Hebrews 13 says we are to entertain strangers because they might be “angels unawares.” I should have at least given him a cup of coffee. It isn’t every day I can serve an angel.

But maybe he wasn’t an angel. Maybe he was a violent young man with evil intentions. Maybe my veiled head stayed his hand. But he seemed sincere. How is a woman to know in this wicked age when to show generous compassion and when to be reserved and play it safe? On one hand, strangers can be dangerous; on the other, strangers can be angels in disguise. What should I have done?

Well, it didn’t matter. Tarica was sick. And he was gone. But if I did the right thing, why did I feel guilty? I stared out at the snow flying in the wind and wondered if an angel would mind the cold.

* * *

What do you think? Are we women too careful? Do we lose opportunities to show compassion because of our caution around strangers? If we trust God, can we help a stranger without fear? 

My daughter was sick; I had little choice. But what if she hadn’t been sick? I still don’t know what I would’ve done.