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.

8 thoughts on “Divided Attention: What It Means to Be the Sibling

  1. So beautiful! I think at some point in time all children struggle with another sibling getting more attention, whether it’s health issues or a new baby, etc. God chose you to have this child with special needs. He will give you strength to fulfill your calling of motherhood, to her and your other children. Blessings!

  2. God bless you Stephanie! I hear your heart, and I commend you for the ‘lesson’ you wish them to learn. I also pray that God will give you much wisdom as you discern where to draw that line! I often forget the simple promise when it comes to wisdom. Jas 1:5 If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. I pray a day of Gods richest blessings to you!

  3. Wow.

    First of all, you are So Blessed that your daughter will verbalize those thoughts to you, where so many children would be unable or unwilling. That speaks of a depth of relationship right from the get-go… and then to laugh with you? Beautiful.

    And then–I love the way you can see both sides of an issue and paint the nuances without pretending there are simple solutions.

    And then–I have also walked this tension with a needy child, and I have never felt anything but guilt and desire to compensate with the others. It didn’t occur to me that it may be also “an opportunity to practice compassion and to sacrifice for the sake of another.” Well said. I have lots to think about…

  4. I just talked to a friend this morning, the mother of a special needs child, and she said “I hope are other children do not suffer because of the extra attention we need to give their sibling.”

    And then I read this. You put into words the pull to a mother’s heart when there is not enough of hours to heap attention on all their children equally.

    Love the relationship you have with Jenica. Keep her sharing her heart like this and I don’t think you have anything to worry about. And I love that you admitted “I don’t know.” She’ll find out sooner or later that we adults don’t know it all, that we need the Lord. So good to hear you admit it to her and together seek for wisdom.

    I pray that God will be the one holding your children when your arms are too full for them all.

  5. It is a hard road you travel. Even with well children one may feel left out. When mine were little we did thigs one on one…not a big thing or a costly thing 10 -15 miutes just one on one when you are able make a big difference. When my youngest was in second grade the teacher asked what the childrens favorite thing to do with their Mom and my daughter said when we go to the store, or lunch or a walk just the two of us. Today she struggles with twins in college and with a father who has never supported them, she holds two jobs and takes care of my friend who has battled cancer for 6 years followed by 3 strokes. She also helps her brother and his son whose wife left them. Her children although 21 are feeling the same, neglected. We just do the best we can and try to give that few minutes to each one to remind them they are special. May God bless you along this path to strengthen your faith and let you know you are a good mom.

    • “We just do the best we can.” I find comfort in that thought, Diana. It’s all we can do, isn’t it? I hope your daughter has enough people in her life to hold up her hands, as Aaron and Hur did for Moses in Exodus 17. Those of us in the battle owe our victories to such people. I think your daughter has a mom who does what she can, right? 🙂

      And this reminds me of something I’ve been wanting to write. But not here. Maybe in a post. Sometime.

      Thanks for your comments, Diana, and your testimony of God’s faithfulness.

  6. Just a word of encouragement from a sibling to special needs children, all grown up. We (the sibs) learn a lot, even though we still don’t understand it all. But I’d like to think I learned compassion, and so much more. Now from a mother’s view point, I can see more clearly ‘they did the best they could with what they had.” I also strongly believe that God gave the strength many times to carry on. I appreciate your blog, & your writing style. Praying for you as you walk this road……….

    • Thank you, Jane. I was hoping that someone who had been A Sibling would speak up. Mothers in my shoes need reassurance that we aren’t scarring our other children for life because we aren’t able to give attention in equal measures. I hope it isn’t always this way, but for now, we have little choice. Your words have encouraged me. Again, thank you.

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