Me: Parker, I just want to tell you how proud I am that you can do all of your nighttime stuff yourself… I’m proud that you go to the bathroom and brush your teeth and put away your step-stool all by yourself – that’s a really big-girl thing to do!
Parker: Does Owey do that stuff his-self? (She’s almost five – I’m typing this as close to our exact words as I can)
Me: No – he can’t do any of that stuff by himself yet like you can.
Parker: When will he?
Me: I don’t know, honey. Maybe not for a while.
Parker: Yeah, because he’s younger than me.
Me: That’s right!
Parker: And also because he had that really bad stroke before he was born in his head. Remember that? That’s why he’s still like a baby even though he’s ‘free and a half.
Stunned silence while I swallow enormous lump in throat and try to still quivering chin.
Me: Yes, honey. That’s right.
I wish I could say that this has never happened before. That these types of conversations between me and my not-yet five year old daughter had never transpired, but they have. My breath is taken away each time. The first time she said something like that to me was a few months ago as I was driving her to school in the morning.
“Mom, I have to show you something. I have two strokes over here on my leg. Just like Owey. But I have two and he only has one.”
I am so grateful that kids under 60 pounds have to ride in the back seat (she weighs a whopping 36 soaking wet) and that I was wearing sunglasses that bright morning or she would have seen the tears that almost immediately started streaming down my cheeks.
Parker is an inquisitive and bright child. Scott and I had to make some sort of a plan as to how much to tell her about Owen at a pretty early age. We agreed that we didn’t want to lie to her and wanted to use as much of the correct language as possible, but that we also needed to find some way to explain his condition to her that was both age-appropriate and something that she could handle emotionally.
So we told her the truth.
When she asked why her brother didn’t sound like her friend’s sibling that was the same age, or why he acted so much younger than kids that had a birthday near his, or why he had to go to so many doctor and “feh-wah-pee” appointments and why he wouldn’t be able to go to her school with her; we told her our best version of the truth that we could.
We told her that he had gotten a “boo boo” inside his head before he was born when he was still in Mommy’s tummy and that it was called a stroke. We explained that it didn’t hurt him at all, but that it was why one of his legs didn’t work as well as the other and why he had so much trouble talking and acted so much younger than other kids his age.
We have since spoken with many therapists, doctors and psychologists – all of whom have assured us that we gave her an appropriate amount of information for her to process. To have kept her in the dark – or even attempted to – would have done her an injustice. She is too smart and too curious of a child for this to have passed over her head for much longer, and we feared that trying to sweep it under the rug would have been doing her a grave disservice later in life when she eventually found out the truth.
So I get these statements from her sometimes. I somehow simultaneously expect them and am completely taken by surprise every time.
But I think we have taken the right path for our family, for our child. I don’t believe I can ask her to be empathetic if she doesn’t know why. Without an explanation, she would likely only think that we were showing favor to her brother rather than helping him out of necessity.
And sometimes this knowledge makes her more protective of him. And sometimes she feels jealous of the places he “gets” to go with me while she’s in school (like the Neurologist or Geneticist – always a good time!). And sometimes he frustrates her. And sometimes she feels sad for him. And sometimes she feels sad for herself (where I suspect those two strokes on her leg came from that day in the car). And sometimes they get into huge boxing matches and I’m worried less about past traumatic brain injuries and more concerned about them causing new ones to each other. Or them spilling juice on the rug while they’re fighting.
Because they are also just three and four years old.
And sometimes I need to remember that.
And I need to remind myself that these huge statements that she makes that give me that lump in my throat are usually sandwiched in between larger questions about life like whether or not Doc McStuffins is a real doctor or not and which bathing suits I packed for camp for the following day.
And I need to remind myself that we are neither making nor breaking her with each parenting decision we make.
And that sometimes she is less fragile than I give her credit for and stronger than I ever thought.
Because she has a lot on the kid-sized plate of a preschooler. She has a brother who outweighs her, yet is too cognitively behind to understand how much pain his fists can inflict. She has learned to understand that sometimes she needs to wait to show me something because he is on the stairs and can’t come up or down without a “spotter”. She is generous with him – so many times offering to let him watch his favorite show before bed rather than hers when he gets upset or saying “Okay Owey, you can use it” when she is playing with a toy that is suddenly desirable to him.
But not always, because typical sibling rivalry doesn’t just magically disappear because one of the kids isn’t “typical”.
Most of the time she handles having a brother like Owen with grace. And sometimes tantrums. And empathy. And love. And then more tantrums.
Because she is still four. And three quarters.
Because she is my “big girl”.
Because she is mine.