Parental Balancing Act Going Well (or so I think)
I am the lucky mother of two darling daughters; let’s call them Jane and Cate. Jane, age 11, has no food allergies and Cate, age 8, has life-threatening allergies to eggs, peanuts and tree nuts. Today, the three of us were driving around in the car having an important pow wow about some chores that the girls have been ignoring, because, well, it’s summertime. I was calm, cool and collected – doing everything right, I told myself. I wasn’t using my “angry voice” (Cate’s terminology), and I was doing my Zen stomach-breathing thing that’s not really second-nature for me so I always have to remind myself to do it.
Here’s how this great conversation went:
Me: Girls, I just want to mention something to you really quickly. I know it’s summer, and everybody deserves a break. But, the playroom and your bedrooms have been in sort of state of disarray for about a month now, and I’d really love you to set aside some time today to finish cleaning them.
Girls: Ok, mom!
Me: Remember, as we discussed at the beginning of the summer, TV is a privilege that has to be earned. When the playroom, your rooms, and other familiar dumping grounds are cleaned up, you get to relax by watching TV. Remember?
Girls: Yes, that’s right. We do remember that.
Me: OK, so do you think you might be able to make some progress on the cleaning when we get home?
Girls: (smiling and apparently happy) Sure, mom.
Me: Great! Thank you so much. I really appreciate that! Please just check with me when you feel like your cleaning is done, and if I agree, then you can enjoy some TV.
Me: Oh, and I’ve been meaning to tell you both that if you can manage to do your chores each week and keep the house clean without me having to remind you so often, you should be able to start earning an allowance.
Cate: Really?! Oh, my gosh, that’s awesome!
Minutes go by. Then:
Cate: Jane, what’s wrong?
Jane: (visibly upset) You said I was going to be the only one who could earn an allowance!! I didn’t get an allowance when I was her age! Why should she get an allowance? That was supposed to be my special thing! She gets everything!!
Oops. Did I actually just retract something I had promised to Jane? Hum …
Lesson of the Day #1: Don’t Spring New Info on a Child in Front of Her Sibling
So the rest of the car ride was punctuated by various gasps, sobs, and nose blowing. I spent the time trying to remember what exactly I had promised Jane with regard to an allowance. As it turns out, about 2 months earlier I had, in fact, promised Jane the opportunity to earn an allowance for “over and above” help around the house if she could do her regular chores without reminders from me. Then over those 2 months, for whatever reason, she didn’t attend to her regular chores, and I reminded her that I didn’t want to keep reminding her, and she might be risking the right to earn that allowance. Interestingly, over that same 2 months, Cate totally got her cleaning act together and had been a huge help around the house – well, not counting the wrecked playroom which was the trigger for today’s conversation.
Over that 2 month time period, I had re-thought the allowance thing realizing that Jane actually needed to earn the allowance for doing the regular chores rather than the “over and above” chores. And if the allowance was necessary to encourage Jane to stay on top of the regular chores, then shouldn’t Cate also be able to earn an allowance for the regular chores, which she also regularly ignores? My husband and I decided that they should BOTH earn an allowance for doing the basic cleaning chores. That, it seemed, was a very fair decision. How could anyone have a problem with that?
Except, I neglected to tell Jane that she wouldn’t be the only one earning an allowance, which was how I had originally presented it. So, when we got home, I asked Jane if I could speak to her privately. I apologized and told her she was right: I should have explained my change (of allowance) heart to her one on one rather than surprising her in front of Cate. I also added that she would be earning more each week than Cate since she’s older. That’s fair, right? Problem solved, right?
Wrong. Jane was still visibly upset. So, I dug some more to see if I could get to the root of the issue. What was wrong? Why was she still so sad?
Me: I can tell something is still bothering you. Can you talk to me about it?
Jane: She gets EVERYTHING!! I didn’t get half of what she gets at age 8 when I was 8!
Me: Well, that may be true. But that happens in families a lot with the younger sibling. They seem to do things at earlier ages than the oldest child does.
Jane: No. It’s more than that. It’s not fair. She gets everything.
Me: Well, if you really believe that, then I want to make sure I understand why. What does she get that you don’t get?
Lesson of the Day #2: Find Out What’s Really Bugging Your Child
Me: I want to understand what’s bothering you so much, because I really don’t see why you feel that she gets everything. Could you think about some specific examples and make a list for me of some of these things, so I can understand better how you feel?
Jane: Ok, fine.
A few minutes later, Jane came into my room and said she had compiled her list of things that Cate gets that she doesn’t get. OK, bring ‘em on.
Jane: Last Friday, she got McDonald’s for dinner and I didn’t. I would have liked to have McDonald’s, too.
(Yes, there are some items on the McDonald’s menu that are safe for Cate.)
Me: Oh, I’m sorry sweetie. I guess I should have offered you McDonald’s instead of pizza with the cast. I just assumed you would want to eat the same dinner as your friends.
A bit of detail is needed here: My children are part of a local youth theatre group. When they are in a show, the kids order pizza and eat together on Opening Night before the show. It’s a really fun tradition which Jane has always enjoyed doing in the past. This particular Opening Night (when Cate got McDonald’s) was Cate’s first show with the theatre group, and since I knew she couldn’t have the pizza, I didn’t want her to feel left out. So I got her McDonald’s which she brought backstage and ate with the group while everyone else shared pizza. I thought I had done my best parenting balancing act and that everyone was happy and felt included.
Jane: Well, I do love having Opening Night Pizza with the rest of the kids. That is really fun.
Me: Next time, would you like McDonald’s instead? Or would you maybe feel a little weird walking in with McDonald’s when all your buddies are sharing pizza?
Jane: Oh, right. I guess I would feel a little strange doing that. I’ll stick with the pizza next time, too. After all, I do love pizza, and Cate really doesn’t – even if it was safe for her.
Me: (thinking to myself, “Now is the problem solved? Are we done?”) Is there anything else you thought about?
Jane: Well, yes. Cate got to go to private kindergarten where there were only 10 kids in the class. Because of that, she learned to read at an earlier age than me, and she knew all these complicated words like “hydrated” that I didn’t even know as a third grader!!
Wow, those are a lot of complaints all lumped together as one. What should I tackle first?
Me: OK. So let’s take each of these concerns one at a time. First, I want to remind you that Cate didn’t “get” to go to private kindergarten. She HAD to go to private kindergarten.
Jane: What do mean by “remind ” me? We’ve never talked about this before.
Huh? Of course, we did. It was near the end of second grade when Jane was 7 … oh.
Lesson of the Day #3: Don’t Assume Your Child Remembers Every Conversation You’ve Ever Had
Me: Wow, honey. You know, when we talked to you about this, it was right before you turned 8 near the end of second grade. I guess age 7-8 is pretty young to be getting that kind of information. Well, I’m so glad you brought this up now so that I can explain it better.
When my husband and I made the decision to keep Cate in private school for kindergarten, it was a bit of a no-brainer. She had been at Kindercare for pre-school (where Jane also attended pre-school), and the teachers and staff worked with me tirelessly to make sure she was safe. The school was peanut and tree-nut free, and they understood the complications of managing her egg allergy. They had been taking care of her for years, and we knew that would be the safest place for her.
In our school district, one kindergarten teacher manages 32-35 children with the assistance of many parent volunteers. The school day is 3.5 hours long as opposed to a full day at Kindercare. When Cate was headed into kindergarten, I was in the process of starting my business; so not only did I need more than 3.5 hours in her school day, but I wasn’t going to have as much volunteer time as I had in the past.
The only way I would have felt comfortable asking a public school teacher who was responsible for 32-35 kindergarteners to keep an extra eye on my highly food-allergic child would have been if I would have been able to volunteer for most of the 3.5 hour school day. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any way I was going to be able to do that. So, the peanut and nut-free of environment of Kindercare became Cate’s kindergarten class.
Me: So, you see, honey, we really didn’t have much of a choice about private kindergarten for Cate. Can you imagine what might have happened if she had been in a class with 34 other 5 and 6 year olds? Do you know how messy 5 and 6 year olds are? Every other child would have been a walking peanut butter sandwich with hands reaching out to touch her!
Jane: Oh, my gosh! That would have been so scary! Poor Cate – she would have had to walk around wearing a plastic bag and gloves!
Me: Basically, yes. You got it.
Jane: But she still learned to read at an earlier age than me. I would have liked to have been a full reader at age 5.
Me: I know, honey. But do you want to know how she learned to read at such an early age?
Jane: Wasn’t it only having 10 kids in her kindergarten class?
Me: I’m sure that helped. But it was really two other things. First, ever since we found out she had food allergies at age 2.5, I’ve been showing her food ingredient labels at home and at the grocery store. I wanted her to know how to read “peanut,” “egg,” “almond,” “cashew,” etc. so that she would grow up with label reading being second nature. It’s one of the best ways she can protect herself.
Jane: That makes sense.
Me: Second, she developed her love of reading from you – not from attending private kindergarten.
Jane: What? … Really?
Me: Really! You are an amazing role model for her. Because you love to read, she wanted to learn, too. In fact, you were the one who taught her how to read.
Jane: I did?
Me: Yep. It was when we went on our 10 day road trip the summer before she started kindergarten and before you started third grade. You two sat in the back seat, and you taught her how to read the first two books in the “Magic Treehouse” series. Do you remember that?
Jane: No. Well, wait… Oh, I kind of do remember that now. Oh, my gosh. I am the one who taught her how to read!
Me: Yes, you are. She is so lucky to have a big sister like you. I think I need to remind you of that more often. Listen, sometimes things aren’t always what they appear to be. It’s important to talk about things like this that might be bothering you, because there might be a logical explanation I can provide. Also, I don’t ever want you to feel sad, overlooked, or like you’re getting the short end of the stick. Please talk to me whenever you feel this way, OK?
Jane: OK. Wow, I feel so bad for Cate.
Lesson of the Day #4: Enjoy the Carefree Life Your Non-Food Allergic Child Gets to Live
Me: Once in awhile, it’s helpful to try to look at life through someone else’s eyes. Can I mention a couple other things to you that might help you feel better about the life you have vs. Cate’s life?
Me: How many times have you slept over at a friend’s house?
Jane: Oh, I have no idea! (giggling)
Me: Right! So many times you can’t even count! I’m so glad you get to do that.
Jane: Me too!
Me: Do you know how many times Cate has slept over at a friend’s house?
Jane: (thinking) Um … Oh, my gosh … Cate has never slept over at a friend’s house.
Me: No, she hasn’t.
Jane: Oh, my goodness. Oh, I feel so bad for her.
Me: And how many times have you gone over to a friend’s house to play, eat some snacks, have lunch or dinner, or go out to eat with a friend’s family?
Me: And Cate?
Me: Ok, that’s not completely accurate – she does have playdates. But where am I?
Jane: Right there with her.
Me: Right. And what does she eat?
Jane: Well, either what you bring or something that’s planned ahead of time with the other family. That’s kind of a pain for you.
Me: Well, maybe it used to feel that way, but now I’m used to it and so is Cate. She’s learned that this is how she lives. It’s not perfect, but it’s how she’s growing up. She’s never been able to go a friend’s house without me, open their pantry door, and grab whatever looks good for a snack. You get to do that all the time, and I am SO glad you do. Those are some of the really fun, care-free aspects of your childhood. I want those things for you.
Jane: I feel so bad for the things I said about Cate getting everything. I’m so sorry.
Me: I don’t want you to feel bad, honey. We needed to talk about this so I could just explain what Cate’s life is really like. I’m not upset with you. I was forgetting the importance of explaining to you that some of the privileges it seems Cate gets are really necessary for her safety.
Jane: Like McDonald’s on Opening Night.
Jane: I’m going to go hug Cate and tell her how much I love her.
Lesson of the Day #5: Your Non-Food Allergic Child Needs You, Too
As parents, we know that we love each of our children equally, and their health, happiness, and sense of self-worth are our responsibility. Each child is an individual with a unique personality, temperament and emotional needs. But when you have a child who has some type of special need, such as life-threatening food allergies, it’s all too easy to focus the bulk of your energy on that child. Sometimes, I spend so much time and energy focusing on Cate (not only to keep her safe but to protect her psyche so that she doesn’t feel deprived, singled out or alone) that I neglect to share some quiet moments with Jane – enjoying her or helping her with something that might be bothering her. At the end of the day, I just want to be done and rest.
When you’re a parent, you do get to rest. But, you are never “done.”
I often assume that Jane is fine, and I breathe a sigh of relief. I think to myself, “Oh, she’s my ‘easy’ child.” Sometimes, I find myself saying to her, “Let’s say a brief goodnight tonight, and then tomorrow, we can set aside some more time to visit one-on-one with no disturbances.” And that’s OK, as long as I don’t make a habit of it. When Cate needs me, I am available. When Jane needs me, sometimes I wish I could ask her if she might consider needing me tomorrow rather than today. And that’s not fair to her. And just because one child might seem “easier” that doesn’t mean they don’t need us.
Jane is, in fact, a very easy-going person, and that quality will serve her well during her lifetime. But that doesn’t mean she’s not impacted by all the effort I put into Cate’s health, safety and happiness. Jane’s health, safety and happiness are just as important – they are simply different. Different children … different needs.
It is my responsibility to make sure that Jane feels just as important as Cate. Just because I know that she is as important as her sister doesn’t mean that she knows. I have to tell her. I have to show her. I have to explain why I do certain things for Cate and certain (sometimes different) things for her.
That one-on-one time Jane and I shared today was ideal but was WAY overdue. I will try to do things differently going forward and starting now:
I am going to go hug Jane.
And I’ll leave you a question to ponder: have you hugged your non-food allergic child today?
Copyright 2011 Egg-Free Epicurean LLC