On Saturday night, when we were walking the lighted paths of our local botanical garden, taking in the beauty around us, my daughter announced something that millions of children have uttered before her:
“Sometimes I wish I was an only child.”
It kind of hit me hard.
In retrospect, it was a mere blip on our family landscape – way worse things have been said, and I’m sure my kids have nursed much more hurt feelings then they let on to me. But she had never uttered those words out loud before, and it was sort of like a sharp realization of a fear I’ve held since Amal was a baby – when the day may come when she would not want this life we’ve built, not want these siblings that she has, and feel like she wasn’t getting enough attention.
I know I’m blowing all of this out of proportion, and when I play the scene back in my head, I’m pretty sure she uttered those words first in response to her exasperation at Hamza, who was doing typical younger brother-annoying-his-older-sister things that night, and second in response to Lil D, who had some difficult moments during the course of the evening.
But here’s the thing – we had Amal before we were certain of Lil D’s autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. He was a little over two and in early intervention when we learned that we were expecting Amal. She was very much a wanted baby. But, we had no idea what journey we were about to embark on with Lil D, whose diagnosis came one month after Amal was born.
Those early years after the diagnosis was a blur of sleepless nights, tears, driving all over New York City and upstate New York to his autism school and therapies, researching diets, learning how to cook gluten-free and caisen-free and a thousand other things – learning, as the autism cliché go, that this was a marathon and not a sprint. Amal, who was the best baby (as all mothers are wont to gush over their children – but she really was), either spent her time hanging with her grandparents whenever they were visiting us from India, or being dragged everywhere I was taking Lil D.
Even after we moved to Virginia, her schedule and life continued to largely be fit into what I was trying to do to help Lil D. When I despaired at how they were not connecting with each other despite her attempts to play with her big brother, I had his private autism school to do special “sibling therapy” to teach him to play with her. It worked wonders.
We became pregnant with Hamza when Amal was three and Lil D was six – a pregnancy that my husband and I discussed endlessly before it happened. Was this the right thing for us? We were in a groove with Lil D and Amal, and we knew by then the lifelong challenges Lil D and we would all have. Did we really want to add a third child to the mix?
We felt the lack of a companion for Amal, but there was no guarantee that our third child wouldn’t also be autistic. How would we be able to provide the love and care to three children, one of whom had profound special needs? How would we continue our quest to help him improve the quality of life while fully parenting our other two children?
I know several families with autistic children who choose to have just that one child, and their dedication to helping their special needs child is singular. Others adopt a second child. Several others do have a second child, and I wonder if that second child came before the parents really realized what they would have to give for their other special needs child – like it happened with us. Sometimes the special needs child is the second child.
Then there’s us – who deliberately chose to have a third child, knowing full well what we were walking in to. And, it has been glorious, beautiful, fun, hair-raising, extremely hard, frustrating, anxiety-inducing and blessed. I think a lot about Amal, who has been in the trenches with Lil D and us from the very beginning, from when I agonized over the diagnosis while absent-mindedly nursing her and changing her diapers, to now when I ask for her understanding when I am tough with Lil D, or when I have to sit with him upstairs when he having a meltdown instead of downstairs with her while she is doing her homework.
She has a beautiful relationship with Lil D, a fierce protectiveness that propels her to an older sister status, though she is three years his junior. She speaks of him freely to her teachers and friends, and thus far has had no qualms having friends over even when he is going through a bad cycle. She expressed outrage befitting of a nine-year-old when the brother of her friend said he didn’t like Lil D and thought he was weird.
Amal refers to himself as Lil D’s favorite person, and she probably is. She and Hamza are his only friends, and she is Lil D’s best friend. But as she grows older, her own life is unfolding, and we are doing our best to help her find her way and parent her so that she grows to be the decent, giving, smart, strong, world-changer of a Muslim woman that I believe she can be. (Best-case scenario.)
And, along the way, she will wish at times that she didn’t have to deal with all she has to, that she could be spared the autism- and annoying-little-brother life she is living. She will wish to be an only child, like she did on Saturday. And I will be hurt.
And then we will wake up the next morning and go for a walk around the lake near our house, and she will say, “Look Mamma, Bhai is happy when I walk with him.”
And that, among infinite other reasons, is why she’s a rock star.