Thursday, January 20, 2011

everybody hurts, sometimes

In addition to Baby Girl, my family has two other small kids: my niece, 2 years old, and nephew, six months.  There are a lot of great things about having cousins close in age: sharing parenting challenges, hoping they'll be good friends as they grow up, hand-me-down clothes.

And there are some not-so-great things.

My nephew is the son of my youngest brother and his wife.  They live about 15 miles away - not a long distance, but traffic makes it a longer trip than you'd think.  So we don't see them as often as my niece.  That's part of the problem, I suspect.

Another part of the problem is my sister-in-law, who is a fiercely intelligent, creative, and thoughtful person, but who is also, to be frank, a little arrogant.  Sometimes a lot arrogant.  I always knew she was this way, and I always suspected that parenting would sharpen that edge - much as it brings out the best and worst in all of us, at times.  My own tendency to be impatient increases exponentially at 1:00 in the morning when Baby Girl is awake and fussy and I know she's tired whydoesn'tshejustsleepfortheloveofitall.  I know, too, that my own dislike of unsolicited advice has not completely stopped me from sharing some of my own.  And that, to my deep horror (even as the words were coming out of my mouth), I have already uttered the phrase, "people without kids just don't understand."  (Oh, how I hated myself afterward for saying that.)

So, when we get together and I hear a lot of how much more my sister-in-law knows - "oh, wait until she's teething," "we've never had that problem," "you shouldn't even expect her to have a schedule and it will change anyway," "oh, you're supplementing with formula?" - I try very hard to swallow the harsh responses that pop up in my head.  They won't do anybody any good.  And I suspect that, a lot of the time, she doesn't realize what she sounds like.  Because she's a very good mother.  And she loves my brother, and he loves her, and they both adore their son.

Who, as you might remember from a previous post, is deaf.  He is in all other respects a perfectly normal, delightful, funny, chatty, slightly fussy, strong, and mostly happy little boy.  Because there is no family history of hearing loss on either side, his diagnosis came as a deep shock.  And it has remained so these past six months.

My sister-in-law's "know-it-all" attitude has sharply increased in those months.  Partly because, at least in comparison to the rest of us in the family, she does, in fact, know it all about infant hearing loss.  She's practically earned a doctorate in research, and I admire her tenacity.  They are completely committed to doing all they can for him as they wait for the final decision about his eligibility for a cochlear implant.   They're working with specialists and early intervention programs.  No baby could have better advocates.

But the other night, when we were all together celebrating my birthday, something occurred to me.  We walked into the house and began talking to our nephew, trying to use the "hello" signs they've taught us, looking right into his eyes and speaking clearly, as they've requested.  We smiled and talked to him and he looked at us with his trademark skepticism, as he (much like his father at that age) is not very sure about strangers these days.  My brother asked to hold Baby Girl, so we handed her over.

And my sister-in-law did the same thing I realized she's done since Baby Girl was born: she showed no interest in her whatsoever.

I began to realize this over the next few hours.  She has never asked to hold her.  While we rushed over to the birthing center the night our nephew was born, they didn't come to meet Baby Girl until she had been home for several days.  And since then, she has never asked about her.  Except to give advice.  No interest in how she's doing, and she hasn't even looked much at her when we've been together.  I don't think she's ever said her name out loud.

I started to simmer with rage.  She knew how long we had tried for this child.  She knew how hard it was to try (or claimed she did, when they told us they had been trying for a year and understood how hard infertility was, and then got pregnant the next month while we started year four).  And now - nothing.  All the efforts we've made to learn about their child's diagnosis, to read the research they send, to respect the decisions they make - topped off by their Christmas gift to everyone of "resources about deafness" which they expect us to read and watch and share with each other - because, you know, I have nothing but time on my hands these days - and we smiled and said, "what a good idea," because it partly was, even if it was also a gift that said, "your Christmas present is all about us."

Oh, it was hard not to tell her off.  IT IS NOT ALL ABOUT YOU, the voices in my head wanted to say out loud.  Why can't you show interest in someone else, for a change?  Why can't you ask how my child is, instead of it always being the other way around?  I want to tell you about my child, just like you want to tell me about yours.  I want to talk about how she smiles and laughs when I talk to her...

...and then it hit me like a ton of bricks, that in spite of how sensitive I claim to be, I've been missing it all along.  Most likely, every stage my child goes through is a reminder to her of how it wasn't for her child. The only question she's every asked about Baby Girl came late in the evening, when I was making spitting noises at her to make her laugh: "does she try to imitate you?"  "Yes," I said, and just as I was going to add, "whenever we talk to her she gets a huge smile," I realized that my arrogant, pain-in-the-ass sister-in-law is probably grieving the fact that her son cannot hear her voice.  He hears something these days, with his hearing aids, but no one knows yet how much.  And, at any rate, he certainly doesn't hear his parents the way our daughter hears hers.

So here we were, two hurting moms: one who is stung by her sister-in-law's total lack of interest in her daughter, one who is watching that daughter and wondering what it would have been like if her son could hear like her.  Two moms who have been a little snippy with each other, much like many parents can be, one-upping each other with "how much harder it is for me" stories.  Two moms who are perfectly right to feel the way they do, even as those feelings are carving out a chasm between them.

I'm still not over it, really.  I still think she could show a little more interest.  I will still have to work on swallowing my instantly-irritated responses when she goes on lecturing rants about how no one can understand why parenting her child is so much harder than anyone else's has ever been.  (I am exaggerating.  Slightly.)  A big part of this is just her personality, the darker side of which has been brought out by her son's deafness.

But when I am tempted to judge her for this, I am going to try to remember that I am not so different.  That I don't know what it's like to walk in her shoes.  That I do not have to get sucked in by her rants and arrogance and defensiveness, although it's pretty damn hard to resist.

That everybody hurts, sometimes.  And striking out at her will not make me feel any better.

Or maybe I should try an easier New Year's resolution.  Like world peace.


  1. What a well written, honest post-what a great reminder that we all have hurts and we (by we I mean me) don't always handle it the best way. Thanks for giving me something to ponder today.

  2. I can't speak to the personality of your sister in law, nor the relationship between the two of you.

    But, I am in sort of a similar situation, on the other side of it. Our older daughter, Sweet Baboo, was a preemie (I think you knew this already). She has resulting (at least we think it's preemie related) developmental delays in almost every area. The doctors and therapists think she'll catch up, but it's a very slow process. My brother's daughter is seven months younger than Sweet Baboo, and off the developmental charts in the other direction.

    Yes, it's hard when they are together. I think, almost constantly, "this is what Sweet Baboo could be doing/saying/thinking" if only she was caught up. It has been a very hard thing for me to learn to appreciate all Sweet Baboo can do, to celebrate her accomplishments, to not get ahead of myself wondering what her future may hold.

    I don't think, though, that I have reacted to our niece the way you're describing your sister-in-law. It's on a smaller emotional scale, but it is a little like celebrating with a pregnant friend when we were in the midst of infertility. It's a lot easier than that, actually. Somewhere between that and world peace :) I love our niece and I think...hope...that I show that love and play with her and enjoy all of the things she can do and say.

    Thanks for writing about's certainly made me think.

  3. Very, very good post. I'm actually dealing with a VERY similiar situation right now with my half-sister. Although our father chose to have nothing to do with me and raised her, I ended up the lucky one. I was given much better opportunities and a happier life, while she was abused and neglected.

    Until recently, I felt mostly jealousy that he wanted her and not me. But after speaking with her and realizing the true situation, it turns out she's been jealous of me all these years. Sometimes things aren't always as they seem...

  4. Love this post... My pastor gave a sermon on this early last year, and his main point was "hurt people hurt people." Sounds strange - but then he clarified it with "hurt people will, can and do hurt (other) people" -- and it's so absolutely true, even though it may be unintentional. She's probably doing her best just to hold herself together, and not let the floodgates open -- as you or I probably did countless times around others during our struggles with IF and treatments. She's probably so focused on the self preservation/defense mechanism that she may not even know that she's been ignoring you or hurting your feelings... I hope.

    Hang in there -- and thanks for sharing. Your writing and so many of your posts resonate with me, and I am blessed by your sharing with us.

  5. Really great post! Only one hand typing so short comment. I think you totally get it. She's just trying to hold herself together - and that's a feat in itself without being able to give any nice friendly inquiries. Or at least I hope that's the explanation. You are a big person to get this from her lack of interest!

  6. Good for you for arriving at this insight. It positions you well to be kind to her and them as they navigate this still-murky issue. It also seems to me, though, that you can be kind AND find her arrogance annoying. That's fair.

    Don't forget to make mental notes of her choicest comments, so that you can share them with us!