From the time QB and I decided to have a second child, I always hoped that Vegemite and her sibling would have a close relationship. After all, part of our decision to have a second child was to give her a friend and companion – someone always there for her. It seemed particularly important to me because we were living overseas away from extended family. And when I learned that Lil Z was a girl, I was over the moon. I had visions of two beautiful little girls playing dolls, climbing trees and putting on impromptu ballet performances together.
Obviously that has all changed now. In fact, I spend a lot of time worrying that Vegemite may not love her sister. After all, it is hard for a 4-year-old to get enthusiastic about a sibling who doesn’t talk, play, chase or even look at her much of the time. At times I’ve been guilty of over-compensating – Lil Z always gets Vegemite over the top gifts for her birthday and Christmas.
I haven’t given up wanting Vegemite and Lil Z to have a loving relationship. And in the back of my mind I’m also conscious that when QB and I are gone, the responsibility of managing Lil Z’s care will fall to Vegemite. It is a lot of responsibility to take on – and the kind of responsibility you would only take if you loved the other person.
However, after Vegemite and I were away for three weeks, I think I’m less worried than I was before. You see, Vegemite really missed her sister while she was away.
It dawned on me, when Vegemite was crying over how much she missed Lil Z, that the two of them have never really been apart since Lil Z was born. Even when Lil Z has been in the hospital, Vegemite visited her every day. So, our trip was the first time the girls had really been apart. And although Vegemite revelled in every moment of the undivided attention that gave her, she still missed her sister.
Being Lil Z’s big sister isn’t easy, but Vegemite is a natural with babies and small children, and Lil Z is no exception. Vegemite is enthusiastically learning sign language to use with Lil Z – at a recent birthday party, she signed to another little girl then turned to me and commented “she’s not like Lil Z, she doesn’t know sign language”. Lil Z has had a problem with coughing and vomiting lately and Vegemite is usually the first to respond, patting her to stop her coughing, sounding the alarm when Lil Z’s been sick, and helping out by fetching emesis bags and towels. Since very early on she has also helped with Lil Z’s seizures, either by opening the door for the paramedics or rubbing Lil Z’s back while I unlock the door or fetch her meds. She is also very proud that she knows how to phone an ambulance herself – although thankfully we haven’t needed to put that skill to the test.
I get her involved because I believe it gives her more understanding and control over the situation than simply standing back and watching – which I expect would be confusing and frightening. However, I try to avoid giving her any real responsibility because I don’t want her to feel worried or responsible. After Lil Z had a seizure in the car, Vegemite heard me re-telling the story about how she had been laughing about how Lil Z was blowing bubbles (which turned out to be foaming at the mouth from the seizure) and solemnly told me that she would let me know the next time it happened because she understood now that it was a seizure. I felt terrible and made sure I didn’t tell the story in front of her again.
However, one of my biggest concerns is that Vegemite will be embarrassed of her sister when she gets older. Or that other children will tease her for having a disabled sister. At the moment, that couldn’t be farther from reality – Lil Z has the uncanny ability to attract admirers. Vegemite’s friends from Kindy all wanted to hug and kiss Lil Z. And when I took Lil Z to the school drop off the other day, there was a circle of little girls around her pram, all admiring her pink cast and her long eyelashes. Vegemite stood sentinel over her – not wanting any of the girls to get too close. But I know this is all likely to change as she gets older, and just the thought of it makes me sad.
I know a lot of people think that the impact of a special needs child on their siblings is automatically negative – loss of attention, embarrassment, being saddled with an unwanted burden later in life – but I am optimistic. QB and I work very hard to ensure that Vegemite gets her share of attention. In fact, we’re so conscious of it that she gets considerably more attention than your average big sister.
And I believe that her relationship with Lil Z will give her many benefits that children with “normal” siblings may not have. Like QB and me, she rejoices in Lil Z’s minor developments – getting excited and running to tell us when Lil Z does something new. She is learning from Lil Z’s medical experiences too. Not many 4-year-olds can explain how a nasogastric tube works or what to do when someone has a seizure. She is fascinated with Lil Z’s PEG and spends a lot of time examining it. And I’ll be forever grateful to the Emergency Department doctor who spent a lot of time explaining to Vegemite why she was doing different tests on Lil Z and let her watch – which fascinated Vegemite and inspired considerable medical testing of her dolls when we got home. And she is learning compassion and empathy.
I don’t want to make Vegemite out to be a saint. She is still your average 4-year-old girl. She regularly tries to grab our attention away from Lil Z. She refuses to share her toys. She gets frustrated when she has to go to the hospital because her sister has become unwell. She whinges when Lil Z splashes her in the bath. And she has been known on rare occasions to give her little sister a poke or pinch or shove. So she’s not a saint, she’s a regular big sister. But one whom I hope will grow up appreciating the little sister she has.