My daughter’s first memory of knowing her brother is a good one.
“I got ice cream when I came to see you in the hospital,” she would recall.
“And you saw your brother for the first time, too.”
“Yeah, he was so small. I liked the ice cream.”
The next few weeks weren’t as good although ice cream was probably consumed again. My husband had gotten a job in Newark, so a week after my son was born we moved from our home in Connecticut to a house rental in a New Jersey suburb. My daughter, who turned three soon after the move, had a difficult time adjusting.
Once on a walk around the neighborhood, she stopped at a street corner. I hadn’t seen her smile much since the move and that day was no different. She looked around at our neighbors’ houses and asked in a small voice, “Mommy, where are all my friends?”
“You’ll make new friends here,” I assured her. “And you have your brother now,” I added and pointed to him, sleeping in the stroller. She looked at him for a moment and shrugged. This tiny sleeping baby was small consolation for her prior life of easy walks to numerous friends’ homes and familiar parks and playgrounds.
Once she began summer camp with its easy routine and began to make new friends, our daughter showed signs of being the happy child we had known before. Her attitude towards her brother however remained more or less the same – mostly unaffected by his presence until he had my attention at the exact moment she decided she needed it as well.
My daughter’s days soon became wrapped up in dress-up clothes and swim days and asking for more playdates. She didn’t notice the way her brother’s eyes would light up when she entered a room and followed her movements. She barely registered the wheels moving behind her when he got into a baby walker and tried to catch up to wherever she was heading in the house.
It wasn’t until he was able to crawl and move around on his own that she started to be truly interested in what it meant to have a brother. It was nice for a while.
My daughter would help me push his stroller along the hallways to her pre-school class and announce to anyone standing outside the classroom door that he was her little brother. She would say with pride that her brother was so cute and her friends would peer over at him and agree with oohs and aahs. She would cup his grateful face in her hands and tell her brother she’d miss him before running off into the room to greet her teachers.
A few months later my son would start to walk. I overheard my daughter once telling him to walk to her. She told him to pretend she was his mommy and to come walk and give her a big hug. I didn’t see him make the journey but a few moments later I heard her whoop with pride and say “Good job, my little Teddy bear!”
Too soon it seemed she no longer was happy when he came to her. She often rushed to find me, with fresh tears on her face, and list her grievances. Her brother had grabbed at her toys, pushed her too roughly, pulled her hair and tried to sit next to her when all she wanted was to play by herself.
I would talk to him about playing gently with his sister and ask him to give her a hug. She would demand he say he was sorry. But I couldn’t ask him to say that because, well, he couldn’t say it.
An evaluation confirmed what myself and my husband already knew, that our son had a serious speech delay which required immediate attention. Multiple hearing tests ruled out any auditory problems so he began to meet with speech therapists during the week at our home.
Slowly, and with many regressions, his speech began to improve over time. He started to say ‘Dada’ and ‘Mama’ with more confidence and ease. Unsurprisingly, ‘no’ became a favorite word.
“Why won’t he say my name?” my daughter asked with hurt in her voice.
I tried to explain using the language of the speech therapist. “There are so many different sounds in your name, Darcy. There’s ‘duh,’ ‘ah,’ r,’ ‘ce,’ and ‘ee.’ It’s very hard for him to make any of those sounds right now and then once he can, he has to figure out how to put the sounds together. He knows your name and he knows the sounds, there’s just a signal missing between what he knows and what he can do with his voice. He’ll be able to say it one day.”
“I wish I had an easier name,” she replied, still sad.
I would have to remind her many times why he couldn’t say certain things to her and eventually that included why he couldn’t say he loved her.
Almost any altercation over a mutually desired toy or need for a parent’s attention would end with my daughter folding her arms and declaring that her brother didn’t love her.
“Of course he does,” I said. “Teddy, do you love Darcy, eh or no?” As soon as I asked the question, I knew I should have phrased it differently.
While my son struggled to master speech, his sense of humor was almost too well developed.
He looked at her and then looked at me with a mischievous grin. “No,” he said and giggled. It was the same giggle he gave during his comprehension evaluation when the therapist laid out three picture cards in front of him and asked him to point to the card with the car. He looked directly at the card car, looked at her, gave his mischievous grin and pointed to the card with a cow before giggling.
“See!” his sister shouted and began to sob.
“Teddy!” I said. “Oh, you know that he’s just teasing.”
“No, he isn’t,” she insisted. “He doesn’t love me. He won’t even say it.”
I tried to tell her of all the ways he loved her. How he would always wake up first in the morning but not want to eat breakfast until she came downstairs. How sad he was when she’d have a playdate and she and a friend would hide out in her room without him. How he would come and give her a toy whenever she was upset with me or her father.
But she wouldn’t be consoled unless she somehow heard it from him. “And he still can’t say my name,” she added.
I stopped trying to get my son to tell his sister he loved her through the words he could say. We continued to work on his speech and at times there were true breakthroughs. His list of vocabulary and sounds grew and he started to be able to put two words together at once.
One afternoon when he was around two and a half I told him it was time to pick up his sister from kindergarten. He ran to get a photo of her in a frame and brought it over to me excitedly.
“Dar,” I said. “Dar-ssss-eeee.” I finished by pulling his cheeks to the sides to mimic the ‘eeee’ sound.
He looked at me and smiled, but did not try to say the sounds back.
We walked over to the school and waited outside the doors until the teachers opened them and the students spotted their caregivers. My daughter happily pointed to us and began to walk over when a friend rushed up to her and asked if she wanted to play on the playground together.
“Can I, Mom?” she asked, already following her friend.
My son ran after her and when he caught up he put his arms around her waist.
“My,” he said, his sound for the word ‘mine.’ He looked angrily at her friend. “No, my,” he told her.
In one of those fleeting moments of true maturity that you begin to see in five year-olds, my daughter hugged him back gently and told him, “You’re mine too. It’s okay, Teddy, we’ll all play together.”
Part of the time on the playground they did play together. Part of the time she left him spinning the ship wheel while she ran around with her friend. But she would often look back at him and call out his name. He always smiled back at her, content with the moments of attention.
On our walk back home my son walked a little ahead of us, pausing every now and then to see that we were right behind. I decided to broach the subject once again with my daughter.
“I think Teddy loves you,” I said.
Without skipping a beat my daughter rolled her eyes. “I know that, Mom,” she said, in a voice any teenager would be proud of. Still, I loved hearing her say it all the same.
I wrote this piece about a time in my children’s lives that has since changed. My son still works on his speech but has made tremendous progress. He can say his name, his sister’s name, “play now please,” “more cookies, Mommy,” and many other words & phrases 🙂