Families often have one member who’s different from the rest: an artist in a family of sports fans, for example, or an enthusiastic member of debate teams in a family of book readers. Most commonly occurring, perhaps, are personality pattern differences. A really big challenge in families (and other human groupings) is learning to observe a family member’s behavior patterns without calcifying them into judgements about “who” that person is. When that happens it becomes impossible to truly see those close to us. Instead, we paste a projection onto their faces and attempt to interact with it, instead of engaging with real people in open and thoughtful ways. Focusing on the ways in which a family member is different from the rest also makes it impossible to see differences in other family members. Then everybody loses: nobody is properly seen, and no one in the family gets their needs met or the emotional validation which is so important for every person’s well-being.
In our family, two of our children are twins. This exacerbates issues already common to families with siblings: twins are relentlessly compared to each other. Since our twin daughters are very different from each other, and developing at different rates and in different ways, the potential for developing conflict, jealousy, and limiting, stereotyped views of each of them is high. Ted and I have been conscious of this from the beginning.
Additionally, there is a great deal of personality alignment between Hazel (our oldest daughter) and Emily (the other twin). So comparisons are easy to make between Emily and Hazel, on the one hand, and Joanna on the other.
Our family is composed of two extroverts (Hazel and Emily), two introverts (Ted and Joanna), and one introvert with an extroverted wing (me). Ted and I, being adults, have learned how to handle functioning in the world (at least to some extent). Joanna doesn’t have our decades of experience. She is thoughtful and curious. She is quiet. She likes to take her time to experience the world around her. She very often gets run over by her sisters, who tend to dive in with verve and enthusiasm (especially Emily). Because things go so fast, she winds up just copying Emily a lot. Partly, this is a totally genuine appreciation for others’ enthusiasms. But partly, it is because she needs space made for her in our family, space and time to think and feel and decide without pressure.
She also winds up asking for help and assuming a certain degree of lack of capability on her own part. This is partly because everyone thinks Joanna is cute and sweet and wants to help her. This is also partly because she has had the tendency since very early on to reach out for help. Ted and I (and our wonderful nanny H) are making a conscious effort to encourage Joanna to try first, before we help her. As Ted pointed out today, our expectations of our children will have a tremendous impact on their own perception of themselves and their abilities. We know Joanna can do many things: we need to provide gentle and consistent feedback and support for her to learn this about herself too.
Sometimes people will say that they parented all their kids the same way. I find this extremely improbable, and also not even a goal to shoot for. Everyone is different. We all have different strengths, areas of challenge, tendencies. We need different sorts of support in order to grow and thrive. We all need to learn how to be leaders and how to accept direction. We all need to learn how to take care of ourselves, and how to ask for help. But we will all learn and acquire those skills differently.
So, today a Wonder Woman costume arrived for Joanna. We’re all getting super hero costumes; I ordered a plus-size Super Girl costume I was extremely excited to find last week, Joanna chose the Wonder Woman costume, and Emily chose a Batgirl costume. Hazel wants to be Super Girl too; I am not sure yet what Ted is going to choose. Anyway, Joanna’s arrived today. The girls have been very excited to get their costumes, and the box was an object of very enthusiastic attention. Hazel and Emily immediately rushed over to it, and Emily reached out to open it.
I called a halt, told the girls to step back and give Joanna some space. This was so hard for them to do that ultimately I made them sit on the benches next to H and me, so that Joanna could open her box unimpeded. I enforced no talking to Joanna other than to offer things like, “Oh, that’s cool!” No suggestions, no questions, no “help”. Hazel twitched. She kept trying to offer suggestions/orders to Joanna. She drummed her feet on the ground. She got really mad. She said she was bored. Emily started to copy me; I told her not to jump on the bandwagon (a common issue in our house, something we work on a lot.) She relaxed and watched Joanna.
Hazel, to her credit, did not throw a full-blown fit. She wanted to try on Joanna’s Wonder Woman “boots” (knee-high leg coverings). After I told her no the second time, she dropped it.
With this firewall in place, with a space in which she could explore and know her stuff was just hers, with time to process, Joanna smiled. She poked around. She asked for help: we told her to try it herself. We offered silly suggestions when she seemed stressed by the idea that she could find the packaging flap and open it herself. She puttered. She initiated conversation. She gradually found everything, gradually put it all on. She enjoyed herself. With a big smile, she said that her costume had come first; she told Emily that hers would come soon. When there were things Joanna genuinely needed help with, we asked her whom she wanted to help her. She pointed at Hazel, and said, “You!” Once Joanna was all dressed up in her costume, she sat on the floor, and Emily came and sat down in front of her. They stretched out their legs and put their feet together.
Afterwards it was time for Ted and I to go have our downtime. We walked down the street together, talking about parenting. We want to help our kids learn to consider the needs and boundaries of everyone in the family. We want to help them understand and appreciate each other’s differences without turning each other into caricatures. For example, we want all of them (Joanna included) to understand that Joanna needs time to experience and process the people and things in the world around her, without reframing that as, “Joanna is slow.”
We all fall prey to making those characterizations, and to being the object of them. The story about me, from when I was little, was that I was emotional, impractical, and unrealistic. “Touchy-feely woman”, and “sees life through rose-colored lenses”, were two associated descriptions used about me. In actual fact, though I have strong emotions, I am quite analytical. It took me decades to realize that the characterizations of me were not, in fact, the definition of who I am. Even more importantly, that who I am is less important than what I choose to do: that the behavior patterns I choose to establish and the skills I choose to acquire are at least as important as the tendencies I was born with.
I want each of my children to have the space and support within our family that will help create a foundation upon which they can discover themselves, gain needed life skills, and learn that to a large degree we are what/whom we make of ourselves. Very little is set in stone, and there is always more about a person (including oneself) than we think.