About a year ago, Johanna’s occupational therapist suggested we get her the Fisher Price Laugh & Learn Piggy Bank. It’s a very cute toy; a pink pig with a large red snout that holds 10 colored coins. Carol, our therapist, thought it would improve Johanna’s grasping skills and help her hand-eye coordination. Johanna loved her pig. She quickly figured out that each time she put a coin in the slot, she was rewarded with a piggy noise or the Old MacDonald theme song. She struggled initially and I often had to guide her hand to the opening, but the more she practiced, the better she got, and eventually she was able to put most of the coins in herself, without help.
This past summer, during our kitchen renovations, Piggy—like many of our toys—mysteriously disappeared. I found him last week one night as I was unpacking the kitchen, nestled in between boxes of peanut-free cake mix and mixing bowls. He was a little smelly and more than a little dusty, but after a quick wash and disinfecting he was back to his formerly robust self.
The next morning, after breakfast, I took the kids into their playroom. As soon as Johanna saw Piggy, she broke into a huge grin and walked right over to him. “Yay!” she said, clapping her hands. “Oink Oink!” She plopped down and I sat next to her, the plastic coins in my hand.
She took a coin from me and held it, hesitating. Teddy decided to take a break from his game of throwing all of Johanna’s toy pots and pans around her miniature kitchen to investigate what was going on. “Look guys,” I said, slipping a coin into the slot. As the music began to play both of my children watched, fascinated.
“C’mon, Jo Jo,” I said, tapping on the bank to encourage her to put the coin in. She tried, but it was clear that after a couple months without Piggy, she was out of practice. Her fingers fumbled and after several unsuccessful tries the coin dropped to the floor. Teddy reached to grab it. “No, Teddy,” I said, pulling it away from him as he wailed in protest. “It’s Jo Jo’s turn.” I handed it back to her. Again, she tried to place it, and again she faltered. Her fingers trembled, and she looked up at me. She couldn’t do it, and she really, really wanted to.
Then Teddy, who was clearly past his 14 month patience threshold, snatched the coin from her and slipped it effortlessly into the slot. As the tune of Old MacDonald filled the room, he looked at me, grinning triumphantly as if to say, “Look mom! See, that wasn’t so hard? Was it?” He grabbed a green coin and slipped it in. Then a blue. Then a yellow. Within a minute, all ten coins were gone. Johanna just sat watching him as I silently opened the pig and gave her another coin. “Now it’s Jo Jo’s turn,” I said brightly, but she just shrugged and turned away to busy herself with her drum set instead. Clearly, Piggy, at this very moment, was no longer in favor.
That’s when I started crying.
It may sound ridiculous, a grown woman sobbing over a plastic pig toy that bleats the same annoying tunes over and over. But Piggy (or Oink, Oink, as Johanna calls him) had suddenly taken on a monumental significance. He was, at that moment, a shining pink example of a developmental milestone that Teddy, my typical child, was able to reach effortlessly, while Johanna struggled. Teddy doesn’t have low muscle tone like Jo Jo, it’s not hard for him to grasp and hold onto objects. At 14 months, he can feed himself with utensils and build a block tower, things that my daughter is just learning to do.
I knew, of course, that having a second child would be at times bittersweet—especially since they’re only seventeen months apart. I knew that Teddy would hit his milestones much more quickly than Johanna, and that eventually he would begin hitting milestones at around the same time as she did, and then eventually he would surpass her entirely. But I guess I just didn’t think that this would be happening so soon. My sitter came back from the park today and informed me that Teddy was now walking and climbing all over everything on the playground. “He used to follow Jo Jo, but now she’s taking his lead,” she said. We stared at each other for a moment and then she shrugged. “I think it’s good for her,” she said gently. “When she sees him doing things, it motivates her. She wants to do them too.”
Maybe. Or maybe not. Lately, Teddy’s been insisting on climbing the stairs by himself. It’s something Johanna’s always hated, and I’ve always had to coax her by placing some sort of musical toy in front of her to motivate her. But Teddy doesn’t need any incentive. He grasps onto the railing and hoists himself up, glancing back at us every step or two to flash a toothy grin. Johanna usually follows, at least for the first two-three steps. But as it becomes clear that he can move faster—and that it requires much less effort for him—she gives up. She dawdles, letting her legs hang limply behind her before sliding backwards on her belly until she reaches the bottom. At which point, I inevitably scoop her up and hurry after Teddy, who’s halfway to the top.
When Johanna was 22 months old, I mentioned to her speech therapist that Teddy, barely five months, had started babbling. I was surprised; it seemed early to me, especially for a boy. She sighed and shook her head. “I hate to tell you this, but it won’t be long before he surpasses her in speech entirely,” she said. I blanched. That wasn’t what I expected her to say, and I didn’t think it was true. But then she dropped the real zinger. “The good news,” she said, “is your daughter doesn’t have the cognitive capabilities to be aware of it. It won’t bother her."
I was so angry that I wanted to rip her face off. But I didn’t. I told her to leave immediately, then I got on the phone with my Birth to Three service coordinator and demanded a new speech therapist. Given her horrifying 1960-ish views of Down Syndrome, it amazes me that this woman is even allowed in the same room with a child with a disability. And what she said? Total bullshit. Teddy still has yet to surpass Johanna in speech, although realistically I know it may happen within the next few months.
But the second part? Total bullshit too. My daughter does have the cognitive capabilities to be aware of what her little brother is and is not doing. And, at times, it does seem to bother her.
The knowledge of that can’t help but hurt.