I've been thinking a lot about siblings lately. I don't really know why, but it seems like I'm constantly having these moments of reflection about what it is to have a brother or sister and how those relationships change over time.
I'll start with my own kids. It started when my wife was pregnant with our middle child. Our daughter had been the only child in our family and the only grandchild on either side of our families for a couple of years. Like most only children, she was enjoying a life of indulgence. She was never without stimulation from adults; no matter where she went, she was the center of attention. Every holiday was an extravaganza of gifts that she didn't have to share with anyone. In fact, for her first two years, she didn't have to share anything. I have to admit, I was nervous about how she would react to having not only a new little brother in the house, but on my side of the family, she was getting a cousin at about the same time. I had heard stories about children in that situation acting out when the new baby came or refusing to accept that the new baby was even part of the family: "Can we take it back?"
When my son was born, everyone made sure that my daughter knew this didn't make her less special or that we would love her any less now that she wasn't the only little kiddo in our lives. My wife and I got her a baby doll as a present for her to open at the hospital when she came out to meet her little brother, and my parents got her a gift as well. We told her that the doll was for her to practice on so she could be a big helper with her little brother. She was beaming. I love to look at the pictures we have of her holding him at the hospital. You can't imagine a happier little girl, but I wasn't ready to let my guard down. I knew that this could just be a "honeymoon" phase and that things could change very quickly after a few days. This never happened. It was quite the opposite as a matter of fact. The days passed by, and instead of distancing herself from her little brother, she became more and more infatuated with him. They were together every minute of every day for a few months. This hadn't occurred to me until one Friday night when I decided to take her to a high school football game.
I was student teaching at the time, and I really thought it would be a good experience to go to a game and see my students outside of the classroom, a teacher's right of passage. My wife and I also decided it would be fun if my daughter went with me. My wife was working, so I dropped my son off with some friends of ours who had agreed to watch him for the evening, and my daughter and I headed to the game. Within a block of dropping my son off, my daughter became completely inconsolable at the thought of being away from her precious little brother. She cried the entire twenty-minute drive to the game. Once we were there and she was able to watch the band play and cheerleaders cheer, everything was okay, but as soon as we got back into the car, she immediately became worried about her brother. I thought she was happy the day he was born, but that was nothing compared to her reaction when we walked into our friends' house and she saw him again.
That was three years ago. I am happy to report that they are still as close as they were that night. It probably helps that they share a bedroom, so they continue to spend an incredible amount of time together. Sure, they have their moments when they don't want to take turns or they can't agree on what movie to watch, but at the end of the day, I don't know that either of them has a better friend in the world than each other. Over the past couple of weeks, they have developed the need to sleep in the same bed. I wasn't sure about this at first, but when my son waited until we left the room and snuck up into the top bunk with his sister, and my wife and I found them snuggled up together sleeping peacefully, I decided I should just cherish these moments while we have them. In the words of Darius Rucker, "It won't be like this for long."
A few months ago, my wife and I welcomed our third child to the world. Again, I was worried about the reaction of our other two children. For my daughter, I was worried about the disappointment of having another little brother instead of the little sister she had ordered. We had kept the sex of this baby a secret from everyone, including our two children, so we decided that a good way to avoid any issues with our daughter would be to let her in the secret the day before my wife was scheduled to be induced. This worked like a charm. She was disappointed, but it was offset by the excitement of being trusted with such an important secret. I was less worried about my older son than I was about my daughter when he was born because he wasn't used to being the only kid in the house, but I also figured he might have a problem with not being Daddy's only little buddy anymore. Again, my children amazed me.
When our older two met the new guy for the first time, they naturally wanted to hold him and love on him, but I really thought it would be something where they would hold him for a minute or two and lose interest. This couldn't have been farther from the truth. Both of my kids held their little brother on numerous occasions for upward of thirty minutes. They would just sit there and hold him in their lap like he was the greatest treasure on Earth, hugging him and kissing him and talking to him. It hasn't stopped. They still faun all over their little brother every chance they get, and they are enormously protective of the little guy. They are quick to let us know that we have let too much time lapse since he started crying and that we need to take care of him. Often, they will even let us know what it is he is crying about and what we ought to do to alleviate the situation.
I guess the sibling relationship I see in my own kids, and how incredible it all seems to me, is probably the reason I have become so attuned to the sibling dynamics around me. I remember growing up as the oldest of three boys. We were all close in age (four years between me and my youngest brother), so we grew up playing on a lot of the same teams and having many of the same friends. This led to some pretty contentious sibling rivalry from time to time. Sure, I have a ton of great memories of all of us playing together and getting along great, but there were also times when we wanted to tear each other apart. This got a lot worse when we were all teenagers. We were all struggling to find our own identities and develop relationships outside of the family, but we were all at different stages, all having different needs from each other at the same time. As the oldest, I desperately wanted to develop a social life separate from my brothers. For them, I can only guess that they weren't quite ready to lose the leader of our little wolf pack. We fought and bickered for much of our teen years, but now that we are adults, I can honestly say that I count my brothers as two of my best friends.
My wife is the youngest of a mixed bag: two girls and a boy. From what I have heard, they were not a very close bunch. Unlike my brothers and I who all had the same interests, my wife and her siblings are all completely different. Each of them had their own interests and hobbies, so they didn't share a lot of the same things that I shared with my brothers. For this reason, that little bit of separation I had with my brothers was far greater for them. However, this past weekend, we were over at the home of my in-laws. My wife's sister was there with her fiance, and her brother was in and out as he worked to get crops out of the fields. We had a great day of four-wheeler riding, combining (for my son with his uncle), and visiting with the family, but everyone agrees that the highlight was the hour or so that the three kids spent (plus my sister-in-law's fiance and me) sitting around the kitchen table chatting about anything and everything that came to our minds. My wife was beaming. She said she can't remember a time when she had just sat with her brother and sister and just talked without any real purpose. Around that table were people who were enjoying each other's company simply because they enjoyed each other's company. They didn't have to sit and talk like that just because they are related. They did it because they genuinely like each other.
As I sit and write this all down, I wonder what I can take away from it all. What message can I express about siblings? There is a saying about being able to pick your friends but not your family. The idea is that we are better off with our friends because we get to pick them but that our families are something we are saddled with. Certainly, there are times in our lives that it feels that way, but I also feel blessed that I was given the family I have. They're not perfect. Nobody is, but they are a group of people that know who I am in a way that even my friends probably don't. Our siblings are people with whom we have a shared heritage. Even if we experienced it in different ways, we have the same basic history. We share traditions, memories, and at the expense of sounding a little cheesy, love. I know that as my children grow, there will be times they don't like each other, but I also know that they love I see between them now will always be in there somewhere, just waiting for an afternoon around the kitchen table to show itself again.