“Clay is my favorite,” my then 5-year old Alex pronounced one day in the van after school. He was not talking about art supplies, however. Clay is his 8-year old brother.
In response, my first-born child, daughter Riley said, “Alex, that is not nice.”
“Yeah, Alex,” Jed, my oldest son chimed in.
To make her point that this kind of favoritism was hurtful, Riley said, “Well, Jed is my favorite then.”
“Riley’s my favorite,” Jed said.
Alex held firm. “Clay is still my favorite.”
Throughout this conversation, Clay had been sitting silent by himself in the back row of the van. “Who’s your favorite, Clay?” one of the older two asked.
“I’m not saying,” Clay said. Smart, I thought. He’s going to avoid the whole issue. But he waited a beat, then revealed his real answer with deadpan seriousness, “I hate you all.”
Clay can bring the funny. On that day, with that statement, he broke the tension as we all laughed, long and hard.
But the whole conversation stayed with me, and not just because of the comedic gold. One of my greatest desires as a mother is for my kids to grow up and like each other. To stay close to home, in the “home is where the heart is” sense. No matter where they roam, near or far, I want them to miss each other, long to see one another, and show up for each other when it counts.
I’ve always loved those movies in which large families gather for Thanksgiving or Christmas or a family reunion. Hilarity ensues, with dashes of turmoil and discord, but in the end, they all come together and announce how much they love each other and will stay together as a family no matter what. I know it doesn’t always work that way, though. Siblings can be very different people with little in common. Think about all the genetic material, which goes back for generations, coming together in myriad and infinite ways in each child. They didn’t choose to be in the same family. If given a blank slate, they might not associate with one another at all.
As children, or even as adults, choices are made and slights are divvied out, intentionally or unintentionally. A comment from your brother or sister can stay with you for a lifetime. My brother and I are friends, but when I try on a pair of jeans for the first time and view my backside, I always think about the time he called me “long butt.” Of course, I was not without sin. My kids love to hear the story of me dragging said brother across the floor when he was little and leaving a huge carpet burn on his back that got me in big time trouble.
My kids can fight with the best of them. A lightsaber battle can turn ugly in a second. The car can become a war zone on a road trip. But emotionally, things can be much worse. If Riley and Jed are really mad at each other, she will inevitably bring up that trip to Disney World when Jed was younger and had several raging fits when he didn’t get his way. She ignores the times when she used to scream and cry when we tried to get her to go to bed. Then there is the insult that can really cut deep: one of the older kids calls a younger sibling a “baby.” Make it “cry baby” and all hell breaks loose.
They keep mental count of how many basketball tournaments, soccer games, and dance recitals each of the other siblings has attended. They keep detailed score, inaccurately, yes, but it’s a real competition to them.
I learned early on in my parenting career that my job is more of a manager. The illusion of actual control dies a startling and sudden death when your beautiful toddler daughter, who does not like to wear dresses, lays flat out on the floor in a tantrum when you try to put a dress on her for photos. She only ceased to cry when we put on an Elmo T-shirt, which she proudly wore in the picture that graced our holiday card. By the way, she is a ballerina now and wears tights and beautiful costumes all of the time. Go figure.
I know that once they are adults and no longer subject to punishment, or “consequences” as we call it these days, I will have absolutely no control over whether they come home at all to see their father and I or to see each other. I won’t be able to make them do anything. So, here I am putting my wish into the universe, praying that they will be close friends one day, or at least have the grace to tolerate each other. Or maybe, they will read this when I’m old and say, “oh yeah, Mom wanted us to at least speak occasionally.”
My hope is that the heart we are building in this home, and the memories that come from it, will tie them together somehow. I don’t even care if they reminisce about the times when Mom was a raging banshee about – whatever – fill in the blank. Or how they learned to cuss because I drove them everywhere for years. I hope they laugh about how silly we were, how cluttered the house was because everyone treasured their books, and Legos, and paper, so many pieces of paper. But mostly, remember that their Dad and I love them beyond measure. That they will always have our parental hearts in common. And I hope that my heart, the one they heard for nine months in utero and laid against as they nursed, will continue to beat in their minds and souls and remind them that they are my legacy. Hopefully, that legacy will be one of love, imperfect, but unconditional. One that might bring them a little bit closer to home and each other every time they remember.
Published in Bella Grace, Issue 18, Winter 2019