We’re always told that being a parent is full of surprises. And it is, of course. The surprise of how little sleep you can survive on. The surprise of just how much you’re actually capable of loving another human being. The surprise of how quickly it goes – especially compared to the molasses pace life seemed to move at when we were actually growing up.
But underneath the surprises, there is familiarity, because we’ve all been here before – not as parents, but as children. We’ve all experienced the world through teen, toddler, and adolescent eyes. As we watch our children on the playground or hunching into the hallways of middle school, we have some recollection, whether conscious or not, of what it was like for us at that age, and this helps, whether consciously or not, to steer our interactions with our children, helps to color our conversations about their days, their impressions, their emotions. I understand, for example, that when my daughter insists that she’s three and a half instead of four, it goes right back to that feeling of molasses I used to know so well, that when she says that it’ll be a long, long, long time away until she’s four years old, she’s really not exaggerating, that really is how it feels.
As my daughter has gotten older, I’ve taken great comfort in this, because the older she gets, the better equipped I feel to draw on my own experiences to either imitate the good or avoid the bad, or at least empathize with some level of genuine understanding. But then I got pregnant, and suddenly I had nothing to draw on.
I’m the youngest of three siblings, and I’ve always known that being a sibling was one of the experiences of my childhood that I wanted to recreate rather than rewrite for my daughter. When I was growing up, I took solace in knowing that I was never alone, I instinctually felt that there was a certain safety in numbers – a safety I felt even when my brothers and I were in the midst of beating the crap out of each other in relatively unsafe ways.
Growing up, I had a profound, if unconscious, understanding of how full my life was as a result of my brothers, as a result of the DNA shared horizontally among us as opposed to the straight vertical line from parent to child. As the youngest sibling, though, I never did go through the experience of seeing another sibling added to the mix, which is exactly what my daughter is going through right now.
I worried about this a lot at the beginning. I worried she would worry she wasn’t special anymore. I worried she would worry about sharing her grandparents. I worried she would worry about me as I got more pregnant and less mobile. And then she made it clear I didn’t have to worry. She isn’t worried about me spending more time on the sofa, so long as she can sit with me and rub my growing belly. She isn’t worried about sharing her grandparents or her toys, so long as she can be the one to teach baby brother how to be nice with all of them. And she isn’t worried about not being special anymore, because she knows that now she gets to be the special big sister – as though she somehow has understood that the oldest sibling naturally inherits the leadership role, always gets the best seat at the kids table at holiday meals, and will always be idolized by the siblings who come later.
I may not have had any practice at being big sister, may not have experienced a younger brother kicking my hand as it rested on my mom’s pregnant belly, but I’ve had practice at life, and I’ve had practice at family. And life is always better with a few surprises.