Sunday, January 29, 2012

To the Child with Many Siblings

Dear Child of a Big Family,

I recently read an article written by the mother of 9 children saying that motherhood gets easier with each new child.  I'm curious if her oldest child thinks her life got easier with each new sibling.

For me, it got tougher.

Tougher, but wonderful too!  But now I'm getting ahead of myself...

For three whole years I had my parents all to myself.  The trouble is, those years were from 0-3 so I don't remember any of them.  My earliest memories flash in my brain like a flickering home movie played on a projector and they always involve having siblings.  There are thousands of records of my siblings' presence in my life, like an old cassette tape of me singing Christmas carols at the kitchen table.  And right after hoping that you "have yourself a merry little Christmas", I shrieked "She's got a knife!!"  My baby sister had picked up a butter knife off of the table and being the highly responsible older sibling that I was, I sacrificed that Star Search audition tape to save my sister (it was never really going to Star Search, but isn't it more dramatic and heroic if it was?  Like I was George Bailey saving his drowning brother).

I have a scar on my elbow from the time my brother and I were chasing each other around and I went sliding into the very sharp corner of a dresser.  I would later blame him for a lamp I broke.

It was a spring day in 1990 when my mom sat me down at the kitchen table.

"I'm going to have another baby."

My voice started shaking and I looked her right in the eyes and pleaded, "But I don't want another baby!"  At 11, I knew that with this 5th sibling my role as Mom, Jr. was cemented.  It took my mom years to realize the gravity of the words I used- "I'" don't want another baby.   11 years old.  I might have been the youngest unwed mother in the country.

I never went to summer camp, I never took a single lesson in anything.  Not many of us did.  What we lacked in hobbies we made up for in friendships.  Our house was a magnet for kids.  People loved being a part of the chaotic energy that was our house.  We were a novelty, a side show, a carnival and people wanted to be admitted.

Those years when we all lived together crept by so slowly while we were living them. Life was crowded in those days.  We tumbled over each other like socks in a dryer until one by one we left.  We moved out, we went to college but when we came home to visit we jumped right back into the dryer and tumbled along again.  And like socks, we felt better when we were in pairs, when we had our other halves to make us complete.  And I know that when my mom has all of her socks together in one drawer again she sleeps better at night.

The soundtrack of my childhood is really noisy.  We were like puppies yapping and yelping, a discordant symphony of alternating laughs and screams and cries and giggles.  As an adult it took me years to feel comfortable in silence.  Silence growing up always meant that something was wrong, that someone was in, or about to be in, trouble.   I remember what it felt like to live alone for the first time.  Have you ever been in your house at the moment when the furnace or the air conditioner stopped running and the silence felt cavernous?  You didn't even realize that your house was, only moments before, filled with sound and now it's gone?  That's what it feels like when you leave your big family to move out on your own.  I used to go to the mall just to hear noise.  Noisiness felt comfortable to me.  I had to learn to live in the silence, I had to learn to be ok by myself.  A lonely misplaced sock.

People often judge parents of big families by saying, "You can't possibly give your children the attention they deserve!  It's so selfish!  You're overpopulating the world!"  To those people I want to say, "Ahhhhhh!  Why are you yelling?"

Let's talk about that last one for a minute.  My mom often jokes that there is a landfill near metro Detroit filled only with the diapers she changed in her decade of diaper changing.  Not very green at all, but there's a flipside.  Maybe my parents overpopulated the world by having 6 kids, but we are AWESOME kids.  We give back, we volunteer, two of us have made kids of our own who we know will be prodigies, presidents, and peacemakers.  Two of us graduated from college and chose to work for City Year, mentoring and educating some of the country's neediest kids.  We were nominated for the Homecoming Court by being nice to everyone, not by having the best wardrobe.  I guess if you're going to have a lot of kids, at least raise them to make this world shinier and happier.  What's better for the planet?  A big family filled with awesome people or a small family filled with jerks?  I'll let you decide.

But what about the attention?  The time?  The love?  Every parent in a large family will tell you that's the toughest part- making sure everyone has enough.  I never got enough, but if you were to ask me how much is "enough", I'm not sure I could tell you.  I think many parts of my life are a mystery to my parents.  Here are 3 things I bet they never knew about me:

1)  I wanted to be a magician after watching the movie "Houdini" with Tony Curtis.  Yes, even knowing how that ended.
2)  I really wanted tap dance lessons in 2nd grade
3)  I broke that lamp, not Tommy.

Parents with 1 or 2 kids don't know everything about their kids, but I imagine it's a little easier to keep up with the big things, like tap dancing and Houdini.  Lamps get mysteriously broken no matter how many kids you have.

We never had the coolest shoes or jeans.  One time, we all went to Payless Shoe store and my sister looked around and said, "Mom, where are the Nikes?"  To this day, we are scrappy and resilient.  We tease each other mercilessly and love each other ferociously.  But I would by lying if I told you there weren't times growing up when I wanted to run away with the circus because then at least I'd be getting paid to juggle monkeys all day.

But I want you to stay strong, child of a big family.  As long as your siblings are alive, you will have witnesses who will tell the world that you're not crazy.  They had front row seats to your formative years and they will defend you to the end for all of the seemingly insane things you do.  They know you're not crazy because they know where you came from.  They tumbled along with you in that dryer and they know that argyle is exactly how you're supposed to be.  And if all else fails, they'll nod when you blame mom or dad.

Someday, far into the future you will be out to dinner with your sister eating burgers and fries.  You will casually remark, "All of my life I've been eating the fries first and I have no idea why." And she will say, "What's easier to steal off of someone's plate, a burger or fries?"  And you will look at her radiating in the warmth of 1,000 light bulbs that have gone off over your head.  Of course!  Children of big families eat the fries first because they used to have to defend them from the hands of hungry dinner table thieves.  They eat the fries first because it's a game of survival of the fittest in a big family.  You learn to take seconds before you're done with your firsts.

But look farther into the future.  Someday, you'll be old and if you had children, they are all out of the house.  You'll be sitting down at the table in front of a huge pile of french fries.  They're all yours!  You'll look to your left and to your right.  Empty chairs.  You'll have that whole plate to yourself but want nothing more than to have hands reaching over stealing those fries.

My five siblings and I don't all occupy the same table too often these days.  When we do, we are always  mostly very polite and never  hardly ever steal off of each others' plates.  We have learned that it's just easier and more sanitary to just take more right off the bat.

Child of a big family, you understand when I say that it's tough.  It's the toughest luck in the world.  But treasure those socks because it's really cold without them.

Me and my socks

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