They are buddies, our two boys.
Far from best friends from birth, but now constant companions. Since full-time school doesn’t separate them yet, they still spend most of their waking hours together. And even though they’re lunging at each other’s throats as much as they’re hugging sweetly – after all, they’re siblings, not saints – they are still an inseparable duo.
A duo that’s about to gain a third.
I listen to them play together before nap. They read books to each other, jump around the room to their favorite music, laugh at jokes that only they understand. Secret words, secret games – they have a world all their own, and it is good that I am not part of it. But I still savor the listening.
Watching them hold hands when they walk through a parking lot, glancing in the rearview mirror to see them singing in matching car seats, I catch myself wondering how their dynamic will change when another is added to their mix.
Three is an odd number. Pair up and someone’s always left out. Instead of the straight line between two points, they will become a triangle of personalities, with all the pointy edges that can come with it. More energy in a trinity, to be sure, but also more complexity.
It will take time to sort out and settle. Reconfigure and renegotiate. As all life changes do, for all involved.
Even the smallest ones.
. . .
One of my professors in grad school used to interpret the Good Friday story from John’s Gospel like this: Jesus rearranges the family unit at the foot of the cross.
To Mary: Woman, here is your son. To John: Here is your mother.
A new family configuration. A small gain in the face of huge loss.
We talked about this Scripture in the context of ministry to families dealing with divorce and remarriage. But I think her wisdom applies to plenty of changes that families face, both good and bad.
Even in the happiest moments of a family’s life – like an engagement or a birth – there is loss. What was the original unit will be no more. Everything is rearranged. Relationships changed, dynamics shifted. We will never be the same.
Because human nature pulls us toward the positive, we tend to gush about what is gained. The best gift you can give your child is a sibling. Isn’t it great when a family grows? But the flip side of every good gain is real loss. And acknowledging this truth does not lessen the joy. It merely sets the change in honest context.
What has been was good (and hard and real). What will be can become the same.
So the image of Jesus rearranging the family at the foot of the cross is a comforting one for me. In times of birth as well as loss, marriage as well as divorce, joy as well as sorrow, we can find blessing in what is broken open.
. . .
What is lost?
The ease of the present time: everyone sleeping (mostly) through the night, no one wearing diapers, each child speaking his needs.
The convenience of being the perfect family size by society’s standards: 2 parents + 2 kids that fit easily into a sedan or a museum pass.
The dynamics we’ve long established, the habits we’ve come to enjoy, the schedule we’ve taken for granted.
What is gained?
The wonder of welcoming a new relationship into our lives.
The love that increases when we stretch out of our comfort zone.
The mystery of a new personality that will bring us joy and growth.
We decided long ago it was worth it, the costs and sacrifices and inconveniences of having another baby. This is the dream we have for our family. But even when we conclude that the gains outweigh the losses, change still brings challenges.
Is there still Christ among us, rearranging our family unit? I think so. In all kinds of situations. Reminding us that God intended family to be a growing, expanding, embracing love.
So whenever our newest member arrives and the sibling squabbles start afresh, I hope I can remember this truth. That the beauty of what we have right now as a family was born of blood, sweat, and tears at its beginning, too.
And so can be again.
They’re discovering each other, finally.
Oh, they bumped into each other for well over a year. There were the Months of Glaring At the Loud Newborn followed by the Months of Stealing Everything from The Helpless Baby. The Months of “Did-You-Hit-Your-Brother-No-It-Was-An-Accident” followed by the months of “Mama-Make-Him-Not-Play-With-That-Toy-I-Need-It-Right-Now!”
Months full of angry slaps and indignant wails and gritted teeth and time outs. Months when I rolled my eyes at the Facebook feed of perfect photos of doting siblings gazing adoringly at new babies, months when I muttered “mmm…must be nice…” while fellow mothers rhapsodized about how beautifully their newly-two were getting along.
I’d look at my boys and wonder when – or if – the proverbial love would ever be lost between them.
And then, of course, it started right under my nose when I wasn’t looking.
Suddenly it was the baby’s second winter and we were stuck indoors for January’s cruel string of sub-zero days and I glanced up from my laundry pile in the basement to make sure no one was bleeding and I realized they were playing together. Interacting instead of ignoring, sharing instead of stealing, playing instead of pushing.
They jumped together on the trampoline, one up and the other down, then both bopped in time together, sparkling eyes on two grinning faces as they popped like carnival whack-a-moles. “Mama! We’re bouncing!” called the oldest; “Up! Up!” echoed the youngest as he fell over, chuckling.
Now they’re full of giggles and goofy words and silly games. Sure, they still steal toys and wail indignantly and hit in frustration. But they also laugh their heads off together. And I can’t help but laugh with them.
I love watching them become brothers.
. . .
Back when I was reading all those books about labor and delivery for the first time, I never realized I’d be birthing more than a baby.
I was so focused on my impending motherhood, on how this scrawny, slippery newborn was going to subvert the world as I knew it, that I neglected to realize how many other lives were going to change, too. How when I brought that baby into the world, I would also be birthing a grandchild, a nephew, a cousin – so many relationships born in that same instant.
And when I prepared to birth my second, I was equally clueless about the sea change that a sibling would bring. Sure, I knew it would shift our family dynamic, scramble the focus of attention, stretch the scope of love and patience that each day would demand.
But I never realized how long it would take my two to start growing into brotherhood.
By definition it happened in an instant, but by practice it stumbled slowly. Maybe every tried-and-true relationship is like that, fumbling, faltering through fits and starts, but plodding on, persistently, even painfully.
. . .
Most of us will end up knowing our siblings longer than anyone else. Longer than our parents, longer than our spouses, longer than our own children. “Your oldest friend,” my mother used to remind us as we glared at each other across the dinner table or banged shoulders in a huff on the way out the door to school, likely muttering to ourselves about not getting stuck with that loser as our oldest friend.
And now? Of course I see it’s true. That despite the twists and turns that our lives are taking, often away from each other, whether geographically or emotionally, my siblings remain stubbornly close. We share much of the same history, the same relationships, the same sense of humor. We can’t help but come back to each other every so often, to laugh and remember how surprisingly similar we remain despite our deep differences.
Maybe this is what it means to become brothers: to go through seasons of ignoring or hating or fighting or shunning or shoving, but to come back to the stubborn truth that you’re stuck with each other. They’re not going anywhere and neither are you, and if you’re going to share the same roof or parents or piles of toys, you better learn how to get along.
And sometimes even laugh your head off, too.
I hit, I hit, I hit!
He wakes up chirping like a bird. A happy song to greet the dawn, warbling as he waits for me to arrive. But the words aren’t quite as sweet as the tune.
No hugs! I do not hug. I hit! I hit my brother!
The rivalry song.
Half of me wants to burst out laughing every time I hear his angelic soprano start on the monitor. Half of me wants to storm in the little devil’s room and declare, for the thousandth time that no, you do NOT hit your brother, it is NOT nice to hit, and you do NOT sing mean songs about hitting, you need to be GENTLE.
(Even though yelling at children to be gentle never fails to amuse in its irony.)
He’s three and the baby is one and they can’t help but collide all day, physically and emotionally. One is curious, the other covetous; one likes to build carefully, the other likes to barrel over and destroy. They are each other’s beloved playmates, but when the toys and books and food and games and attention have to be shared, rivalry rears its ugly head. For now the older is always the instigator, but the tables will soon turn and the hits will trade back and forth.
Push, shove, steal, slap, throw, grab, smack. I hit, I hit, I hit!
Sometimes I try gentle reminders: We don’t hit in our family. Sometimes I opt for alternative techniques: Hands aren’t for hitting; they’re for helping. Sometimes I simply grit my teeth and seethe STOP.
I know it’s a passing phase; I know some siblings spar far worse; but I also know I’m plain tired of it. Tired of him singing about it from the time he wakes up; tired of wrestling toys away from one or the other all afternoon long. Tired of whacks and slaps and shoves and pushes between brothers. Yearning for a gentler touch.
. . .
Election season rolls round, and the churches roil over to uproar again, and I’m so tired of the factions, the fighting, the fear, and the ferocity with which we attack each other. Over and over again we become as bad as sparring siblings: we hit and hit, lashing out; one side’s sinners, the other side’s saints. I wonder if deep down we’re all craving God’s attention, clamoring for love like children, shoving at the siblings around us, slapping each other with name-calling and petty attacks. Where’s the Christ in that?
I hit, I hit, I hit my brother, no, I do not like hugs.
Contrary to Teresa’s wisdom – Christ has no hands but yours in the world – we use hands in many ways that aren’t holy, too. The slaps and shoves I see from my oldest to my youngest aren’t so far from my own fists balled in frustration, my palms slammed to the kitchen counter, my fingers pointed in pettiness. As they learn language I’m constantly coaching use your words, but how do I teach use your hands?
Maybe the more I fold them in prayer, bring them to heart’s center like my yoga teacher reminds, the more I model the gentleness of touch. Fingers that fix, palms that smooth, hands that hold, hug, help.
A heart that rests in God’s belovedness without elbowing the other children of God around me. Hands that don’t need to fight for attention.