“Mom and dad were right”: big family benefits all grown up
October 19, 2017
I left a comment on someone’s super sweet Instagram post last week (hi, Nell!) of a shot of her kiddos headed down the block to her sister’s house in search of cousins to play with. She asked her followers what their own experiences were like with the adult sibling dynamic, and whether they were in close physical proximity. I think I was one of the few – maybe the only – responders to have the great fortune of having both many siblings and many siblings who live close by. It forced me to stop and reflect on the blessing these people are in my life, and also the unique nature of this intentional community we’ve created for ourselves and our families.
I am the oldest of 7 kids. I grew up as the lead duck in a string of ducklings trailing across grocery store parking lots and filling most of an entire pew in Mass on Sundays. We were definitely not a typical sight in the small, conservative town I spent most of my formative years in, and we were for sure, even at then “only” 5 in number, a typical sight in the Bay Area suburb we moved from the summer before my 11th birthday. I got pretty used to the gaping stares, the bobbing, open-mouthed silent counting and eye movement of strangers, and, yes, the occasional insane comment to my mom in the checkout line.
Now that I have my own multiplying string of ducklings, it has become second nature to ignore the interest we occasionally arouse in public. I also think living in a place like Denver, where people are pretty individualistic and open minded (for better and for worse), the shock factor is a little harder to come by. Whatever the case, I’m more than equipped to handle probing questions at Trader Joe’s and incredulous smiles at the playground; I’ve been training for it my whole life.
If you’d have asked 17 year old Jenny (who was less than thrilled that her mom was pregnant with baby number 7 at the time) her thoughts on being the eldest in a large family, she – I – would probably have snorted and quite possibly rolled her eyes. Deep down I didn’t mind it … much. But now, 17 years later, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Far from being resentful of the more than occasional babysitting shift thrust upon me, or the relative lack of disposable income, I would be able to put my hands firmly on the shoulders of my teenage self and tell her, in all honesty, “these are the best people you will ever know. They will be there for you for the rest of your life, in a way that nobody else can come close to. You think giving up a Saturday night here or there is a pain? Wait until the little girl you’re babysitting right now is a college sophomore spending her Christmas break sleeping in your basement so that when your water breaks you can head straight to the hospital. Wait until the annoying sister shadowing you in the high school cafeteria becomes the best friend you call almost every morning, who picks your kids up from carpool in a pinch even though her minivan is also maxed out. Wait till the little brother whose diapers you really don’t feel like changing becomes one of the best men you’ve ever known, and proposes to a woman so wonderful that you ask the two of them to be your yet-unborn child’s godparents.”
The truth is, everything our parents told us: that we were each other’s first and best friends, that high school would end one day but sisterhood and brotherhood were forever, that we’d always be able to count on one another…it all came true. In spades. When I look across the bustling, loud 9:30 Mass at our parish I can see my sister and her husband sitting with their 4 little blonde children spread out across an entire row, my brother and his fiance bookending them and perhaps holding an errant toddler. Or a few rows further back I spot another sister and her husband with their two darling daughters, flanked on one end by the sister who lives with them and the nice guy she’s dating. (And heck, the only reason I’m not sitting with them is because in some fantastic stroke of divine providence, my in laws moved to Colorado 3 years ago and grandma and grandpa come to Mass with us every.single.Sunday. Hashtag freaking blessed.)
Although our personalities are as wildly differing as our heights, this vertically-blessed lineup includes a half dozen of my closest friends on earth. And truly, that’s a huge motivator when I’m knee deep in exhaustive little kid parenting, wondering if we are, in fact, maybe a little crazy for doing what we’re doing with our own family.
But then I imagine my 3 boys out for beers and a baseball game, 20 years from now. I imagine them dressed in tuxes for their sister’s wedding. I try to envision whether we’ll have another member of team testosterone join the crew come December, or if Evie will at last have a sister to confide in, fight with, and sneak out of the house with. (On second thought, perhaps I should be hoping for another boy?)
Most of all I envision the relationship the 4 – soon to be 5 – of them will one day have. A group hologram to replace the group text that I enjoy with my siblings, frequent nights out to split appetizers and catch the latest Star Wars flick, regular kid-swapping weekends to spell each other from the rigors of parenting, and always, always, a shoulder to lean on, a friend to confide in, and a fellow traveler on the journey to heaven to reach out to in times of darkness and of joy.
My little sister was instrumental in drawing me, her 3-years-older and sooooo much wiser, world-weary college veteran of a big sister out to a tiny, stinky coal town in Eastern Ohio, where I threw my life away (so I thought) and started over. Turns out that dramatic cross-country leap was the most vertical maneuver I’d make in life, still to date.
4 more siblings have since trailed after, beating a dusty path along Interstate 70 eastbound, throwing in the towel on culture and air quality for 4 years of intensive Catholicism 101; a seventh and final sibling is headed there next fall. Which means, in addition to sharing blood and parents and memories of eating cold Spaghetti-O’s straight from the can, we also share a common faith.
This is perhaps the greatest gift of all (narrowly edging out the free babysitting); that we love Jesus together, that we strive for heaven together, and that we can lock arms in a darkening culture with a diminishing moral compass and, like so many hobbits journeying towards Mordor, reassure one another “I got your back. We can do this. Together.”
And that’s no small thing in a world that loves the darkness.
I pray this for my own children: that long after I am gone, the bonds of blood and brotherhood that bind them together will only strengthen with time, shoring them up in moments of great sorrow and great joy, and that I can await them confidently (fingers-crossed) in the life after this one, knowing they’re helping each other along the way when I’m no longer there to guide them.