Sunday, October 16, 2011


For thee, my own sweet sister, in thy heart
I know myself secure, as thou in mine;
We were and are—I am, even as thou art—
Beings who ne'er each other can resign. [...]
Lord Byron, from "Epistle to Augusta"

I remember being so happy when the ultrasound technician told us that he was 98% sure I was carrying another girl. I thought, immediately, yay! Sisters! Then I thought, hmmm, sisters. I grew up with three younger sisters and it was both wonderful and fraught with trial. Sisters can be mean. Sisters can be sneaky and hurtful and wreck your awesome stuff. Sisters might not throw rocks at you or give your favorite doll to the family dog, but they might exclude you from their games, make you use the broken teacup at the tea parties, read your super secret diary, or pinch you during church so you yelp and get in trouble. I immediately related to how my Blueberry might feel. Uh-oh. A little crying sister taking over the house! A little mewling, useless bit of a no-fun thing.

For Sale

One sister for sale!
One sister for sale!
One spying and crying young sister for sale!
I'm really not kidding,
So who'll start the bidding?
Do I hear a dollar?
A nickel?
A penny?
Oh, isn't there, isn't there, is there any
One kid who will buy this old sister for sale,
This crying and spying young sister for sale?
-- Sheldon Allan Silverstein

There is something momentous about giving your child a sibling, and finding out I was giving Blueberry a sister made me feel almost sorry when I started thinking about it selfishly. I was three years old when my younger sister was born and for years I was haunted and embarrassed by my bratty voice on an family old cassette tape - "No, me! My turn! Not her. No, me, me." My poor sister was just innocently trying to learn how to coo and babble but the adult in me understands now the desperation in that little three-year old's tone. Listen to me! Hey, I was here first. What the heck is going on here? I can speak in full sentences and that useless lump can only make weird noises. How can you love her so much?

As we grew older, there was the question of "fairness." This, such a silly notion to an adult (life is unfair, kid, etc), is of the utmost importance to children, but when you have siblings, and I think especially to siblings of the same gender, it is almost ALL you think about. We used to measure and compare to no end all our things, parental attention, the chore division. . . oh, it exhausts me to think that this is coming. Everything has to be fair, the same, there can be no question of favoritism. Even if there is no favoritism, children will perceive it or fabricate the illusion of it. I always had the sneaking suspicion that my parents' second child (not me) was their favorite. This led me to wonder if you really can love equally. It's weird, but now I know you can. Until you have at least two children, you will never ever be able to understand that feeling, so I worried that Blueberry would feel that way too. Crap. I am going to give my daughter a complex, perhaps for life. I figured it wasn't going to be easy to transition from this...

(Mama E and Blueberry, pre-Buttercup)

to this...

(Mama E and Buttercup)

When Buttercup came along, I braced myself for tantrums, tears, for having to give Blueberry extra love and attention, extra gifts. Another of my sisters had famously announced at the birth of my youngest sister (yes, this does get confusing), "Yucky baby, yucky Mommy!" But the moment I had anticipated, the moment I said, "Aaah, there it is," and watched my dear Blueberry feel undone and unloved in the presence of sister-interloper, never actually came. Sure, we've seen some little changes in behavior; the need for validation, closeness with her parents, some "showing off," etc., but never have I seen animosity, distress, sadness. In fact, Blueberry has insisted upon hold Buttercup's hands, giving her kisses, singing to her, helping me change her, and lying down next to her whenever they sleep or nap.

(My girls, when Buttercup was about a month old)

It's been the best-case scenario. Blueberry has fully embraced her role as an older sister. She proudly announces to me, "I'm a great big sister!" And sometimes she needs us to confirm that, "I'm being a good big sister, right?" It's really beyond sweet. It makes my heart go to complete mush. The reason I had to write this post today was that, as we were riding in the car (to one of my sisters' houses, oh, the layers!), Blueberry reached over and took Buttercup's hand as she was falling asleep and whispered, "I need to hold my baby sister's hand while she is sleeping. That way she won't be afraid."

When I was growing up, one of my favorite books was called Big Sister and Little Sister by Charlotte Zolotow. The book is the simplest and yet most profound of tales about the dynamic of sisters. The "big" sister in the book looks after the "little" sister. She mothers her, watches out for her, cares for her, makes sure she is always safe, wipes away her little sister's tears. The little sister looks up to the big sister. There is nothing big sister can't do. One day little sister gets fed up with being told what to do and runs away and hides. She ignores big sister's calls, even when they come close to where she is hiding. Finally, she hears big sister break down into fearful, inconsolable tears. She decides to come out of hiding and wipe big sisters tears away. She realizes that she is needed. "And from that day on little sister and big sister both took care of each other ..." Big sister needed little sister just as much as little sister needed big sister. Simple as that.

As we grow up, this is what remains. As Margaret Mead says, "Sisters is probably the most competitive relationship within the family, but once the sisters are grown, it becomes the strongest relationship." I've discovered, despite not always feeling this way, that it's better to have a sister (or three) than not.

We have each other, always, but really, we need each other.

(Mama E and sisters)

Maybe that's what is so sweet about Blueberry holding Buttercup's hand while she's sleeping. Maybe she's not just being a protective big sister. Maybe she is the one who is afraid when she goes to sleep and the warm weight of a chubby baby hand resting on her girlish fingers is exactly what she needs.

Sometimes I say I’m going to meet my sister at the café—
even though I have no sister—just because it’s such
a beautiful thing to say. [...]
Karin Gottshall from "More Lies"

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