As I watched my three children — ages five, three, and one — play with and around each other in our living room on a sleepy summer afternoon, I thought about the central role sibling relationships play in imprinting indelible aspects of our selves. These relationships, our earliest and most visceral, shape how we place ourselves in the world, both in the present and future.
On this occasion, my five-year-old was planning and attempting to execute an elaborate game that involved stacking all the couch cushions in the corner of our L-shaped couch. Meanwhile, his three-year-old brother was attempting to foil his preparations by rearranging the cushions slightly, throwing them off balance so that the tower would topple over. Their interaction was quickly reaching the boiling point. And, through it all, their one-year-old sister was scampering and climbing all over the room, just trying to keep up.
This simple interaction was emblematic of my children’s everyday existence. The hierarchy in our family is clear. The oldest is often needled by his younger brother and held back by his little sister. There are things we can’t do because the younger ones require attention. Next comes the middle child who is very much caught in the middle. He’s still young enough that he craves constant attention from his parents, but can get lost in the shuffle when his baby sister’s needs prevail. For example, much to our dismay, he consistently interrupts whenever we try to sneak away to get the baby down for a nap. Finally, there is the baby whose early existence and relationship with the world will be filtered through the prism of her older brothers.
This last role, that of the baby, is the one I know well. However, our baby’s relationship with her siblings will be drastically different than mine. As I watched my children playing that day, it struck me for the first time just how different all their childhoods will be from the one I experienced simply because of the age of their siblings. I am the baby of my family, but my three older siblings are much older. Like, much older. Practically ancient. There is at least a half a generation between us.
So, while most people, my children included, grow up alongside their siblings, I grew up behind all mine. And when all your siblings are many years ahead of you, their presence has a profound and unique impact. They instantly become models to emulate rather than equals. And they also introduce you to aspects of culture that you would otherwise miss. Marc Maron, the comedian and actor, often talks on his WTF podcast about the importance of having an older sibling to introduce you to things such as music. This is a common theme he explores with many of the artistic and musical guests. And while the older siblings of his guests often introduced them to underground music and the like, probably because they were weird, mine helped foster my passion for re-creating MTV music videos.
Specifically, I have a strong memory of donning a button-up shirt and sunglasses and walking around the house as Sunglasses at Night by the incomparable Corey Hart played in the background. Of course, my sisters were required to watch my dramatic re-imagination of the classic video.
“Andrew, when you walk out of the room, we can’t see you,” they would say as I strutted my way down the hall, moving with the beat.
I’m not sure what they expected; Corey walks around a lot in the video (I think?). Staying in one room the whole time would have been plain silly. I have always been a stickler for accuracy in my dramatic work.
I pulled up the Sunglasses at Night video on YouTube recently to reminisce.
I was surprised to find that my re-enactment wasn’t as spot on as I had remembered. This came as a bit of a shock, but, to be fair, I was probably only three years old. Fortunately, this early music video experience paved the way for more hefty roles in subsequent years, such as the Nutcracker’s Mouse King, which I took on the road to my grandmother’s house in North Carolina and debuted in front of a perplexed audience of aunts and uncles.
I am a bit sad that my kids will grow up without young, culturally-relevant, pseudo-parents to guide the development of their cultural awareness and indulge their interest in musical theater. On the plus side, however, they will hopefully form close bonds forged by shared childhood experiences. And as they grow into adults, their familial hierarchy will likely be less entrenched. Even as a thirty-six-year-old father of three, I still feel like the baby of my family. And it will probably always be that way because my siblings will always be substantially ahead of me. For my children, however, their relationships should be more fluid, allowing room for growth as they make their way toward adulthood. Although there is certain to be plenty of in-fighting and strife along the way, I’m excited to see where their sibling journey takes them.
And hey, on the plus side, since there are three of them, nobody will have to play all the characters in the Nutcracker simultaneously. That’s too big of a burden for anyone to bear.
For more from Explorations of Ambiguity by Andrew Knott, like us on Facebook and sign up here to get the latest updates right in your inbox! My book, Fatherhood: Dispatches From the Early Years, is available at Amazon.