Friday, September 26, 2008

Portable Milton raised over his head... 5 year-old son tears past me in pursuit of his 7 year-old sister. Shortly I hear shrieking and the sound of my book hitting someone’s head or the deck. I retrieve the book, which I haven’t cracked since undergrad days (Paradise Lost and When I consider how my light is spent) noting the mildew creeping along its top edge. The 2 ½ year old son, ever soaking in the antics, opens the front door and the tousle continues underfoot. Who knew watching your children hurt one another would hurt so much? When my daughter was little a friend warned me: that out-of-this-world love you have for your firstborn quickly transforms to out-of-this-world rage when your firstborn injures your secondborn.

When I mentioned at pick-up yesterday that I’d put Siblings Without Rivalry on hold at the library, one mom wise-cracked wryly, “It’s a myth!!” I admit, I’ve read Parenting from the Heart, Positive Discipline, etc., the list goes on....and on an occasional good day I might muster the strength to think: what am I feeling? What might they be feeling? What’s the need underneath this chaos? How might we proceed in a calm and humane manner? etc. And come up with some consequence to still them ("Did you want to keep your play-date with so-n-so?!”) But lately the pull (for them) to get that hank of hair in hand or snatch back the favored fork has been too strong. Talking to other parents with a gaggle of children helps, like my friend (mother of three) who said to me on a walk, “My little brother--I see him once a week or so. I always look at him and chuckle to myself: why would you ever come near me after what I did to you when we were kids?”

Thus, I concede: fighting is normal, inevitable. Boring, actually, to be able to say, “My brother and I? Always got along. Shared our cookies, halved them neatly, kissed goodnight.” Taking my friend’s cue, and since there’s no shortage of psychological research at one’s disposal when it comes to family of origin, I turned to mine. I still remember re-biting the spot where my little brother Peter bit me, since the walk from the chicken barn to the Illinois farmhouse (where my parents were waking) was just far enough for his teethmarks—the evidence--to fade. And the distinct sound of the can opener, its hinged metal halves inches from my ear, whizzing by and hitting the wall. Or wrestling with him on a bean bag chair until his head cracked a pane of the glass door leading to the garden.

But I also remember, just as vividly, when we traveled across country in a wooden camper my father built by hand, my brother, sister and I in the loft, telling stories at night as we hurtled through Wisconsin, Colorado, and on into California...because it was so delicious to make Peter laugh. Not exactly the noble sonnets of Milton, but stories of the superhero we’d concocted, Diarrhea Dan, and his epic struggle to overcome evil using bodily fluids as a weapon. Not a bad way to spend your light: in perpetual tousle on the one hand, in pursuit of laughter on the other.

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