A couple of weekends ago, my husband and I drove to Connecticut to visit our niece — formally his niece, mine by marriage, but also mine by long-time adoration (I’ve loved her for more than 20 years, since she was a young teenager) — plus her husband, their two sons, ages 6 and 3, and a new baby, born less than two weeks earlier. A daughter, a girl. I’m blessed to have become a great auntie several times over already, but every time to a nephew. It was extra special after all those boys to welcome the first great niece.
Given the specific structure of her family, I felt a complicated mix of joy and sadness when I looked into her tiny sleeping face, an odd kind of recognition. The warm little one, whom I held against me carefully, lovingly, reminded me of me — for no other reason than her random birth order; like I did, she is about to grow up in a house as the last child and only girl with two big brothers. Two big brothers who will likely — without being conscious of it — both adore and bully her equally, who will make her feel protected but also excluded, who will cherish her for her sweet young girl-ness and curse her for not being a rough, tough, older boy — for not being one of them.
My brothers, who had even more years on me than this baby does, but were also three years apart from each other, liked to overpower me, pin me down, and fart directly into my face. My brothers called me “young-un,’” which made me feel insignificant even though it was likely meant affectionately, and sometimes, “Bubba,” which is essentially Texan for “brother,” and made me feel like I was part of their tribe, at least momentarily. My brothers ocassionally treated me like a doll, posing cutely with me in pictures and then dismissing me — to go play with other boys or each other. They later liked to make fun of my boyfriends, which I tried to take as part of their desire to look out for me, though it’s just as likely that they really thought my teenage loves were wimpy, artistic idiots. In retrospect, I’m certain they would have taken down anyone who tried to hurt me. But it was hard feeling as though I wasn’t enough for them and that I had bad taste.
I wanted to be invited into their boy’s club, I longed to be with them, and to be one of them. For years, I wore their hand-me-downs, I hated dresses and the color pink, I cursed myself. I wished I was born a boy. I also always wanted a sister, someone who “got it,” in terms of being a girl growing up in our family. I had lots of girl friends at school along with the boy friends and boyfriends to come. But in our family, I felt alone — especially when they were together.
Our niece really wanted a little girl. So the new addition will always be super-special. But she’ll also always be “other” in her own family, and she may feel isolated. It’s a double-edged sword; the distinction makes her mom so excited, what will make her dad glow with pride, with worry, and what — to those older boys, her brothers — will make her fun and beloved and envied and even resented. All of it.
I did, at some point, realize I was feeling all of these intense feelings for a 13-day-old child as I looked down on her tranquil snoozy form, that I was bestowing her with so much psychic baggage before she could even hold her own head up. I had a hard time looking at her pretty pink lips while she slept because all I could think of was her future need for therapy when I should have simply been cooing. I love her and want to shield her from any pain.
But talk about projection, and my own dumb issues. It’s not the same family! Or the same time. Everything is different, except an arbitrary biologically-induced order of kids and my weird, twisted childhood casting a dark shadow on this lovely brand-new, unblemished person. She’s just so small, so vulnerable.
It’s important to note that I always knew I was loved by my parents and my brothers, and that, despite my tomboy moments, I’m very happy being female. I loved my brothers. I turned out fine.
Our niece sent photos of the baby in the pink, footed snuggly fleece outfit I brought her. Seeing it again, I remember standing among the baby clothes in the store considering boyish outfits — in case that was better, in case that might start her off right, in the proper armor. It was so odd deciding what kind of identity to dress her in. I want her to just be her, whatever that turns out to be. But I have never felt so defensive of someone I just met, someone who weighs less than the Thanksgiving turkey did, who can’t even tell pink from blue yet.
Anne, you describe a childhood so similar to my own, but with three–not two–older bothers (in the house). They controlled the TV, ate all the cookies mom made in one day (so I learned to hoard food), and played all sorts of mean little jokes on me. They also loved me to pieces. And although sometimes I still mourn not having a sister, I really wouldn’t have it any other way!
Wow! I sincerely wondered if all of this was just me… Writing invariably connects me to others, even when I feel most like a solitary weirdo. So cool. Thank you.