Having a baby transforms a daughter into a mother, parents into grandparents, sisters and brothers into aunts and uncles, and nieces and nephews into cousins. My relationships with my family have all changed in the year since my son was born in various ways. Perhaps the most significant development has been with my sisters.
I have just one (wonderful) sister, as does my husband, so our kids will have only a couple of cousins. Unfortunately, my sister lives in Ireland and my sister-in-law lives in England, so my connection to them is maintained mainly via Skype and email. Fortunately, our husbands all get along well, as do our children (currently ages 1, 2, 3, and 4), so we have created a special extended family (both of my brother-in-laws have multiple siblings, but they do not have young kids).
The ten of us (me, my sister, and my sister-in-law and our families) spent last week sharing a big house on the Irish coast, mostly trying to entertain four kids under four in the 12 x 20′ living room when freezing wind and rain kept us inside. Needless to say, there were a few tantrums, some raised voices, lots of tears, and constant staking out of territory (mostly among the kids). Through it all, my sisters both maintained calm, even relaxed demeanors . . . the all-seeing eyes of the storm of chaos swirling around them.
I am extremely intimidated by my sisters’ parenting skills. It’s true that they have been mothers for one and three years longer than me, respectively, so there may still be hope for me, but I doubt I will ever achieve their seemingly effortless mastery of motherhood. I am the first to admit that my husband is the better parent in my family, and that I lean on him heavily. My brothers-in-law are less hands-on in their parenting, so my sisters have learned to respond to every possible situation without missing a beat. Perhaps having my husband to fall back on has stunted my mothering skills development. Needless to say, I was very self-conscious around my sisters and painfully aware of how inadequate I felt in their presence.
Although we grew up on different continents (North America, Africa, and Europe), us six adults were all raised with very similar values. Even so, we all have slight variations in our parenting styles and different approaches, rules, and routines. These differences are due in part to the distinct cultural settings in which we are raising our kids – Dublin, London, and D.C. – and our respective family dynamics. My sister-in-law is a full-time mom; her husband works long hours so she relies upon consistent application of rules and responses to manage her three- and four-year-old boys. My sister is self-employed, and often works late into the night so that she can spend afternoons with her two-year-old daughter.
Rather than clash over different approaches to sweets, discipline, TV, tantrums, etc., my sisters and I took the opportunity of parallel parenting in close quarters to learn from each other (which is to say, I watched and learned from the two of them). For example, my eldest nephew (almost four) is going through a whiny phase, so will burst into tears at the slightest provocation and run to his mother to bemoan the wrong done to him. My instinct would be to comfort him (if indeed, he had reason to be upset) or to demand that he stop griping (if he was making much ado about nothing, as was usually the case).
My saintly sister-in-law took a far superior approach. She would display concern but tell her son that she could not understand him when he whined, so ask him to tell her what happened in his “happy voice.” My nephew would respond by sucking back in his lower lip, pasting a smile on his face, and explaining the situation in a clear, upbeat tone. Simply acting happy caused him to calm down and see the triviality of whatever had happened. This was not an isolated incident; it happened many times a day with my nephew coming to his mom in (crocodile) tears and them both ending up laughing. Amazing!
My sister’s daughter has a sweet tooth and is constantly asking for treats. To appease her without letting her get hyped up on sugar, my sister invited all four kids to help her bake some brownies. They each contributed two ingredients and then (with varying degrees of vigor) stirred until the batter was smooth. As a reward for their efforts, my sister let each of them lick their spoon. Rather than just hand out cookies to the kids, my sister managed to engage them for almost half an hour. Best of all, after getting their sugar fix with the batter, the kids completely forgot about the brownies so the adults got to enjoy them later that night. Bravo!
There were times last week that I felt truly inept as a mother compared to my sisters, and I wondered why I don’t find parenting as effortless as they do. When I finally confessed this to my sister, she assured me that it gets easier with time but that she still struggles to be a good mom most days. Rather than feel intimidated by them, I should be grateful to have such wonderful mom role models and supporters in my sisters. I love them so much! I cannot wait for our next family reunion.