Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Sister Knows Best

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"The baby is King of the World!" five-year-old Taylor declared within a day of us bringing her baby sister home. Too young to have seen "Titanic," Taylor nonetheless conjured an apt name to capture how a tiny person's numerous and perpetual needs command an entire household.

Just as my husband and I have adapted our schedules and priorities to suit life with an infant, one way Taylor has adapted is to talk about herself in relation to Peyton:

"Do you want Sister to give you yum-yums?"

"Are you smiling because you're happy to see Big Sister?"

"You want Sister to change your diapey, don't you?"

At around age four, Taylor had begun to ask us for a sibling the way some kids ask for McDonald's or an ice cream cone. Other kids had one, why couldn't she? We told her we were working on it, but that sometimes it takes a lot of waiting to get a sibling. Once, she requested a blond baby brother because a friend of hers had one just like that. Eventually, though, boys became personas non grata, and Taylor warmed to the idea of a (non-blonde) sister. From the moment the adoption agency emailed photos of five-day-old Peyton with her mass of jet-black curls, Taylor has considered Peyton her sister, not her "adopted sister."

She can't get enough of holding Peyton, making her laugh, and showing her off to her teachers and friends at preschool. She mastered feeding, burping, and diaper-changing in no time flat. In fact, Taylor hasn't demonstrated any negative reactions to the new baby, none of the textbook jealousy or attention-getting misbehavior we anticipated.

But given Taylor's tendency toward overachieving and perfectionism (no idea where she gets that), I whispered to her one day, "It's okay not to like the baby sometimes." I explained that sometimes big sisters get tired of sharing Mommy and Daddy. They might even wish the baby had never come. But, I assured her, they still love the baby very much, and eventually they feel better about the baby again.

"Will that happen . . . to me?" Taylor asked, pointing at herself, as if I'd suggested the possible loss of her limbs.

"Maybe not," I said. "But if it does, you can tell me."

While I'm grateful, of course, for how well Taylor has adjusted to Peyton, part of me has still been waiting for the other shoe to drop, and symbolically speaking, I was expecting a baby bootie -- that is, a regressed Taylor feeling displaced and resenting the baby for getting so much attention.

Instead, I've found a two-inch woman's mule. Even Taylor's preschool teacher has commented on her overnight "maturation" since Peyton's arrival. In practical terms, this looks like a more confident, less whiny kid.

But too often it also looks like Big Sister is gunning for "Co-Parent" status. Taylor's exasperated tone, the dramatic eye-roll (no idea where she gets this) -- these leave no doubt as to what she thinks of my husband's and my ability to meet Peyton's needs. Don't we realize that Peyton has only one need: Big Sister? Sure, Taylor doesn't use the word "stupid", but Mike and I know exactly what she thinks of us offering Peyton a bottle when she so obviously wants the binky -- obvious to Big Sister-Co-Mama, that is.

Needless to say, Big Sister-Co-Mama has been sent to her room a few times to cool her jets.

The whole "Parenting children is like training dogs" theory has never sat well with me, but I have to agree somewhat with an observation Mike made recently. A dog brought into a new home first identifies the alpha male in the family and then determines her standing vis-à-vis the rest of the family members. Similarly (sort of), with the addition of Peyton to our family, Taylor is trying to determine her place. She knows she is bigger and more capable than Peyton -- and as capable as we are, she thinks. Taylor has expressed on more than one occasion a desire to get childhood over as quickly as possible. Knowing nothing of mortgages and unending responsibility, she can't wait to reach the glamorous world of adulthood.

When Taylor laments being "just a kid", I tell her that many adults wish they could be kids again. She is surprised by this, and asks if I ever wish I were a kid again. I don't wish to hear "Because I said so" ever again, of course, but I do miss carefree summer days spent reading an entire book in one sitting. I miss pretending to be asleep in the backseat of the car so that grown-up arms must carry me into the house. Sometimes I miss being King of the World.

Big Sister finds this all hard to believe. After all, I've got it made. She envies Peyton's preference for me, my ability to comfort the baby when no one else can. I try to reassure her that as Peyton grows, the two of them will share a sweet bond as sisters, something uniquely theirs -- like friendship, but even better.

Perhaps when Taylor is older, we will watch the movie "The Color Purple" together. In this film adaptation of Alice Walker's novel, two sisters, Celie and Nettie, forge a bond borne of a shared history of abuse at the hand of their father. They are cruelly torn apart, and their subsequent reunion begins with them running and wailing each other's names -- "Ceeeeeeee-lie", "Neeeeeeeett-ie" -- as they close in on the dusky earth separating them. That moment forever defined sisterhood for me.

In those moments when Big Sister sheds tears of frustration at the unfairness of it all ("Why didn't Peyton smile for me?"), my words about sisterhood and the best being yet to come offer little comfort. "The future" means about as much to her as differential equations. Grouchily biding her time between King of the World bliss and the promised land of adulthood, Taylor is nevertheless laying the foundation for a close relationship with Peyton. And knowing Taylor, it will bear little resemblance to my Celie-Nettie ideal, but will be rich and intense in its own way.


Deesha Philyaw is a Pittsburgh-based writer and the co-author, with her ex-husband, of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce. Her fiction and nonfiction writing on race, gender, sex and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Family Circle, Brevity, The Cheat River Review, The Baltimore Review, dead housekeeping, Bitch, Apogee Journal, Slush Pile and other publications. She’s a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a native Floridian.


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