When people ask me if my kids get along, I feel like there’s no simple way to answer that question. They love each other fiercely, are each other’s funniest comedian, crave each other’s company, but are also each other’s main competitor for attention—that spotlight of recognition we all so desperately seek out and require for growth, like sunshine or the earth.
The other day, when we went to the swimming pool—and J was occupied with a swim lesson—C spent the entire half hour walking forlornly around the pool in his swimsuit and goggles, calling out J’s name and refusing to get into the water until his brother could join him. It was clear that life without his big brother was no fun at all. Once reunited, J took C riding on his back in the shallow end and they spent the entire time laughing together, the universe back in alignment for C. J also so deeply connects with his brother, for example, insisting they share a room and do most things together when possible. One day recently, Grandpa M took J on a special trip to the science museum and was incredibly moved when, upon entering the gift shop, J’s first question was, “What can we get for C?” Their loyalty and love for one another gives life a layer of such softness.
At the same time, C, in full-blown toddlerhood, is fiercely competitive, striving so hard to be taken seriously, to be noticed, to be acknowledged—pushing himself to the brink of tears trying to learn new skills his brother is so nonchalantly trying out, like dribbling a basketball. Often, any attention towards his big brother cannot be tolerated for him. For example, I will ask a question like: “J, how was school today?” and C will immediately interrupt with literally: “What ‘bout me?” before I’ve even finished the question. Or, C wants whatever toy J is playing with and if he doesn’t get his way, he tries to grab it for himself, yelling “Da-dumb-face!” which understandably angers and exasperates his brother.
Sometimes all the mediating and explaining and working through and cultivating patience and love can get so exhausting. Like the other night, when I got hit on the head a with a Nerf ball from C, while J was reading to me from a Lego Star Wars book, and suddenly it was all just all too much—the circularity of it all, so deafeningly dull but also so piercing, like screeching in my ears that makes me want to scream or dance or sing or paint or jump out of a goddamn airplane. I went upstairs and meditated because I needed to gain a sense of freedom again, spaciousness, to know that I wasn’t trapped, but alive here—to just feel it, even if that meant thinking there was something wrong with my brain in that moment—because all that came was negativity, until finally tears arrived that made no sense, had no meaning, just traced the stillness of my face. And then C came into the room, followed by my husband D, who was laughing about something C just said, and then I was laughing too, because C said it again—and it was something no one else in the world would think is funny except the two of us, because there’s a backstory and a backstory to that, here in this strange existence of time and space and lives woven together in their own dimension.
I’ve been reading The Bonds of Love by Jessica Benjamin and feel so validated by how she describes toddlerhood, the “crisis of parenting” during this time, and the inherent tension: “Suddenly the child’s demands no longer appear to be merely the logical results of needs that ought to be met with good grace, but, rather, as irrational and willful. The issue is no longer what the child needs, but what he wants. Here, of course, is where many a mother-child pair come to grief. A variety of feelings well up in the mother: the distance from her no-longer-perfect child, the wish to retaliate, the temptation to take the easier path of giving in, the fear or resentment of her child’s will. What the mother feels during rapprochement and how she works this out will be colored by ability to deal straightforwardly with aggression and dependence, her sense of herself as entitled to a separate existence, and her confidence in her child’s wholeness and ability to survive conflict, loss, and imperfection,” p.35.
While of course, there’s never an easy solution, or a prescription for such messy life matters, I have found something magical that continues to help me and C during this crisis—and that is looking at family photos together. I brought them out one night when C was having an especially big tantrum about bedtime, remembering that J went through a phase where he liked to look at his baby pictures every single night before bed (I recall this got so exhausting, but that there was almost a spiritual sense to it that I had to honor). And, not surprisingly, this worked—immediately soothing C, bringing him out of whatever identify torment was happening inside his little body. Page after page after page, we looked at how he was once a tiny baby inside mama, and then—day after day after day—has grown into the big, separate boy he is now. They say the road to strive for during this phase is for both caregiver and toddler to be able to tolerate the inherent and unavoidable tension between dependence and independence. So perhaps snuggling close with these pictures, his soft sweet-smelling head resting on my chest, calm little puffs of breath in and out, little hands working together with big hands to gently turn the pages—is a way to accept and honor his journey into separateness while, at the same time, still feeling each other’s skin, that powerful force of our hearts forever intertwined.