Before our two little ones arrived on the scene, The Schmoo enjoyed nine peaceful, only-child years. Speaking to her now, she will swear up and down that they were the best years of her life in one breath, and then admit to not actually remembering much of them in the next. What we remember, however, was a little girl begging us for a baby- a little brother (she was very particular with her ‘order’) to play with and bring life and noise into our quiet home.
When the day finally came that the Schmoo found out that her biggest dream was coming true she was absolutely besides herself with joy, crying big, happy tears and beaming with the deliciousness of knowing that she was going to become a big sister at last! In her head we could see the dreams growing and swirling – games with her forever-friend, laughing at their special inside jokes, bigger family outings, and in time, somebody to confide in and reminisce with. She was going to have company!
We enthusiastically shared this vision and couldn’t wait for the rest of the world to rejoice with us, and they did! However, something else started happening almost immediately, something that we had not anticipated at all. As soon as people heard that we were expecting, they would congratulate us, and then, with all the love in the world, turn to The Schmoo and kindly and encouragingly tell her that she must help mommy and daddy with an array of baby-related chores – bathing, nappy changes, being quiet when baby is asleep, etc.
Now I realise that that sort of comment is a natural one to make to an expectant older sibling – I am sure that I too am guilty of making it at some point or other. I also realise that people were only trying to make her feel included and important, and perhaps the first comment or two of this nature did, but as I watched it being drummed into my child time and time again with very little variance I began to notice something. There was this little girl trying her hardest not to burst with pride and excitement, but at the same time trying to adjust to an uncertain, and often daunting future in which she would have to share her parents, home and life with a sibling for the first time, but instead of celebrating the fun times ahead of her, people unintentionally chose to focus on the ‘work’ aspect of a baby, inadvertently turning our first-born, cherished and much loved daughter- still very much a child herself- into a convenient ‘add-on’, heaping adult expectations onto her narrow shoulders. And I watched her excitement about her new baby fade, taking a back-seat to uncertainty and anxiety with every well-intentioned interaction.
As the years have gone by our family has grown from one child to three, but those early, innocent comments that wedged themselves so uncomfortably into my momma-bear sense of protectiveness over my cub persist to this day, being repeated every time we introduce our family to a new person, or when the large age gap is mentioned for the first time, a tired dance. “You have a 9 year age gap?! Wow, your eldest must be such a big help with the little ones!”.
I battled with this assumption in the early days, and to this day I still do, because here’s the thing. The Schmoo may be 9 and 11 years older than her sister and brother respectively, but she is first and foremost just a 14 year old girl who has her own age-related interests and chores, but co-parenting is not in that job description, nor is it suited to her personality. She is a day-dreamer of note, zoning out all backgroud distraction in favour of whatever has caught her fancy at the present moment- a book, a game, photography or the ever-present cell phone.
The fact of the matter is that my daughter was not brought into this world to look after her younger siblings, in fact we have never, and would never, ask that of her unless the offer came from her. While I do realise that there are plenty of fourteen year olds who are more maternal and responsible than many mothers themselves, The Schmoo is not one of them – in fact, she has always maintained that, although she likes kids she never wants any of her own. And I’m absolutely ok with that!
What I am not ok with, however, is seeing how the assumption that being a bit older than her siblings gives The Schmoo adult-like responsibilities in our family; the pressure placed on her by society to share parenting responsibility for children who are not her own while she is still only a child herself; the unintentional implication that she is somehow failing her family if she’s not ‘hands-on’ in child-rearing alongside her parents.
Having more children is a decision made by the adults in the home, and it is the responsibility of the adults alone to ensure the happiness and well being of our children – all three of them, in our case.
So the next time you meet a family who is on the brink of having a big age gap, or one where the gap already exists, I’d like to gently and sincerely encourage you to take a step back and consider your response to the impressionable big brother or sister standing on the sidelines. Instead of “I hope you’re going to help Mommy change nappies?”, why not try something more encouraging and affirmative for that little person, something like “What a lucky baby to have such a great big sister!” or “You’re so lucky to have a friend for life!”.
Let’s let kids be kids for as long as they are inclined to be so.