Brother Love and the fabulous impotence of parenting siblings

Parenting, by nature, is a lesson in radical acceptance and humility. But there is something about the nature of sibling relationships that brings a new level of impotence to my days.

Sure, sometimes it’s trying to understand how their ability to ignore you and push your buttons seems to increase exponentially with the number of children. They feed off each other’s insanity and you simply try not to get caught in the crossfire.

But sometimes it’s a breathtakingly profound and beautiful kind of impotence. When the six year old whispers to you at bedtime that you are the person who makes him feel safest and most special, but that his brother is who he loves most in the world. He’s worried it will hurt your feelings, but it takes no effort to smile. You try not to cry and tell him that’s the whole point. His brother is who he’ll have beside him long after you are gone.

Or when you drop off your older child at class and the toddler screams his brother’s name until he is hoarse and hiccoughing. He cries for what seems like forever and you can’t fix it because you aren’t his brother. But after a bagel and some thrift store sunglasses, he finally falls asleep in the car. When he wakes up his brother is home and he runs into the house on his chubby toddler legs, screeching his brother’s name with uninhibited glee.


In the time it took to write this they have brawled and made peace again. They are unified in their indignant rage that I won’t let the big one dump a box of blocks on the small one’s head, which they both think is a wonderful idea.

It used to be that if I heard the baby upset, his brother had knocked him down or taken something from him. Now a newly minted two year old, it’s usually his own inability to keep agreements and respect gently set boundaries that causes him to scream. Or simply the failure of his budding fine motor skills. Usually the proximate cause of distress is the destruction of a block creation; an undignified attempt to “help.”

Tonight my six year old looks at me, eyes wide and tearful, and says “I feel like he doesn’t care that he hurt my feelings.” He feels indignant but is so clearly searching for an alternate interpretation because he doesn’t want to think poorly of his brother. I explain about his sibling’s unformed prefrontal cortex–his lack of rational brain power and inability to control his impulses. How it will come. I point out all the ways his little brother shows that he cares, even when he knows he’s done wrong. My son soaks it in, nodding.

Even when the toddler cannot control his impulses, he expresses deep empathy for his brother. After having done something outrageously awful he crawls into his brother’s lap and wraps his little arms around him and puckers his lips up for the elusive kiss (they are only rarely offered and never consented to, if requested). Without fail his older sibling looks down into his eyes, caresses his face or returns the embrace, with the tears of rage still fresh on his cheeks.

I’ve never seen love as big and un-ashamed and overwhelming as what they share. It almost hurts to look at.

It might seem crazy, but this is why I had children. I didn’t have them for me, I had them for this. So I could watch them be better to each other than I’ve ever been to anyone. It washes away all the fights and yelling and obstinate refusals to cooperate and we are left with this gorgeous thing.

I mean, last night we were left with me cursing at them both while on the verge of tears because they couldn’t stop horsing around in the bed…but tonight it’s this gorgeous thing 😉



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