Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Free Time

            One of my biggest goals as a full-time parent has been to create a feeling of order and stability at home. From the start, I sought to establish a regular schedule of tasks and activities for the kids, a schedule I believed would allow them to feel like our home was a largely predictable place, a place where they didn’t have to constantly fret about what will happen next or be ever watchful against unexpected change. My hope was that this predictability would make it easier for the kids to share with and be concerned about others in the world because they could trust that things were under control at home.

            At the same time, one of the benefits of being a full-time parent is having the time to break out of this order every once in a while. My kids – like most – possess an internal world that is energetic, playful, creative, exploratory, silly, and chaotic, and they love it when their parents come and join them for a while. Usually I get to do this on the playground or in the backyard after school, but other opportunities can pop up as well.

            With both Pip and Polly now in school, those opportunities are becoming fewer and farther between, but last Friday brought me one of them. On Friday, the local schools were closed for the day as a way to give kids a breather after the intensity of the first two weeks of school. Pip and Polly both had mild colds which did not make going to the pool or the playground very attractive. We decided instead to take a trip to the library.

Our downtown library is a familiar and comfortable place for the kids. We’ve been going there almost every week for a couple of years now, and Polly and Pip know most of the children’s librarians by name. Whenever we visit they spend a little time on the computers, browse the stacks for different kinds of books, and frequently run into kids they know from elsewhere around town. It always works out to be a pleasant trip.

The kids like the library building itself, too. Built in 1989, the building is a tall, relatively narrow structure, trimmed in dark marble on the outside and organized around an open, five-story atrium on the inside. Through this open space swings the wire of a large Foucault pendulum, its golden ball gliding back and forth six inches above a map of the United States. Circling the eaves above the fourth floor are big Roman numerals from one to twelve that are illuminated in coordination with the time of day. Though the pendulum and the clock are not connected, staring up at these numerals while the pendulum swings back and forth gives the impression of being at the bottom of giant grandfather clock.

On Friday, after doing our library stuff, Pip, Polly and I stopped down on the first floor to have a brief snack in the atrium before pedaling home. Staring up at the mount of the pendulum fifty feet above us, Pip whispered to himself,

“Wonder what’s up there.”

Reflexively I peered up as well. I could see off to the side of the mount, the elevator doors open and a man in a blazer look down briefly before disappearing to the left. I realized that in all the times I’d been to the library, I’d never gone up to the fifth floor. There were probably just offices and maybe a board room up there, but I didn’t really know. I looked back down to check the time. We had a few minutes to spare.

“Want to go up?” I asked.

Both of their heads spun toward me, and the game was on. While they finished off their goldfish crackers, a full schedule was negotiated regarding who would push which elevator buttons at which locations. The kids also decided that they first wanted to go up to the fifth floor and then wanted to go down to the fourth to check out the illuminated clock up close. I just nodded along as they worked it all through.

Then, up we went. On the fifth floor the elevator opened on to a carpeted platform that glowed in the sunlight pouring through the big, circular skylight. The mount for the pendulum was contained in a box hung at ceiling level across the center of atrium space. From our newly elevated vantage point we could see the cable jerk slightly each time the pendulum swung toward us, the result of a consistent bump from the hidden motor that keeps the thing moving. Walking ten feet forward, we came to a railing of safety glass which allowed a clear view down into the floors below. The rail was short enough that Pip could look over it and straight down at the blue and green map way below. It was a touch unnerving, and I had to coax him toward the rail. Polly, by contrast, was exuberant. She hopped forward and pressed her hands against the glass, reveling in the vertigo. Then she bounced around the full circle while I continued to work Pip closer and closer to the drop.

Five minutes later we were back in the elevator and going down to check out the big numbers on the fourth floor ceiling. Coming out of the elevator, Polly and Pip moved off ahead of me, whispering to each other and pointing out different things along the ceiling above them. I let them go, thinking how proud I was of them: for working together, for being good kids, for handling all the nuttiness that has come with school. And I was proud of me, too. Too often I settle for just telling them that there’s some offices and a board room up there and expecting that to be sufficient. It was good to let them explore and learn about something simple like that for themselves.


After we’d made our lap around the fourth floor and back to the elevators it was time to go home for lunch. As we waited for the bell above the elevator door to ding the car’s arrival, Pip asked,

“Can we go down to the basement then up to the third floor and then back down to the first?”

I smiled at him, but shook my head no. He shrugged and happily walked into the elevator while Polly jabbed the button for the first floor.

Now, several days later, I kind of wish I’d said “Yes.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Dropping off

            In 1999 I went to Europe for a semester with about twenty-five other undergrads from my university. Our program was based in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, a little village tucked in between the lakes and mountains just north of the Italian border. It was a beautiful place to live and a wonderful spot from which to take off exploring. Almost every Thursday afternoon, after class was done for the week (that’s right, no Friday classes) the bulk of us headed out for the train station and then on to an unbelievable variety of destinations. During my three months there, I went to Milan, Turin, Florence, Munich, Salzburg, Venice, and Prague. Others made it to Nice, Geneva, Pisa, Genoa, and more. I spent spring break in Tunisia and Easter in Rome. We all went to Frankfort, Heidelberg, Cologne, and Amsterdam together and later took a second trip down to Rome, Naples and Pompeii. The semester turned out to be the most amazing thing any of us had ever done.

            It was so amazing that when I came back to campus in the fall, I found it difficult to describe to my old friends the enormity of the experience. I put together the requisite photo album and told stories about all the exciting things that happened to me over there, but these tended to end up being disheartening exercises; there were too many people to keep track of, too many references that required complex explanations, too many details that had to be left out. I always finished a story feeling frustrated that my listeners didn’t really get it.

            To compensate for this, I’d get together from time to time with a group of people from the Europe trip. We’d sometimes reminisce about the trip itself, but just as often we merely hung out and talked about whatever was going on around us. Sprinkled in to those conversations were the codes and rituals and inside jokes, the special language, we had compiled during our time together in the spring. That language was a critical bonding agent for my memories of the trip, and I relished the opportunity to break it out a few more times before it faded away.

            And it did fade away. As the semester went on, people got busy with classes and projects and the affairs of the semester. The gatherings ended and were replaced by random, unplanned five-minute reunions when a couple of us landed together at a football game or some frat party. In those moments we would hug or shake hands and ask how things were going but the immediacy of our sympathies, the ability to dip into that special language, had slipped away.

            In the abstract, that seems like a sad thing, but at the time it felt okay. New stuff was piling on the old - new experiences, new challenges, new loves, new jokes, new things filled with their own importance and potential. There were too many other things happening to get choked up about the passing of a moment that was never meant to last forever anyway.


           For the last two years, Polly and I have had our own special club. We would get Ava out the door, bike Pip down to school, and then come back home to our own little bubble. Inside the bubble we followed a regular routine: reading, writing and math in the morning, some play or special activity, book reading at lunch, and then a nap. At the end of the nap, I would carry her down the steps to give her time to wake up before riding down to pick up Pip from school. Mixed into this routine were several idiosyncratic rituals – a special toothbrushing exercise, snack runs, and the ‘ding-dong’ game to name a few. We worked so well together that after a crazy weekend with everyone home, we looked forward to those first quiet hours on Monday morning when it was just the two of us again.

          Last week that all ended as Polly officially entered kindergarten. In June when school was letting out and Polly and I had our last couple of days together, I felt surprisingly emotional about it all. I welled up a few times doing the dishes and had to work to hold it together the final time we rode down together to pick up Pip from school. As such I wasn’t sure how I’d react to Polly’s first kindergarten drop off.

            But as it turns out it wasn’t that hard. Pip and Polly rolled into school together with heads held high and smiles on their faces. Ava and I headed back to the house and then on to our respective tasks. Too many new things lay ahead for us all to worry much about what coming to an end. My biggest disappointment in the whole experience is that there’s really not much more to tell.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Return

     Several years ago, while I spoon fed Pip some kind of gooey, mashed food, I heard the film director, Wes Anderson doing a standard, long-form publicity interview on NPR for his new movie “The Darjeeling Limited.” In explaining why he chose to make that movie, Anderson used the sentence “I wanted to tell this story” multiple times. I imagine it was a piece of stereotypical director-speak, and he probably cast it off without really thinking. But, for whatever reason, it struck me on that morning as a startlingly weird justification for making a movie. He wasn’t saying that he wanted to make people laugh or cry or quiver with fear. He wasn’t trying to make some political point or probe some critical question about the world. Instead, he was selling this frivolous, self-indulgent, narcissistic thing: a story that had been banging around in his mind for a while about a couple of white guys riding a train in India. It just seemed like a very puerile, childish, “I want to because I want to” kind of thing to do and at the time I didn’t understand how that was a compelling enough to get the film made.


     In February of 2012 I stopped writing posts for this blog. I had another project I wanted to work on, and there wasn’t time for me to do both. In the two years since then, I’ve encountered periodic moments when some simple experience with our family came together in such a cool way that I wanted to write about them. These weren’t moments that necessarily demanded preservation or reflected some great truth that needed to be shared. They were just fun happenings that I wanted to play with, to take them apart and reassemble them in an interesting way, maybe plant them somewhere and see what might grow. In short, I wanted to be Wes Anderson. I wanted to tell these stories.


     Since the day Pip was born, a single question has hovered over every conversation about my life as a full-time parent: “What are you going to do when your kids go to school?” For a number of years I gnawed on this, wondering if I should try to get back into academia or pursue an MBA or start doing some temp work that might lead to a full-time job. The answer turned out to be easy. About a year ago, Ava and I realized that my entering the full-time workforce was not the thing either one of us wanted. We like the flexibility and freedom that my presence at home gives us and did not see a tremendous benefit in trading those in for an extra paycheck. Thus, as Polly enters kindergarten today, I will not be embarking on a new job as well. Instead, I will be remaining at home to continue handling the logistics of drop-offs, pick-ups, lunch making, sick days, and all the rest.
     With that said, I will be gaining a couple of hours to myself each day, hours that I plan to spend writing. There is a novel in the works – I’m hoping to have it out by Christmas – and a couple more ideas to explore beyond that.
     And, I’m returning to this blog. It turns out that having stories you need to tell – with all the self-indulgent narcissism that entails - may be the best motivation for actually getting around to telling them.
     So, for all of you who, like me, never unsubscribe from anything, hello again. I’m excited to be writing for you once more.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The End

In November we finally sold our house. It took 18 months on the market and a sale price that was one third less than what we paid for it four years earlier, but we finally had a buyer lift that massive financial burden from our shoulders. More importantly, we also rid ourselves of a gigantic anchor that kept dragging on our consciousness every time we tried to make plans for the future. We fought desperately against this drag, trying over and over to defy its pull and to pretend that we could just go on with our lives. To prove our defiance we even sought to buy another house - going so far as to actually sign a contract and put the mortgage process in motion before some structural problems with the house led us to back away.

So once the house was fully cleaned out, the paperwork settled, and the keys handed over to the new owners, the emotional relief was intense. We could breathe again. We could look at our bank statement without seeing the gut-wrenching erosion of our savings. We could make plans that did not include the caveat 'once the house sells.'

We could also start addressing some of the other long-running questions that had been pushed aside by the house. One of those questions for me has been what exactly am I going to do with myself once both kids are in school or, put another way, what comes next when fatherhood is no longer a full-time occupation? Pip starts kindergarten this fall. Polly is only two years away from joining him. My window for deliberation, once a half-decade wide, is closing shut at a tremendous speed.

Before we had to deal with selling the house, the question of my future employment was the unanswerable shadow haunting the ins and outs of my daily life. It would whisper in my ear as I did the dishes. It rocked with me as I sung the kids to sleep at night. It trotted along beside me when I went running. So, when we gained relief from the house, I was ready to keep the momentum going by taking care of this question as well.

After some consideration, I decided that the most logical route to gaining full employment within a two to three year span would be to go back to school and get an MBA. This was something I could get started on in January and with a bit of scheduling luck I could be almost ready for the job market when Polly entered kindergarten. Whether that was actually a realistic scenario or not didn't matter too much. What was important was that I had the answer to my question.

With that decision made, I began preparing for the coursework ahead by getting my math skills back up to snuff. Whatever free time I had - including the time I had used for writing - went towards working through practice problems in a college-level algebra textbook. At the same time, I figured out what prereqs I needed to complete and set about getting enrolled in a local university in order to knock them out. First up was Survey of Accounting. I acquired the book at Christmas and was heading into Chapter 3 by the time the first week of class rolled around.

And then it turned out I couldn't do it. There was not enough time to be a good full-time father and a good MBA student. Things would have to slide. Sacrifices would have to be made. Moments would come where I would have to choose between family and schoolwork. While this kind of negotiation is something people do every day, it is a miserable thing to live with after not having to do it for so long. And it only made everyone in our family edgy. So, I dropped the class. The MBA or whatever else is out there for me can wait. We will happily keep our domestic bubble intact for a while longer.


I've had a similar realization with respect to this blog. Over the summer I attempted to balance the time I spent writing blog entries with other projects I wanted to work on. The results were not satisfactory. I felt constantly torn over how to allocate my attention and generally frustrated that I wasn't getting things done the way I wanted to. I broke away from all of it while managing our housing dramas and during my flirtations with the MBA idea. Once those ended I took some time to assess what I wanted to do next. My first decision was that I should only try to do one thing for a while. My second decision was that the blog would not be that one thing. I enjoyed my year of working on it, but I am ready to fiddle with something else for a bit.

And so, with this post I am bringing the blog to a close. Thank you to everyone who read, followed, and commented. I sincerely appreciate your coming along with me.

All the best,


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Piss on the Door Knobs

Hello readers, Ava here. I have asked Jeff to use his blogspace to insert some reflections about parenting in the post-industrial era. While Jeff’s perspective is written from the local, household influence, I’d like to write about the political economy of parenting in these post-industrial times. What I have found is that what distinguishes us from our parent’s and grandparent’s generation are the constraints that act upon us for which we have no control.

We moved for employment a year ago. Our house didn’t sell the first week on the market, or the first month, or the first year. To sell it, we will pay an ungodly amount of money to bring our total losses to an even more ungodly amount of money. And it hurts. Polly was born there. Pip took his first steps there. There were birthdays and holidays and visits from friends. I remember the weekend that Polly learned to wave and we had pizza at the kitchen table for dinner.

We now rent a two bedroom apartment, as described in Jeff’s post, On Wildness and Sharing Our Space. And while the location is wonderful, we are tired of being exploited in the shameful renter/tenant environment that clouds most places in America. Our lease was inaccurate when signed, we are responsible for maintaining a property that the owner avoids responsibility at all costs, and we are at the mercy of someone else’s schedule.

For the past two months, we have pursued purchasing another home. After signing a contract and getting it inspected, we found that the risk of potential repairs was too great. And we’re sad, because we feel we have done “everything right” and we deserve the security and stability that marked previous generations.

And this is the chaos of post-industrial parenting: the notion of doing “everything right” as causally related to security and prosperity is a myth. I know it’s a myth, I teach hundreds of students a semester that it’s a myth, and yet I don’t want to believe it. I want to believe that I can work harder and harder and it will result in a better life for my family. I want to believe that there is a “right decision” and a “right way” and that we are, indeed, doing things right. And the frustrating thing for the post-industrial parents is that we ARE doing everything right. It just doesn’t mean what it used to.

In explaining our ups-and-downs in the post-industrial economy, a friend of ours said of our vacant house, “Piss on the door knobs. It will make you feel better.” Well, as a nation, we’d better get ready for a whole lotta piss on a whole lotta doorknobs. Because there are a whole lotta post-industrial parents doing “everything right.” And we’ve got nothing to show for it but vacant houses with pissy doorknobs and a crumbling economy.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On Wildness and Sharing Our Space

In the midst of a busy and complicated part of the summer for our family I decided to take an impromptu break from my weekly blog writing. It started out as just another delayed posting, something that had become frequent over the summer. But after spending ten days in late July visiting with my parents and three of my closest friends and then taking another three days or so to recover from it all, a few items arose with the house we have been trying to sell. After more than a year, a potential buyer had finally emerged, and we made a push to make sure the house was in great shape for their decisive walk-through. In order to handle those details, I decided to let another week slide by without a blog entry. Since then we have undergone a multi-week frenzy of real estate selling and real estate shopping that continues to soak up more of my life than I wish. It has been difficult to think about anything else, including putting together a blog post.

During this frenzy, a touch of wildness has entered the play of Polly and Pip. While they have always enjoyed tracking back and forth along the straight-line that runs from their bedroom through the dining room and into the living room couch, now each run ends with an airborne child crashing face first into pillows and cushions. In addition, they have started adding odd sound effects to their lives: grunts, buzzes, and growls fill any quiet moment at the dinner table, in the bathroom, or outside playing. Stomping across the creaky hardwood floors of our apartment has also become a regular form of entertainment. One day last week they pulled out every doll and stuffed animal they possess, piled them on the floor in their bedroom, and proceeded to slide, crash, stomp, and jump on the pile.

In and of themselves these actions are not particularly new, but the energy with which Polly and Pip pursue them has intensified. The reasons for this intensification are multiple. For one thing, Polly is growing more physically adept every day. She can now jump down from 18-24 inches above the ground and land on her feet. She can slide headfirst off Pip’s bed without hurting herself. She can copy all the noises Pip makes. In all, she can do an increasing number of the things that Pip can do. This means they are playing together more and engaging in a type of mutually reinforcing play that takes Pip’s energetic ideas and ramps them up to levels I wasn’t prepared for. Ava and I have approached this development tentatively; we are thrilled that they are playing together and want to stay out of the way as much as possible but at the same time we’d like them to maintain some semblance of self-control. Figuring out when to stay aloof and when to step in has taken some time and experimentation.

Also, much of August was so hot that we were unable to get in our customary evening walks. For most of the summer, we took the kids out after dinner, put them in the double jogger and rolled them around the neighborhood for a half-hour or so. This gave us a regularly planned activity that headed off some of the end-of-the-day squirreliness that the kids get as they grow tired and gave Ava and me a few minutes to catch up with each other. Without these walks, we found ourselves at loose ends for the hour or so between the end of dinner and the start of the bedtime routine. This open, unstructured time works okay in the morning when the kids can direct themselves. But in the evening, it generally leads to craziness.

It hasn’t helped that our real estate frenzy has sucked away time that Ava and I normally spend with the kids. Over the last couple of weeks I have spent multiple hours talking on the telephone with Ava, my parents, and real estate agents while trying to cook lunch, to get Polly through the bathroom process, to take the kids to the park, and to do any number of other basic activities during which the kids usually have our undivided attention. At first they thought our distraction was fun. It was something new for them to figure out. But now that this curiosity has worn off, they quickly become unhappy and demanding whenever the phone rings. It has been a stressful experience for all of us as Ava and I know exactly what is happening but feel compelled to continue with our conversations anyway.


With all of this swirling around us, I’ve come to appreciate the attraction of having a larger living space than the one we currently occupy. Our apartment consists of a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom for Ava and me, and one for Pip and Polly. Within this configuration, there is really no place the kids can go play without having to constantly negotiate with their parents. Their bedroom presents some opportunity for separation, but between the two beds, a rocking chair, a set of shelves and a dresser, there is very little floor space available for energetic play or multi-day toy arrangements. This leaves the dining room and the living room for these kinds of things. However, those are spaces which we all share together, meaning the kids cannot have primacy in either for extended periods of time.

When I was younger, my sister and I were fortunate to have two such spaces. One room was a storage room running under the eaves of our house that my parents turned over to us for a play room. We had shelves, a record player, and a dresser to stuff with our things. Toys remained strewn across the floor for weeks at a time. We also had a full, finished basement that was lightly furnished. It was an excellent space to get away from our parents’ eyes and have a pillow fight or eat a bit too much candy. It also gave our parents a place to send us when we got too rowdy upstairs in the nicer rooms of our house.

And, in truth, I had a third space that fit this characterization: my own bedroom. In many respects I was not as free to do with this room as I was the playroom or the basement – it wasn’t the place for rough play and it had to be kept relatively neat and clean – but it was a place for me to retreat to, a room where I could close the door, where I could decide who would come in and who would stay out. It was a separate space of my own, one that facilitated my own individuation.

Pip and Polly do not have that kind of space (and, frankly, neither do Ava and I) in our current apartment. While I don’t think all of this shared space creates a necessarily better or worse experience than my own, living here certainly hasn’t been meaningless. Sharing this apartment for the last year has shaped the way we relate to one another. I think and talk more about ‘family’ as my primary social unit than I used to – there’s a lot more “our” and “we” in my speech than “I” now. I have also slowly peeled away the time I have designated for myself as the demands of keeping the kids and the house together have increased. Part of this is the reality of having young kids and performing my role as their primary caretaker. Part of it has to do with the shared nature of the apartment space. With an extra room or two we’d probably just designate an area for kid craziness and send Polly and Pip there when they want to bounce around. Instead, we have to constantly negotiate with one another, finding a way to accommodate our different needs for the space we have and our different ideas about what the space can and should be used for. It would seem like a recipe for frustration – and sometimes it is – but ultimately I think it has been good for us. When there is nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide, you have to talk with one another; at the very least you have to tell each other what you are up to or what you are planning to do. With all that talking we get to practice communicating with each other. We’ve had to figure out how to make requests and demands of one another in respectful and conscious ways. All that practice has been valuable when real problems have arisen.


And yet, even as I write this, Pip has started carving out little bits of personal space around the apartment. Now whenever it is time to clean up and put things away, it is common for Pip to identify some creation or arrangement of things he would like for us to leave in place for the next day. Yesterday it was a fire truck by the bathroom door. Today it was a pile of LEGO pieces he had collected in a little cup and left by his seat at the dinner table. More often than not he never returns to these items. They get forgotten over the night and reintegrated into the play of the next morning. The regularity of this pattern makes me see these acts as a way of staking a more permanent claim to our shared spaces, as a way of exercising some control over them even when he is not present in them. It is his way of asserting his own individual place amidst the communal swirl of our family. I imagine there will be many more instances of this kind of activity headed our way in the future.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sibling parents

In his four and a half years of life, Pip’s dominant examples of social interaction have come almost exclusively from Ava and me. While in some ways this relationship is to be expected of most children and their primary caregivers, Pip’s bubble has a few qualities that make it even more intense. For starters, since I am a full-time father, he has had very limited experience with non-familial caregivers like preschool teachers, day care providers, nannies, or even babysitters. Our home-centered childcare model also means that he does not currently have a classroom of peers that he interacts with on a regular basis. Instead, his contact with children his own age tends to be limited to whatever casual interactions happen on the playground. Lastly, as we don’t watch television with the kids, that avenue of social observation is also unavailable to him. For better or worse, when Pip wants a model for how to handle a situation, he is largely stuck with using what he has observed from us as his starting point.

One effect of this bubble is that frequently Pip’s mode of approach to Polly has been parental. At times this has taken on a classic, bossy older sibling form where he watches Polly closely and does his best to regulate her behavior according to the rules as he knows them. He keeps her from walking out into the street without a parent. He gently chastises her for throwing something inside the house. He asks her repeatedly not to splash water out of the bathtub. He does all these things because he has seen Ava and me do them.

But other times he mimics our caring acts, whether it’s helping Polly get something that is out of her reach or finding toys to entertain her while Ava and I are cleaning up the dishes. He is particularly quick to seek out ways to comfort her in times when he anticipates she’ll be upset.
He can be very creative in these endeavors. He’ll bring her little gifts from the toy shelf or he’ll make up silly rhymes to make her laugh.

One day this past week Polly woke up from her afternoon nap in a cranky mood. This sent Pip scurrying about in search of a way to help her through this. After about half-an-hour, as Polly’s mood started to brighten, I went into their room and found all their larger stuffed animals sitting on the floor. Tigger, Eyeore, Purple Duck, Blue the bear, Soft-soft Bunny, and Woolly Mammoth were arranged in a tight circle around George, a old teddy bear that is one of Polly’s favorites. When I asked Pip what was going on, he told me he had created a “family hug” for George in hopes that it would make Polly feel better. Whether this arrangement was meant to make her laugh or to give her a big hug using George as her proxy, I’m not sure. But either way it was a gesture that warmed all of our hearts.


These parenting efforts by Pip leave me feeling somewhat ambivalent. While there is plenty of historical precedent for older siblings taking on a parental role with younger siblings - particularly in larger families where taking care of younger brothers and sisters was frequently part of an older child’s core responsibilities – I feel like contemporary social expectations tell me that Pip is doing too much. He is supposed to be an independent kid, living his own childhood free from the burden of feeling responsible for someone else. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where this feeling is coming from, but I can see some manifestation of it in the narratives of sacrifice that people use when they talk about unconventional families where older siblings take on tasks usually handled by parents or adult caregivers. In these narratives, older siblings often get depicted as martyrs, giving up their childhood so that younger brothers or sisters can have one. Such an understanding depends on the idea that the older siblings had little responsibility for their younger siblings in the first place.

Perhaps this is how it should be. I don’t know. What I do know is that I can feel the influence of this idea on my interpretation of Pip’s relationship with Polly. Early on, Ava and I tried to reduce the amount of behavior regulation work he did, telling Pip that such things were our job and that his job was to play with Polly. This did not really have much effect on him. I imagine there are a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, the distinction we were trying to make was vague, randomly applied, and at times just confusing. It was unfair to expect a three or four-year-old to really make sense of it. For another, playing with Polly was something that Pip had to figure out and to do that he had to start somewhere. As his predominant examples for interacting with his sister were parental ones, it is not surprising that these approaches were the ones he tried first. On top of that, Pip’s social inclination is to observe and analyze the activities of other people. He is constantly interested in the actions of those around him, often to the point of distraction. With respect to Polly, this inclination led him easily into a mode of parental-style surveillance where he sees when she is doing something wrong and tries to help all of us by getting her to stop whatever it is.

More recently, we have backed off our attempts to actively shape the way Pip approaches his relationship with Polly. While we still step in when we sense Pip is getting overbearing, we have mostly allowed their interactions to develop as they will. Fortunately, this seems to be working as, on a daily basis, there is more play and less bossing than before. I think much of the reason for this is Polly’s own developmental growth and her quickly expanding physical and linguistic capacities. Her increasing ability to keep up with Pip makes the power dynamics in their play more balanced which in turn is enabling the emergence of the kind of relational structures that we were initially trying to force upon Pip.


All the same the power of the bubble remains in effect as Polly has now taken to doing a bit of parenting of her own. The same day that Pip built the family hug around George, Polly began trying to help Pip with his bicycle. While out on a walk that afternoon, Pip got his training wheels stuck on an uneven spot in the sidewalk. Usually when this happens, I give him a little push to get him going again. This time, Polly wanted to be the one to give him the push. She rushed forward and strained hard against the bike seat to get him moving. When he finally did inch forward again, she looked back at me with a twinkle in her eyes. She had helped Pip, just as any good parent would do.