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The burdens of big-brotherdom.

By Margaret Renkl

MARCH 2, 1998:  "This is the time when it gets really hard to be the big brother," the pediatrician warned me last month when I took my children in for their 6-year and 18-month check-ups. "Little brother wants to copy everything big brother is doing and play with all big brother's stuff, but big brother is the one who gets in trouble when they fight. Meanwhile, little brother isn't ever punished at all. You might need a little extra patience in the months ahead."

I understood what she was saying; it was logical advice, after all. But I didn't believe her for one minute. That sort of thing might happen in other families, but not in ours. In our family the firstborn waited an excruciatingly long time to obtain his big-brother status; he knew he was the only kid in his preschool class without a sibling, and he prayed every night and wished on every star for a brother or a sister. As the arrival date for his soon-to-be brother approached, he pitched in for every aspect of preparation--folding diapers, directing the furniture rearrangement in his room to accommodate a crib and changing table, even nixing most of the names we were considering. In the end we gave our second child the only name our first child really liked. For some reason, we were just lucky--sibling rivalry was something that happened to other people.

I had seen some pretty awful examples of such warfare in other families. Before my friend Lisa's second daughter was born, her 4-year-old recommended naming the new baby Throwaway. And my friend Jeanne overheard her son offering to sell his infant sister for a quarter to a sibling-free neighborhood child. When the neighbor told him she didn't have a quarter, Jeanne's child dropped the price to a dime. When the neighbor told him she didn't have even a dime, the new big brother offered generously, "That's OK. You can have her anyway, and you can have her bottles too. Just leave her toys here."

With four-and-a-half years separating my boys, not to mention my first son's keen antici-pation of being a big brother, I didn't worry too much about the prospect of sibling rivalry. To be on the safe side, though, my husband and I took the recommended precautions. We set up the crib three months before the baby's due date, so the arrival of the baby and the redecorating of our son's room wouldn't be quite so obviously coincidental. In my suitcase we packed a gift--something our son had long coveted--for the new baby to bring home to his big brother from the hospital. We constantly emphasized the advantages of age: "Now, when this baby gets here, honey, it's going to need a lot of attention, but you're the one who doesn't have to take a nap, so we'll still have lots of time to play together," or "The baby's going to need to eat a lot, but you're the only one who gets to eat cupcakes."

Mostly, our son took the whole thing in stride. Occasionally he'd need a little reassurance--"I'm always going to be the oldest, right Mom?"--but basically his life seemed little interrupted by the encroacher. It was summer: Dad the schoolteacher was home all day, and friends and relatives arrived by the vanful, so there was no shortage of adult attention for a while. If things ever did get a little too baby-focused for the firstborn, he'd just frankly tell the visitors, "You're paying too much attention to that baby."

Absolutely the only overt sign of hostility toward his brother was the one time he put a stuffed animal into the baby swing and began singing a modified little lullaby that ended, "When the bough breaks, the baby will fall, and down will fall baby, and hit the ground, and break into pieces...."

Otherwise, we've been lucky. Until now. I don't know whether it's these long, cold, dark days stuck in the house with a nosy toddler tearing pages out of his books and messing up all his projects, or the hatchet over his head of yet another baby on the way, or whether that pediatrician was just right and the family time bomb has finally exploded, but in the last week something has come to possess my previously tranquil and loving little boy.

Suddenly, he yells at his friends if they don't want to play what he wants to play. Suddenly, he's rude and sarcastic to me, even after I've threatened to punish him. "Honey," I'll say, "I've told you twice to put that toy away before your brother finds it and chokes on it. If I have to tell you again, you'll be grounded from videos tomorrow."

Normally, this is the direst threat I have in my arsenal; although his daily fix is only 30 minutes, the child is absolutely addicted to videos. And yet to this threat my son, like a sullen teenager, replies, "Whatever."

He's started slamming doors, snatching toys away from his brother and dashing them to the ground, and he declines my every offer of diversion: "Want to play Trouble? Want to bake cupcakes? Want to make something out of pipe-cleaners?"

"What's the point?" he glowers. "It'll just get messed up in the end."

God knows I'm doing my best to take the pediatrician's advice, to be patient and understanding, to make a safe, brother-free space for my big boy every day, but these are long, dark days. This morning the baby was feverish, with a bug his big brother had brought home from kindergarten, but my son complained, "He only got sick so he could take all the attention away from me." That kind of fatalism is hard to fight.

I tell myself there will come a day, some day, when having a sibling is again an advantage to my little boy. It might be relatively soon, when we're sitting together in the bleachers one autumn afternoon, and our first son is running hard on some playing field, and the crowd is cheering, and he can hear his brother yell, "Hooray!" and know that, even though most of those cheers were for the other boys, that one "Hooray" was just for him.

Or the day might come when they're a little older and some girl has broken my big boy's heart, and he's bombed the test he's studied hard for, and his repressively strict parents won't let him take the car out after dark until he's at least 17. As he's slumped down in a chair in his room, feeling low and small, a little boy who still thinks his big brother's a hero might come in holding some sort of wrecked project and say, "I just can't do this; will you help me?"

But it might not come for years and years, long after they're grown, long after they both have lives and families of their own and their parents have grown old and whiny and calcified in foolish, stubborn ways.

"What in God's name are we going to do about Mom and Dad?" he might ask his brother on the phone.

And his brother might say, "I don't know. Why don't I come over and let's see if we can figure something out?" Maybe then he'll think of all those years of being followed and copied, of having every delicate project destroyed by clumsy hands and every cute thing he ever did mimicked or overshadowed by cute things someone else was doing. Then, maybe then, it will all be worth it.

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