As we were all gathered in the kitchen prepping dinner, I watched my kids do their chores and cook in harmonic bliss, all with the usual hip hop beats in the background. Today’s choice: The DJ Filthy Rich playlist of Tribe. They were laughing and chatting as usual.
I remarked to them, in a rhetorical way, “Imagine you didn’t have each other and you were an only child?”
I really wasn’t expecting an answer. I assumed that they knew what I meant: that quarantine would be a lot more painful if they were by themselves.
But they all stopped and answered:
“All the time, Mom.”
“You’d have bought me a car and a designer bag by now probably.”
“Did you know my friend who is an only child is getting a KING bed??”
“There would be no one to annoy me. And I don’t think that I will ever have children, I might just adopt a dog instead.”
“I am grateful for my sisters…I feel I am less sensitive than I would be if I were only a child. I mean, living with them really toughened me.”
Ouch. Ok. I think they noticed my dismay and are particularly aware that it is that week of the month and quickly make a retraction, although a weak one.
“Mom, of course we all have fantasized deeply about not having siblings, including the potential collection of the entire inheritance, ahem, there is one right?… But of course we love each other and mostly like being around one another.”
I became quiet. When I become quiet, they aren’t sure what’s going to happen next so they clear the room. They prefer the raging lunatic because they are adept at tuning me out or raging back. But when I am quiet, they feel more like it’s a ticking time bomb; it’s the anticipation that kills them.
But I’m not angry. Disappointed a little? Sure. I sit with it, wondering what it is I am feeling at this honest revelation from my kids. Oh, it’s confusion. I am bewildered. It’s not confusing that they feel this way, it’s confusing that I am surprised they feel this way. It happened to me again. I call it, “The Brady Bunch Effect.”
It’s this story – this belief that big families – although have occasional conflict, for the most part, love being a part of a big family.
I always knew that they wondered what it was like to live in a house with no siblings just like how as an only child for 12 years, I wondered what it would be like to have them. “The Grass is Greener” Syndrome.
I would fantasize about an older sister braiding my hair and helping me pick out clothes. And when I watched this happen with my girls a few days ago, I realized that only in this moment did I fulfill what I had missed out on. This Marsha and Jan moment. But if I turned off the “projection,” and looked at the situation for what it actually was, it was really just a moment between two sisters. Five minutes later, they were fighting over clothes or chores or music. It’s all a blur. (Maybe this was a Marsh and Jan moment too but I deleted the episode in my selective memory.)
Being at home with your children for an extended period of time magnifies these myths and stories you create about your family.
For self-preservation mostly, I know that I have prayed for this Brady Bunch Effect at times, clung to it like an optimistic Pollyanna. Without believing that my children, in the end, will be on their knees thanking me that I gave them the gift of others that share their DNA, I would have succumbed to that insidious feeling that every Catholic knows intimately and that every parent of a family of more than three children knows well: GUILT.
The guilt of not giving enough attention. The guilt of not having enough rooms. The guilt of not having enough money to send them all to that camp that you sent the first one or buying new bikes every year or even bikes at all. Don’t get me started on shoes. The guilt of having to split that last piece of pizza in five ways to avoid the never ending comments of “That’s not fair” or “I always knew they were your favourite.”
To assuage this guilt, you have to believe, that in the end, they will see the benefit of having each other; that all the sacrifices made, what we euphemistically call “sharing” in our house, is all for a greater purpose; and that all the big family hacks would come in handy in their own life somehow. For example, a big family always packs snacks so we don’t have to buy any when we are out or on a special treat day, order an extra large hot chocolate and ask for extra cups.
Warning: On those “special treat days,” when you go to that over-priced cafe, order the hot chocolate to go. There is nothing that kills the excitement of this treat when the five of them watch other parents order one regular-sized hot chocolate per child. After they see this happen, their little “shot” of hot cocoa always tastes a little less sweeter.
If you ever have seen my kids at a restaurant, you will watch them order things to share. The only difference between doing it when they were younger and now that they are older is that I don’t do it for them anymore and that they do it in Spanish, “Podemos tener un otro plato por favor? Vamos a compartir. Gracias.” It’s muscle memory. Or PTSD. Either way, it’s now in their DNA.
Nothing turns the Brady Bunch Effect into the Brady Bunch Myth like watching your children get their own jobs. That’s when you really start to wonder if you deprived them of a life of abundance. A life where each person could have their own insert any object or piece of food here.
As soon as they are old enough to work, my kids have to get a job. They have to buy their own clothes, snacks, and help pay for extra-curricular activities. (Pro tip: If they have to pay for their own activities, you’ll soon find out which activities they truly love and which ones are more for you living vicariously through them. The truth hurts. Don’t ever mention soccer to my eldest.)
When they start making their own money, I have seen them turn into “Gollum” from Lord of the Rings. You know that bag of chips that they were never allowed to buy but if Mom was in one of her weak will power moments, she would buy it, and she forced everyone to share that Halloween-sized mini bag? Or that time she pretended that it was a “fractions” lesson when she bought one sprinkled donut to keep everyone quiet in the van and cut it into fifths?
Well, that first payday would roll around and they would buy any of these treats proudly and eat it ALL on their own, of course whispering:
The Brady Bunch Myth in all its glory. What have we done? Have Chris and I totally bastardized the concept of “sharing” where they only see it as a forced obligation? Or did it become a subtle indicator of our economic status and not having enough?
As I came to this realization, I looked down at the sleeping toddler in my wrap, and the three other children in the wagon looking on at envy at their eldest sister eating the fruits of her labor. (Well, the farmer’s market cinnamon bun of her labor.)
This is it. I have a big family. And we are definitely not The Brady Bunch.
F*ck the Brady Brunch. I bought them all their own cinnamon buns and sacrificed our market shop of veggies and fruit. I was the hero for the moment, until I lost it on them for not finishing the cinnamon buns.
After awhile, my eldest began buying things for her brother and sisters but at the same time she started to save for larger goals like for her semester in Barcelona. She found a balance between caring for herself and being generous with her siblings. This past Christmas she spoiled all of us with her generosity. Living with us right now, she is always offering to buy treats for her siblings, especially those chips that Mama still won’t buy.
Gollum went away. He came back with the second child. But again, after awhile, she started to pay for our weekly (ok, daily) gelato treat at our favourite shop. She also paid for her laptop. Again, she has found that balance between her needs and offering to contribute, to share.
Maybe the Brady Bunch Myth isn’t all myth. Maybe it’s just that sometimes you want something for yourself. And that’s ok. Maybe you want your room. Or just something to call your own. Even if it’s temporary.
And that’s the real thing they’ve learned living with each other – how to take that space and time while trying, the key word is trying, to get along with others. Not in the sense of simply coexisting but living with others in a way that helps the other – that feeling of generosity that can only arise in relation to others.
Now I watch closely how they spend time together and also take their solitude. During this quarantine, I watch them work out together, play legos together (the oldest and the youngest), watch movies together, hang out in each other’s room, cook together, and paint together. It has taken awhile to get into a groove with all five children being under the same roof again. But they also go on solitary walks, lie in the hammock and read, spend time at the neighbour’s house for “boy time,”and put on earbuds and go to their room to listen to that High School Musical playlist that would drive any quarantined family to violent behavior.
Through living in close quarters, the majority of that time homeschooling, they’ve learned how to nestle into a rhythm of taking their time to develop their own inner world apart from their siblings.
I feel like Chris and I have had more solitude than we have had in our entire life with the kids at home. There is still the yelling to do chores and to stop fighting over nonsense but as my eldest has observed, it’s a lot less than the early years although other teenagers tend to disagree with their age-appropriate myopic focus.
With her here, she is able to communicate her appreciation for being a part of a big family, now that she doesn’t live with a big family anymore. Oh the irony.
This post was written not just to admit my own belief in a myth but to dispel the belief of outsiders who see our family as a modern day Brady Bunch. We are not perfect nor have ever claim to be. A big family has its ups and downs like small families. There are good and bad days. We have really good days where we have dance parties and cook large meals and paint together.
But we also have bad days when we cry out of frustration at not being heard or seen or both; when personalities clash; when there is no quiet or there is only the quiet of tension and unease, the quiet before the storm as four moon cycles overlap with a tsunami of a pubescent in the middle, so that Chris and the boy never have a break in the mood swings, these waves that crash in succession.
The Brady Bunch Myth is just that, a myth. But sometimes we need myths to get our own stories straight. I don’t know that they will all end up feeling grateful for each other. I know that we don’t end every day like an episode of the Brady Bunch – all loose ends perfectly tied in a bow like a present of tomorrow waiting to be opened. There is often something spilled, or in our jungle home, something dead that needs to be swept clean in the morning.
So we do that.
We clean up our messes and ask for help cleaning up that dead rat.
And we do that one thing that we always do: we try again. We try to show up each day and learn again how to say I love you and I’m sorry. We don’t give up on each other. We are a family of paradoxes. We give and we take. We love our solitude and love hanging out. We yell when we are happy and angry so that you never really can tell what’s going on. We succeed only when we fail. We love quarantine when we don’t have to. We listen to A Tribe Called Quest and James Taylor (ok, maybe that’s just me…Fck John Mayer – sorry Chris and #2).
We are the Dioso-Lopez Tribe.
And today, there is a cinnamon bun waiting for each of us.
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