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Oh, Brother

An only child considers the challenges of expanding her family

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My two-year-old daughter, Bess, understands there’s a baby in mommy’s tummy, but neither David nor I think she really gets what that means. Of course, neither do we.

Especially not me. David has his younger sister, Anna. But right now, Bess and I have something major in common: we are only children. For Bess, that coveted status will last until early December, when her little brother, whom we are calling Ptui-Ptui-Ptui, is due to arrive. That is when my daughter’s world will change forever, and when I, her mother, will be officially, and utterly, out of my depth.

I’m not the only parent in this equation, of course. But when David was younger and his parents ran errands, they would leave Anna in his charge. My husband would take his sister by the shoulders and say, They’re never coming back. We are not going to him for tips.

Friends tell me it can be heartbreaking to watch a first child try confusedly, even desperately, to cling to her never-before-challenged spot as the center of the known universe. I see it already: Bess gestures for me to hold her sippy cup like a baby bottle, or she suddenly starts suckling at my collarbone, even though she hasn’t nursed in almost a year.

Maybe my own experience as an only child puts certain things in perspective. To be sure, being a doted-on singleton has advantages. In the post-college period, for instance, I lived in my own place and worked at an office in my father’s office building, enabling me to drop off dirty laundry with him, and get it back clean and folded, sometimes with a side of brisket.

Still, it’s not all upside. There were also lonely days. Looking back, I guess it’s significant that my most vivid daydreams were about all the kids from ZOOM coming over to play. It was often very quiet in our house, save for the plodding basso profundo of public radio’s Robert J. Lurtsema. My parents, through some sort of echolocation, always knew exactly where I was. If I opened the door to the basement (repository of a mildewed copy of Looking for Mr. Goodbar), I’d hear, from three rooms away or another floor entirely: Don’t let the cat in! Small wonder that I spent a lot of time at my friend Liz’s. She had four siblings and parents who listened to the Beach Boys and a house so big you could smoke pot even when they were home.

When I did leave the house, I generally had on my person a nametag, pepper spray, water wings. With no siblings to compete for my parents’ attention, I was overscrutinized, overprotected. I still cannot get over the fact that my husband was instructed to leave a message on his mom’s office phone if he was going to be out late, so that he wouldn’t wake his parents. Are you kidding me? His mother slept while he was out? Bess may chafe at her competition, but she will not suffocate.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. By adolescence, Bess will have gotten used to the two-kid setup, and have found other, more complex things to blame me for. And later, she’ll be comforted, at least, to know she won’t have to deal with us in our crotchety dotage alone. Right now, I’m more concerned about helping her through the most immediate adjustment. Like all the fuss, for example, at the bris. (Oh God, the bris. Kein ayin hora.)

Who knows, maybe she’ll thrill to the sight of a sharp object poised over the reviled interloper. Plus, we know Bess loves whitefish. But on that day, I don’t want her to play the role of the toddler who needs to be entertained (or who will no doubt entertain us with some darndest-thing as did one of our friends’ kids who recently asked of a new brother, What will happen if we stop feeding him? ). I would like to see the bris—a ritual representing God’s covenant with Abraham and the Jews—as an opportunity to start forming the shape of our new family quadrangle. Via the bris, I want to enter into a covenant with Bess too. I will help her, fumble though I may, find her place in the world apart from being a big sister, and as a big sister.

How? I haven’t been able to find a dedicated blessing for a sibling to read at a bris, or any particular sibling blessing at all. Plus, well, she can’t read. So here’s something else to start with. On the occasion of brit milah, the baby is traditionally placed briefly on the chair of Elijah —carved and fancy for the occasion, or any chair designated as such—as the prophet Elijah (who, according to legend, wanders the earth serving as witness to and guest at liminal moments including circumcisions, seders, and Havdalah rituals). I would like to designate for Bess, to honor her role at the ceremony and in our family, a chair of Miriam.

See, I can’t really tell her how to be a big sister. But I can tell her about Miriam, perhaps the Bible’s best-known big sister. After Pharaoh [insert toddler-friendly euphemism for “gave the order to kill all newborn Jewish boys”], it was Miriam who brilliantly prompted Pharaoh’s daughter—having plucked her little brother Moses from the life-saving bulrushes—to take on their own mother, the Jewish slave Yocheved, as his nurse, thus raising him with his family, as a Jew. Miriam’s relationship with her brother was not uncomplicated (later in life, God struck her with a gross skin disease for speaking ill of Moses’ wife, but then relented at Moses’s own request) but her legacy as a prophetess remains intact, and revered. At Bess’s naming ceremony, we invoked Miriam’s well—said in the Midrash to follow and sustain the Jews as they wandered through the desert—by dipping her heels in water. Midrash also has it that Miriam’s well appears at Havdalah. So Bess’s very birth, at the fading of Shabbat, invoked Miriam, too.

For Bess the birth of her brother—Ptui Ptui Ptui—will be a Havdalah, a separation, a shift from before to after: from only to sibling, from owning to sharing, from certainty to challenge. He will never know the difference. She will. I know that shift may not, at least at first, smell sweetly of wine and spices. But Bess will also have the chance, like Miriam, to protect and nourish and celebrate freedoms she cannot now contemplate. So here is something we will soon have in common, too: I’m actually a little jealous.

Lynn Harris is the co-creator of and the author of two novels including, most recently, Death by Chick Lit.

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Oh, Brother

An only child considers the challenges of expanding her family

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