My 2-year-old daughter, Penrose, pulled my shirt up and was yelling into my belly button.
“You in there, sisterbrother?”
Before anyone gets too excited, no, I’m not pregnant. Nor do I plan to be any time soon (or maybe ever again). But you’d never know it to talk to Pen. She tells her daycare teacher about the “baby sister in Mommy’s tummy,” and asks me to “call her brother” by shouting into the bowl of her potty. I have drawn countless brother and sister baby owls for her.
Her confusion is understandable. On North Haven, the Maine island we call home, we seem to have a real mating season, and for the last few springs, we’ve been excited to welcome a new batch of babies. This year, all but one of the kids Penrose’s age got new siblings.
I didn’t expect it to register with her as much as it has. Her best buddy, who has since moved off the island, was the first to become a big sister. We went to visit the family when the new baby girl was 2 weeks old. Pen surprised me by asking to hold the baby, and did so sweetly while I helped support her. She snuggled her close, giving her little pats on the tummy.
I am the oldest of three girls, and was as indifferent and even hostile to my younger siblings as could be. Until my own baby fever hit, at age 30, I remained unmoved by babies. Sure, they were kind of cute, and I was happy for my friends who had children (not to mention the job security it represents for me as a teacher), but I didn’t get it until the alarm went off on my biological clock.
Penrose seems to have been born with a nurturing instinct. Even as a much younger child, she would hug and pat her dolls, and now she performs elaborate diaper changes and bedtimes with them, telling them stories, covering them with blankets, and offering them food and water. I never did that.
It’s hard not to want to give Penrose a sibling. And I’m learning that I shouldn’t project my terrible behavior as an oldest child onto her. She is clearly her own person. If we did have another baby, I know it would be hard for her, since she currently prefers to monopolize my entire being when I’m in the room, but I also think she would be a sweet and loving older sister. I feel a little pang of guilt when I tell her, “Sorry kiddo, no baby sister in there right now. Or maybe ever.” She doesn’t get upset when I say that, but it also hasn’t done anything to convince her that there isn’t a bun in the oven.
But for us, right now, having two children would be more of a challenge than we’re willing to take on. I did not enjoy being pregnant, and the trenches of infancy were a mental and physical challenge for all of us. Our small house already feels like it’s bulging at the seams, and neither my husband nor I can afford to give up our jobs (nor do we want to). The island lacks childcare for children under 1, and we don’t have family nearby. We want to give Penrose rich experiences on our small budget, and have been able to travel with her frequently. We want to be able to afford higher education for her.
Of course, plenty of people in small houses with two working parents and a tight budget have multiple children and do it splendidly. I love my sisters, and now of course am glad to have them. I understand the benefits of learning to share toys, parental attention, and to collaborate and play together. And having another kid will be a physical possibility for me for another few years, at least. For now, though, Penrose’s sisterbrother is an imaginary friend, and is going to stay that way.