“Bobby!” I swooped in quickly to scoop up my wailing baby. “Sally, you have to be careful!” I admonished my preschooler as I held the baby close. “You just tripped on Bobby!”
“But he was in my way!” Sally exclaimed, indignant.
Like a marionette puppet jerked by its strings, my younger brother looked up from where he sat on the couch, and for a moment, time stopped. Sally had just back talked me. This sort of thing was not allowed in our house growing up. This sort of thing resulted in a time out or a spanking. My brother knew that as well as I. And so, even though he knew that things are different here in my home than in our parents’ home, he still tensed up instinctively, waiting, watching, cringing.
“Yes, Sally,” I said. “You’re right, he was in your way. But babies are very easy to break. Look at him, see how little he is? You don’t want to break him, do you?” Sally shook her head. “No, I didn’t think so. And we’re careful not to break you, either. That would be bad! So next time, Sally, if Bobby’s in your way, just tell me and I’ll move him out of your way. Okay?”
“Okay!” Sally nodded her head and smiled.
“Can you give Bobby a hug?” I asked. “It might make him feel better.”
“Sure!” Sally hugged her little brother, who had stopped crying in the meantime, and then went back to playing. And I looked up at my brother and could see the tension melting off of his face.
“I really like what you’re doing with Sally and Bobby,” my brother told me. “It’s so awesome. I wish I had had that. They’re so lucky.”
“I don’t believe in back talk,” I told him.
And then we talked about it, on and on, understanding each other as only sister and brother can. The evening grew later and later, but still we talked. We talked about how we felt when we were spanked. We talked about the feelings of helplessness and anger. But mostly we talked about back talk. You know, where you try to explain what happened and then, rather than listening to you, the response you get is “that’ll be three more spanks, and for every additional word you say, I’ll add another spank.” That feeling like you’re being smothered. The rage rising inside, threatening to overwhelm you until you begin to feel nauseous. The moment when you realize that what hurts is not so much that they don’t understand as that they don’t want to understand. That you matter that little.
Before my brother left my home that night he told me something. “I decided a long time ago that I never want to have kids,” he said. “But you and Sean? You two seem so happy, and what you’re doing with Sally and Bobby is amazing. I still don’t think I want to have kids, but watching you and Sean has shown me that it doesn’t have to be like that. You know, how it was.”
And he’s right. It doesn’t.