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Families, Gender Roles, and Life

Updated: May 1, 2023

Watching your sibling become a parent is fucking weird.

When my brother’s first child was born I thought… that’s so weird.

He’s someone’s dad now.

I wondered what kind of dad Ben would be. I couldn’t stop thinking of the time when he was about twelve, and someone double-dog-dared him to climb into a trash can at an amusement park. Without hesitating for a single second, he hurled his skinny body into the trash can with a giant grin on his face while the guy who’d dared him laughed his ass off.

My impulsive, reckless, ridiculous brother was a dad now. He was in charge of someone’s entire life; he would have omniscient authority and power in that child’s eyes.

This thought tripped me out more than I’d like to admit, although I’ve always been kinda weird about babies and procreation.

When my childhood best friend had a baby, she was the first person I ever knew who did it on purpose. The first time I went to see her and her new baby, I came home and cried for hours in my mom’s lap. I couldn’t say why I was so upset exactly (to my mom’s complete confusion). I guess I had just assumed that since parents are different than regular people, she would have suddenly become a different person.

My mom asked me what I thought would be different about her, and I said “I don’t know, I thought maybe she’d just be like… wise, now.” My mom laughed. The idea that birthing a baby makes someone wise is ridiculous, I know. Wise parents become wise by parenting, it’s a learn-on-the-job situation.

But I still felt completely shaken that my friend was still just my friend: hilarious and smart, eminently competent and caring, but... human. She hadn’t been possessed by some maternal ghost of wisdom. She cooked me dinner while her newborn slept, and some long-held belief about parenting shattered inside me.

Parenthood isn’t the altered state of wisdom and readiness I had thought it would be, I realized that day. People who have babies are still just regular people. I was indescribably devastated, but as I wept in my own mother’s lap, the existential heartbreak I was experiencing baffled her. She told me she had to learn on the job too, that she wasn’t visited by the maternal ghost of wisdom either.

I cried even harder at the thought that my mother, a person so wise and obviously suited for motherhood, had once been a regular person; that she hadn’t been placed onto the earth fully equipped with all her wisdom, patience, and motherly love that I know her to possess now. What did this mean about parents, I wondered, or about human nature? What did this mean about me, and the whole question of children?

I suppose in some ways, I had given myself permission to not want children until the ghost of maternal wisdom visited me. I was protected from needing to have them until such a day arose when I became “parent material,” I think. If there was no such day coming, if we’re all parent material once we become parents, then I didn’t have an excuse for not wanting kids. The thought was terrifying.

So, yes, I’ve always been weird about the topic of parenting and procreation. It has always caused me existential torment. Would I eventually have to have one? Why is everyone doing this? Why does it feel so much scarier to me than everyone else?

But back to my brother.

I asked Ben how he felt now that he was a dad, a few hours after his first child was born. He looked so tired, but he was still Ben, still cracking jokes. His hair was long and messy, and seeing him cradling his newborn son was beyond weird. I half expected him to toss it like a football at any moment. He didn’t.

The trip upstate from NYC to be there for the birth had been a last minute decision, something I wasn’t sure about, because honestly what’s the point of going to see a newborn baby? But that’s what you do, so I did.

At the end of the weekend, on the bus ride back to NYC, I remember feeling guilty and sad that I didn’t “love” my wrinkly new nephew. I’d expected some kind of baby-fever maternal type of love to wash over me. I was in my late twenties, after all, still waiting for my biological clock to kick in and understand what the whole baby fuss was about. I thought maybe meeting my nephew would do it. It didn’t.

What did happen that weekend however is that I came to love my brother in a whole new way.

This ended up being why I was glad I had gone to visit that weekend. Meeting my nephew didn’t do much for me, but meeting my brother as a parent was life-changing.

It started in that moment when I saw him cradling that tiny creature and cracking jokes.

Realizing that he wasn’t going to throw this baby like a football, that he was actually completely at ease with his new role (far more at ease around a tiny breakable person than me) made me see him in a totally different light. He was comfortable. He was somehow good at it already.

He was… a dad. But it didn’t seem new exactly, more like I just hadn’t noticed it before. As if he’d always been a dad, or was always going to be a dad.

I kept thinking about the weird shared experience that siblingship is. Sometimes it felt like spying. I had been there for so much of his life, knew so many details about his history– not because he wanted me there, but because I had to be there. Because the same two people had made us, and that’s how families work.

I kept thinking of our own dad, and of how people model their parenting after their parents. I was so curious if he would be like either of our parents as a parent, and beyond relieved that he was doing this first, so I could see what it was all about from a safe, cool distance.

Then last fall I stayed with my brother and his family (including my niblings who are now 4.5 and nearly 3 years old) in Asheville, where he and his family had recently moved, and got a front row seat to the goings-on of a regular heteronormative two-parent nuclear family.

The first thing that struck me while being there was the togetherness, the sheer interdependent family-ness of it all, which was unlike anything else in my life, but brought back lots of memories of my own childhood.

I watched as my brother ran a house, made breakfasts and dinners and plans, and supported his wife with a tenderness I had never before been privy to. I was folded into their life there, seeing every moment from the tender to the frustrating to the mundane, and throughout all of it I could viscerally feel his dad-ness.

As a parent, Ben is gentle, and firm, and patient in a way I wouldn’t have believed. One time in the car, my nephew was screaming bloody murder because my niece was saying “you’re my sister” to him, and I was having an ‘everyone shut up omg’ moment inside my own head.

My brother calmly asked what the problem was, and then reasonably asked my nephew if he felt like her sister. Furious, my nephew wailed “NO I DONT” and my brother thoughtfully responded, as if it had only just occurred to him, “well then… you’re not her sister.

This is how he often was with them, a patient and thoughtful leader, always looking for opportunities to teach and guide, and unpacking with me in our adult time together how he saw these moments.

I don’t mean to say that he wasn’t also just a human of course. He was, and is. But he is also an intuitive and engaged parent who seems to genuinely enjoy his role in the family.

This was surprisingly healing for me to witness. While it’s overly reductive to say “I didn’t know men could be like that,” it’s not far off base either.

It was the bucking of traditional gender roles that really struck me, I think. For being a traditionally masculine dude in many ways, it tickled me to see my brother crushing it at domestic life.

Many evenings I would finish work and come downstairs to dinner being set for me by Ben in his blue apron emblazoned with the words “Mr. Good Looking is Cooking,” grinning and cracking jokes while coralling the kids to clean up their legos. He liked to spend some time playing guitar after dinner, but sometimes the whole thing would have to be abandoned to handle crying children. Once his wife (who was working nights) told him to figure out the Tupperware-buying situation, and we all joked about how his male brain couldn’t possibly figure out something as complex and domestic as plastic containers with lids.

Every time I sat down for a home-cooked meal by him, or had a plan made with my needs taken into account by him, I felt a tiny old (admittedly unflattering) belief about what men are capable of flame out. After all, if men are capable of figuring out tupperware, what else are they capable of?

As I’ve come back to the east coast for another family visit, I’ve been thinking a lot about this– about parenting, and families, and gender roles. About what kind of life we each choose, and why.

Also for the record, I might not be a baby person, but as my siblings get older, I fall more and more in love with them. My nephew, once that wrinkly little potato I didn’t feel much for when he was born has become one of my very favorite people on the planet, occupying a space in my heart so intense that it is physically painful at times to be apart from him.

And I am so grateful my impulsive, ridiculous, thoughtful, nurturing brother is the man in his life.

<3 Jessi

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