My sister gave birth to her fourth child a few weeks ago — a beautiful girl, so I’m told. I must wait to see her, since she lives over 200 miles away. Our children alternate with one another in age-10, 9, 8, 7, almost 6, 3-1/2, 2-1/2, newborn. This has serendipitously made the most of “our” maternity clothes, cradle, baby clothes, and other jointly-owned flotsam and jetsam of motherhood. How much easier it is to share now than it ever was when we inhabited the same bedroom, with ownership of each square foot of territory jealously marked. How lovely it would be to live near each other, sharing carpools and kids’ playtimes and babysitting. How lovely it is even so that she is there at the end of a telephone line, bound by blood and family history, keeping me company in memories of all but the first three years of my life. How sad it is that some people — more, now, than a generation ago — do not have that.
“Sisters forever?” my eight-year-old Maria asks. “Sisters ever,” the two-year-old obediently parrots, and they slap hands. Within the hour, they will be at odds again, Catherine caught filching Maria’s earrings or Barbies or hair ornaments, and “I wish I never had a baby sister” will reverberate through the house. Never mind. After years of loud and strenuous living together, of items borrowed without permission and lost or spoiled, of cruel taunts and accusations that “Mom loves you best,” the “sisters forever” part of their relationship will triumph, if my sister and I are any guide.
And even in the midst of the worst of childish bickering, something of the balm of the family as sanctuary is felt. Even when one luxuriates in complaining to friends about the infantile behavior of siblings and the tyranny of parents, one reposes in the security of familial love and familial identity. As a child, I came home from school to walk the dog and do my homework and run down to the corner store for one or two forgotten items, chafing at parental restrictions and irritating sibling mannerisms, but also basking in the comfort of home, of the familiar, a word which owes everything to family.
Once the front gate clicked, the threshold was crossed, and the bookbag tossed to the corner of the bedroom, anxieties about hairstyles, unsympathetic teachers, or cliques could be held at bay, overlaid by the easy assumptions of unspoken affection. This was the daily sanctuary from which I emerged to fight the good fight in exams and term papers, dancing lessons and day camp, the perilous passages of schoolhood friendships and adolescent attachments. Without that safe haven, that charmed circle of often exasperated acceptance, the good fight is lots lonelier and more arduous.
So many children today spend much more time at earlier ages outside that charmed circle. Some are from broken or badly warped families. Many have families they see very little of — they are in daycare or after-school care, with heavy schedules of after-school activities. If both parents work, summers become another exercise in creative scheduling. What I remember most about my childhood summers was the weight of all that time: time hanging heavy on our hands. We had time to be bored, to watch the hands of the clock crawl, to become drowsy with the heat and the drone of the window fan, or play interminable games of Monopoly on the gray-painted front porch, where glasses of Kool-Aid and iced tea grew slick with condensation. We sometimes longed for fall to liberate us from the heaviness of all that unscripted time, as we longed for driver’s licenses and adulthood to liberate us from the comparative uneventfulness of the family circle. But boredom was not merely a problem to be scheduled away. It was a dense, mysterious thing, this clock-ticking awareness of the weight of the minutes and hours.
I know that authority figures (with good reason!) commonly concentrate on the dangers to youth in idleness. But one of the most enriching things parents can give to their children, if they can afford to have one parent at home, is an abundance of time at home. Not just “quality time” with heavy parental involvement, but time in the ebb and flow of family life, with brothers and sisters running in and out, quarreling and making up, developing elaborate games, making messes in the kitchen, digging up the yard, washing the dog, practicing acrobatic tricks on the swingset, complaining loudly about each other, about their chores, about nothing to do.
Families are the first communities we know, and they are the ones we feel most at ease in — most “at home” in. We may differ from family members in interest, taste, temperament, or ambition, but home and family, even when we return to them as adults, slide onto our psyches with the fit of an old shoe worn to the shape of our feet. Today, when the world outside our doors is so hostile to Catholic beliefs and destructive of Catholic upbringing, there is a special need to make our homes strong citadels to which our children can retreat and regroup, and from which they can reemerge with new confidence in themselves and their resources.
There is a special advantage, lingering throughout one’s life, in growing up with several siblings. They constitute a community of peers who can accompany you throughout life, reinforcing the values and beliefs of your family as they reinforce the memories of your early life. There is no magic that makes all families good, all their beliefs true, or all their values admirable. Adult converts, for example, are forced to tear themselves away from the fabric of their families to a greater extent than most of us in order to be faithful to the truth; and this, like all human suffering, is tragic, however redemptive it turns out to be. But if two parents follow the truth where it leads them and attempt, however imperfectly, to live up to the good, then the homes they build will be the strongest possible nurseries of the faith, the places in which their children can become at home with God, with the thought of living life in God’s presence and according to His household rules. “In my Father’s house there are many mansions,” Christ reassured us — mansions enough for every member of God’s family to find a home.