As children, my four siblings and I were gravitationally bound to one another like star clusters; as adults, we are now sprawled out among different states like satellites. Our families reconnect with the help of video chats: my brother’s children wave hello, breaking open an after-school snack in the California sun as mine clear their dinner plates under a full moon. Our family tree is held together synthetically, its limbs wireless, its trunk rooted in memory.
If my siblings lived near me, we would see each other often, providing the type of meaningful support only possible with decades of nuanced history at its fulcrum. Instead, with my husband working outside our home for 14 hours a day, I have grown accustomed to managing our household and family alone.
This spring, I clicked on an e-mail from my younger and only sister.
“Could Charlie and I come stay with you this summer?” she wrote eagerly. Charlie is my nephew—a cherubic blonde with a husky voice and a tight grip, more agile on his chubby feet than my 3-year-old.
My sister is a drama teacher during the school year, and her husband, like mine, works full time, all the time. She worried that becoming a stay-at-home mom for her only child this summer would be isolating. Her neighborhood outside of Washington D.C. is lovely, but it’s not chock full of families with young children like my town, north of Boston. I am a freelancer, so I work part-time from home. My community—friends for my kids and for me—provides a crucial component of support and fullness in my life, especially since I don’t have family living nearby. I could understand my sister’s feeling.
Still, I wrinkled my nose at the thought of extended houseguests, especially when one of them is a baby, a species of child that I no longer wish to call my own. Reluctantly, I read on.
According to her plan, my sister and I would spend several weeks together with our children this summer. Her husband would join us on weekends. I imagined this would amount to a loud, smelly house brimming with needs. It sounded awful. I hated seeing it that way—couldn’t I have an open heart and home, especially for my beloved sister? At first, the honest answer was no, and not just because I was used to going it alone.
My own kids are now 9, 7, and 3. The three of them are happy, healthy, and well fed, but my own needs are often victims of neglect. Most default parents I know, both working and not, say the same thing. My latest personal manifesto states that I will soon take time (maybe this summer or fall!) to collect the pieces of myself that parenthood has blown into the stratosphere as if by common box fan, and stick them back together with Mod Podge. I didn’t need to be giving away more of my time to more people, I thought, I needed to be taking it back for myself.
Even so, the more I thought about my sister’s plan, the more I sensed that she was on to something.
In July and August when our children (and students) are out of school, our lives melt into fluid, molten versions of normal. We spend more time during these summer months planning for what we will do come September than we do conducting business as usual. Our days are patch-worked, our allegiance to the clock slippery—weekly schedules become mere temporary affairs. By the time the structure of fall arrives again, we are usually exhausted, and grateful.
What if, I thought, we followed my sister’s merry plan and did summer differently this year?
Soon, her enthusiasm for the idea became contagious, a la the coxsackie virus that we all passed around like hors d’oeuvres at two recent family reunions. I imagined a sort of talk soup nirvana, where my sister and I could have actual conversations at night like we used to before being interrupted by sticky hands and homework problems.
Having another adult around every day could help me set up a framework for the summer that I can live with. Of course I could do that by myself—I always do—perhaps even with occasional help from a babysitter or summer camp, but having my sister here would knock both of us out of isolation and into the same orbit. If we had equal responsibilities—to work, to play, to keep the bathroom faucet from running all day—maybe we could accomplish more for our selves and our families than we could apart. That my sister would voluntarily participate in my daily madness was, frankly, flattering.
Beyond that, with an 18-month old tottering around the house helping himself to the paper towels, dog food, and anything else within reach, my kids would learn a good lesson in building community with children who are not exactly their age or developmental stage. It would also be a good lesson for me: I have been knocking around the league of parenthood for over nine years, but my sister is only one and a half years in. Sometimes, it’s good to shake things up and see what other combinations constitute normal.
I miss my sister in a way that I will never be able to reconcile as long as we live in separate, large cities and root for different teams. If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity to be together now, we may never have the chance again. When she shacks up in my guest room, I can borrow her face soap when I finish my own. When I burn our dinner, she’ll cheerfully suppose that it’s been caramelized. She’ll notice that we’re running out of bananas and toilet paper, and because her son is still in diapers, she’ll remember to take out the trash before my dog dives into it.
Maybe we’ll slow down and delight in being with our children rather than speeding around, checking off tasks and wishing it didn’t seem impossible to get everything done alone. Or maybe we’ll feel like we can’t wait to get back to our normal lives where we are in control—either way, we win.
It’s lonely out here, trying to strike some kind of balance between self and family, family and world. This summer, together with our four children, my sister and I will embrace the old It Takes a Village adage, at least temporarily. If it sounds like some kind of new-age, dippy Utopia, that’s because it will be, or so I hope.
A few days after mulling it over, I called my sister to confirm our summer plans. She was playing in the backyard with Charlie, keeping him up past bedtime because the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and that’s what people do in Washington D.C. when those of us in Boston are still waiting for the snow to melt.
“Say hi to your aunt!” My sister coaxed him. I heard smacking and gurgling, and then wind crackling over the line. “He’s smiling at you!” she promised.
I took her word for it. We’ll have plenty of time to ogle each other in person this summer.
Samantha Shanley is a writer and editor who blogs about parenting at Simtasia and tweets @SimShanley. She is a D.C. native who now lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children. And, temporarily, her sister and nephew.
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