No Fighting, No Biting—How to Survive in a Big Family.
To begin listing lessons learned from being part of any family would be like mapping the individual genes shared between its members—an impossibly difficult task undermining the very existence of such bonds. Not all families are created equal, nor is every day identically sunny and spent in joyous company. However, to share connections so fundamentally organic with other humans—first nine months of physical being spent in the same vessel—makes petty arguments and misunderstandings irrelevant.
My parents were brave enough souls to bring seven lives into this world: seven births, seven bodies to clothe, seven little lessons. I never gave much thought to the size of my life or the sound of laughter echoing through the rafters of our Victorian house I’d like to share with you just a few of the countless pieces of wisdom I’ve learned on how to survive as a child of an above-average sized family.
1. Be granted the opportunity to be born to two adults who love children.
This is the most vital component—an “either you got it or you don’t” kind of scenario—but important nonetheless. My mom is the kind of woman who genuinely loves the birthing process, its start-to-finish, balloon-for-a-belly, its swollen ankles. Mama Bear would have had more children if she could. She did her best, starting at age 21 and ending in her 40s. If it’s in any way possible, get the kind of parents who want lots of messy handprints on the fridge.
2. Remember birthdays. Or at least birth months.
My family has a “birthday season” spanning from March to June in which almost all of my siblings’ and both parents’ birthdays are celebrated. During this time we consume disgusting amounts of Ukrop’s cake and annihilate the Birthday section of Walmart’s card aisle. This is also when we unveil one of the most revered Miller family traditions.
Raid our kitchen cabinets and junk drawers and you will find not even a single birthday candle. Since there are so many people and birthdays to celebrate, we no longer bother buying the waxy, colorful cake toppers. Instead, we turn off all of the lights and grab a flashlight. A chorus of off-key voices sing “Happy Birthday” while someone shines the flashlight on the cake. At the end of the song, the birthday sibling makes their wish by blowing on the cake, and the light holder clicks off the beam. Typically, the flash light bearer will then turn the flashlight on again, claiming that we bought a “trick flash light” rather than “trick candles.”
3. Don’t get upset with emergency room visits and property damage on major holidays.
Or any time, for that matter. Really, just roll with absolutely anything that comes at you because you don’t have time to understand or question absurdity.
It was Easter morning a few years back during our stint of Vermont life. The Cadbury egg tummy ache had set in and there was neon Easter basket grass stuck to socks and hair. Two of my older brothers, who were about 15 and 18 at the time, are outside doing sporty boy things on our four acres of land up in The Green Mountains. All was well and good until Mama Bear summoned to go outside.* My brothers had been playing an invented game in which a pitcher throws a lacrosse ball with a lacrosse stick to a batter, who then hits the ball back to the pitcher, who catches it with the lacrosse stick.
My 15-year-old brother, who just moments earlier was pitching, is found crumbled in the wet grass. After taking a lacrosse ball to the eye he is rushed to the emergency room to get his swollen face sewn back shut. I stay home to look after my little brothers and erase the gross image of the inside of a human face by flying our new Easter kites and eating jelly beans.
*Anytime a mother is requested, please have a phone nearby to call the fire department or an ambulance.
4. Patience isn’t a virtue—it’s a survival strategy.
You just have to be patient with everything in life, no matter how painful or mundane the passage of time may be. Be patient with 13 hour long car rides; be patient with baseball tournaments when you can’t stand the smell of concession stand burgers and field dirt anymore. Be patient with cancer test results and the status of loved ones in the hospital. Be patient while waiting for the arrival of new family members and for fresh brownies to cool.
As the fifth child I watched my older siblings get their driver’s licenses and stay up later than my curfew allowed. I don’t know if I could have ever aged a day if it hadn’t been for some amount of reluctant patience. I’d probably still be five years old and dressed in my prized lion costume if it weren’t for a solid belief that one day I would grow enough to be an equal.
5. Develop a sense of humor that keeps you smiling as you watch the last train pull away from the station at 2am. Life likes to play jokes on innocent, unsuspecting people. Brothers like to play jokes on innocent, unsuspecting sisters. Either way, you can’t take life personally and you have to be able laugh. Laugh at your own misfortune; laugh at others when they slip on ice. Laugh when your keys get locked in your car or when you flunk a test you slaved hours in isolated preparation for.
It’s all kind of funny if you think about it. Life is like a little prankster, and the angrier you get the more it laughs at you. If you laugh at yourself, at least you’ll maintain
sanity. Or you’ll just look crazy laughing to yourself as a grease fire burns your house to the ground.
My brothers constantly pick on one another and myself; I’d be a filthy stinkin’ liar if I said I didn’t return the favor. If you get a verbal smack you have to be quick and give a better one right back. Laughter can make humiliation feel inclusive rather than degrading.
Big families can be complex units of humans, each trying to find themselves while bearing some semblance of unity. With so many lives and personalities intermingling, it can be difficult to avoid mishaps or keep in touch with everyone as much as you’d like. However, if you just keep smiling and accept all that comes your way, then you can handle finding out that your sister is moving to Germany, or that your brother may not survive to be a day old. When it rains at the beach or you have to move states away on your 11th birthday, you are strong enough to face the adventures ahead. Call those brothers and be grateful that even if you end up alone, at least you’ll always have someone else’s Christmas to mooch off of!