When you’re a little girl, a big sister is a wonderful, yet terrible thing. She is, after all, the coolest person you know (although you’d never admit it). She’s fashionable, independent and infinitely more knowledgeable than you are; an amazing being, who can tell the most thrilling stories and play the best games. Her bedroom is a fascinating place, and her wardrobe especially, full of beautiful clothes and hidden boxes of make-up and jewellery, is a true Aladdin’s cave. Spending time with a big sister is great, but when she’s busy and can’t entertain you she’s the most horrible person in the world. Cries of ‘it’s not fair!’ were frequently heard in our household when my sister banned me from entering her room (although it was fair – she had A-levels to study for).
As time goes on, and the age gap becomes less important, you begin to understand one another better. You can look back on those childhood years, with its fierce sibling adoration [and rivalry] with fondness. As an adult, the world is much less black and white, and you begin to understand your own (as well as your sister’s) shortcomings.
I, being a much more easygoing individual than my sister, could not understand her passionate zeal over certain issues, such as the maltreatment of livestock (which led to her becoming a vegetarian) and gay and lesbian rights. Her views caused our parents to tut and shake their heads, but their even more conservative friends had no qualms about shouting her down. I was never one to enter a debate and – horror of horrors – upset anyone. I’ve always been a diplomat by nature, and my sister has been an activist, a pathfinder.
As I got older, I began to understand her nature better by learning more about the first nine years of her life when she didn’t have wonderful (?) me around. Those first years of her life were very different to mine – she grew up in a communist country, experienced a strict schooling regime and was surrounded by people who had very little in common with the Joneses next door to us in suburban England.
In my mid-twenties, I could at last admire her determined and proactive nature, but still preferred the quiet life myself. Make a fuss over poor service? Dare to argue with a stranger? Oh no, no, I was British, after all.
When my sister became a mother in her early thirties I watched and took it all in. I loved holding her baby boy and walking around with him, but when he began to cry he was quickly passed back to his mum, who instantly put him to the breast and nursed him. He never cried for long, as breastfeeding seemed to magically make everything better. When, at thirteen months old, silly Aunty played with him on the bed and he wriggled off, hitting his head on the hard, wooden floor, nursing at his mother’s breast made the pain go away, and it made me feel a little less bad. In fact, I can think of several incidents where Aunty indirectly caused him to get hurt, but his mother’s milk dried his tears. My sister, understanding how inexperienced I was with young children was always incredibly patient with me, and still allowed me ‘loose’ on her child!
About a year and a half later, I was delighted to hear that she was expecting again. The fact that she was still breastfeeding her son while heavily pregnant was imparted to me, but my brain simply filed this information away. Little did I know it would become vitally important to me at a much later date.
As we were living on different continents at the time, it was a while before I got to meet her daughter, who was almost exactly two years younger than her brother. Her little girl was a very frequent feeder, and I first met her as a charming, if rather tantrum-prone toddler. Again, I observed the calm, kind way my sister dealt with her daughter’s outbursts and stored the information away. I also knew that she was tandem feeding both children and had been co-sleeping with them for a very long time.
Years later, when I became pregnant, I knew I was going to breastfeed my child. I would do what my sister had done. After all, she was a mother to two healthy, happy children who were great fun to be around and she was obviously a wonderful parent. I would be just like her. Well, maybe not the co-sleeping and tandem feeding – after all, there were limits!
Within a few days of my daughter’s birth, we experienced some of the usual difficulties with breastfeeding – incorrect positioning, engorgement and sore nipples. We persevered (after all, if my sister had done it, so could I!) and within a relatively short time we found ourselves to be in a comfortable breastfeeding relationship. But night-times weren’t great, with me having to get out of my cosy bed to take my daughter out of her cot, which was a few paces away, breastfeed her and then very gingerly put her back, desperately hoping she’d stay asleep.
Many, many months passed that way until I really couldn’t take it any longer. I began to bring my daughter into bed with me, but didn’t feel entirely comfortable with doing so, rather like my husband. We seemed to be the only parents of our acquaintance who were prepared to do such a daring act. I phoned my sister (now living only a few countries away) who advised me to attend a local La Leche League meeting and to talk to some like-minded mums. I attended my first meeting just before my daughter’s first birthday, and it was just the lift I needed.
Co-sleeping didn’t magically make my daughter sleep for twelve hours solid, but I didn’t have to be up and down all night, which made a big difference to me. It took several months for my husband and me to get used to the new bedtime regime and when our king-size mattress finally found it’s way to the floor, and another single mattress put beside it, I had to laugh. This had pretty much been my sister and her family’s sleeping arrangements for many years. “But,” said my husband, not keen to share the joke, “I’m going to build a bed frame that lifts the mattress off the floor by an inch and a half.” The wood was ordered the very next day… (who am I to argue with a man holding a tape measure?)
Another year down the line and I began to experience the full force of my daughter’s tantrums. Some days were good, and some weren’t so good. I felt tired, emotionally drained and sometimes downright confused. Why had she got so upset about me sitting on a certain chair? It didn’t make sense to my adult brain. I had to remind myself of my sister’s example – her gentle, calm approach to helping her daughter through her toddler frustrations, and I had to make a mental readjustment, after all, my daughter was only doing what two-year-olds do.
When I happily discovered that I was pregnant again after a very long period of lactational amenorrhoea (in this I greatly differed from my sister) I continued to breastfeed my daughter, who was almost three, and still a very frequent feeder. I never even questioned whether I should or shouldn’t be doing this – my sister had done so, and I was perfectly happy to do so as well. And then it hit me; at the grand old age of thirty-three, I finally understood what a lucky little sister I was. My older sister had made my breastfeeding and mothering experience so much easier for me. Through the example of her attachment parenting, I found myself with the best guide and instructor a new mother could ask for. Because she breastfed her babies into toddlerhood, co-slept with them and tandem nursed them I could also do so without hearing criticism from my immediate family, and my husband’s family (who all had rather different opinions on how children should be raised). They were all very aware of my sister’s mothering style, and – shock horror – when her son and daughter had eventually weaned from the breast they were not spoilt, clingy individuals, but bright, happy children. So me mirroring the way she raised her children was okay. My sister had given me a wonderful gift, much better than any toys, books or baby clothes; she had given me the support and guidance to develop in my role as a mother. And I’m sure that the confidence I felt (and still feel) in my mothering choices had been given a tremendous boost by her example of attachment parenting. I will always be thankful for that.
So now that I’m all grown up, I still think that my big sis is the coolest person I know (although today, I doubt I’d ever borrow anything from her wardrobe…).
This article was first published in The Green Parent AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2010 and it can be bought here: http://thegreenparent.co.uk/about/issue/issue-36/