“But she likes it,” my middle daughter insists, a pleading expression on her face. I scoop the baby into my arms, rescuing her from her big sister, who is having a hard time grasping my firm no-banging-toys-on-Violet’s-head rule.
I sigh. It is at least the third time we’ve had this exact conversation, and I know how it is going to go.
“Just because she isn’t crying doesn’t mean you should hit her on the head with the ball. It’s not a good game. Would you like it if I hit your head over and over with the ball?” I am seriously tempted to do this. Even though these beautiful girls are both mine to cherish, I feel a very strong urge right now to put my older daughter in her place, to defend the baby with my body.
Yet for months, I have been trying very hard not to give Caitlin reason to resent her little sister. She had a hard time accepting her role as the middle child, and she can see that Violet absorbs a lot of my attention—attention that used to belong to her. Somehow I know coming down too hard on Caitlin will not help matters. With difficulty, I swallow the feeling that she is old enough to know better.
Caitlin huffs and rotates her body away from me. She is annoyed I caught her, annoyed that she lost access to her living doll baby.
Sweet Violet does not protest being snatched away from the truck she was playing with, just like she did not protest being used as a human anvil. She has already moved on to smacking me in the chest and attempting to scratch the freckles right off.
I stand there for another minute, studying the back of Caitlin’s head, her rumpled hair. She is ignoring me and has begun to play with a few stray trains that happen to be nearby. I am left feeling superfluous as I watch her, shifting my weight back and forth and trying to decide whether this is a battle worth pursuing or whether I have already said enough.
One of the great struggles of my overly wordy life is learning to just be quiet after delivering my message. Letting it simmer. Not beating the dead horse. (See what I mean?)
I sigh again and move off, smushing my nose into Violet’s cheek and nuzzling until she giggles and twists to grab my glasses. I like to try to press my love right through her skin.
Maybe that’s where Caitlin gets it from.
Caitlin has an unflappable belief that she is Violet’s favorite person. In the mornings, when I am waking everyone up, Caitlin bounds into her sister’s room and dances wildly next to the crib. Violet is happy when she catches sight of me; she is often already peeking over the wooden rail and smiling when I open the door. But when Violet sees Caitlin, she seems to spark to life. She bobs up and down, stamping her feet against the mattress. Her eyes follow the frantic flailing of Caitlin’s limbs, and she squeals to mirror her sister’s enthusiasm.
“She’s happy because she sees me!” Caitlin informs me, grabbing my hand. “She loves me.”
It’s never I love her. Always the other way.
It took Caitlin almost a year to realize that “taking care” of Violet might be fun. She started small, as a self-appointed watchdog—Mommy, Violet’s taking all the books off the shelf! Mommy, Violet’s crawling to the stairs!—and escalated cautiously to scolding other family members when they dare to offer Violet a handful of Cheerios because she has claimed that job as her own.
She takes her responsibility as big sister seriously (most of the time). She considers herself an authority on why Violet is crying and what Violet wants. Mommy, Violet is tired. Mommy, Violet wants to play with my Legos. She believes she is the only one who can comfort Violet, and she won’t turn a blind eye on her sister’s distress. “It’s all riiiiiiiiight, it’s alllllll riiiiiiiiiiight,” she croons when Violet bucks against the car seat straps, wanting to break free. “I’m right heeeere,” she assures her baby sister on long drives. I can see her in my rearview mirror, reaching her hands up and waving to catch Violet’s attention.
I wonder: does she know this is love? This instinct to meet needs, to create peace in the midst of a storm?
Sure, she’s imperfect at it. (So am I.) Sometimes she shows her love by chasing Violet—which starts as a game and ends, usually, with a crash. Sometimes she tries to lay on top of her, or even bang her on the head with a ball.
She might not say the words, but her love is a verb.
I make it halfway to the kitchen before I reconsider.
I don’t want to give up on encouraging my two girls to become friends. I know it’s my job to lay the building blocks in these young years. I’ve never had a sister, so maybe this is naïve, but I want my daughters to grow up and trust each other and share with each other and go on vacations together and…well, anything else sisters do when they love each other beyond reason.
A sister should be a best friend you can’t get rid of.
I walk back to the front of the house, where Caitlin studiously fits together a train track.
I crouch down beside her and stand the baby in front of me. Violet is grabbing, reaching for the tracks at her feet. She has no idea that anything went wrong.
“Caitlin,” I say gently. She looks up, her long hair falling in front of her eyes. “Do you know that Violet is God’s special gift to you? She is your best friend. No matter what, she will always be your sister. God gave Violet to you and you to Violet because He loves you!”
Caitlin stares at me impassively. She has barely started making friends of her own. She likes to tell me that she has 20 friends, a crew made of preschoolers she met at church and the playground, whose names she hasn’t bothered to remember (except Peter). She thinks she has enough. She thinks that asking someone to be her friend is all a friendship needs. She doesn’t yet realize that friendships—and sisters—require ongoing care, even when it’s inconvenient.
“Caitlin, will you please apologize to Violet for hitting her on the head?” I ask after a minute.
She scoots over and looks down at Violet, who has wrenched free from my grasp and is sitting on top of two train tracks, trying to pull them out from underneath her. “I’m sorry for hitting you, Violet,” she mumbles. Then she extends her arms and carefully wraps them around Violet’s head in what could pass for a hug if I interpret generously.
“Tell her you love her,” I prompt. This is part of our standard apology procedure. Sorry-hug-love-forgiveness. I hope someday this will become second nature. I hope my children will be willing to admit when they are wrong and quick to extend grace to others. I hope they will treat each other kindly for years to come.
Caitlin takes a deep breath.
“I love you, Violet.”
Melissa Hogarty lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and three very loud and silly children. She believes deeply in the power of reading and the love of Christ. She loves to bake, sing loudly, and make her own home décor. She blogs about food, faith, and family over at Savored Grace, and you can also find her on Instagram.