Cousins can be complicated

By Antonia Malchik

“How was the movie?” I asked my son. He shrugged.

My dad had invited my eight-year-old for a post-New Year’s excursion to see The Force Awakens along with two of my nieces.

“Cassie called me a jerk,” he mumbled. He looked downcast as he walked in, his face half-ashamed, half-angry, and escaped to his room.

If Cassie had been simply a friend I would have known how to comfort my son through it; if she’d been a sibling I could have sat them down together. But she was his cousin, inhabiting a territory of relationship that was far closer than most but not quite in a realm that allowed me to speak with her like I was her mother.

To say I was heartbroken would be overstating it, but I was disappointed. My sisters and I had been closer than most siblings I knew ever since childhood, and although we lived in different states we wanted our children to experience something of that closeness with one another. In fact, we wanted their relationships to go beyond that—to give them the sense of extended family that we, with our sparse relatives, had never had. A tribe. We hoped for this even though we lived thousands of miles apart and couldn’t afford to visit often.

My older sister, Cassie’s mother, and I hadn’t been able to get our families together for almost two years. When she finally scraped enough to send the girls to our house for New Year’s, I innocently thought the cousins would all click, just as they had the last time when Cassie was nine, my son and Cassie’s sister Emily were both six, and my own daughter was four. Back then—only eighteen months but an enormous stretch in maturity and expectations—they’d shrieked together in lakes and explored streams and curled up to watch movies and listen to stories like a pile of fond puppies. My kids had cried when Cassie and Emily returned home to California.

A year and a half later, Cassie was suddenly tall and a solidly pre-teen eleven, less interested in her little cousins, and Emily was engrossed in her own internal world in a way that left my daughter feeling sad and lonely. I yearned for them to revel in the fortune of having what I’d wished for all through my childhood—cousins that they could rely on and relate to and love, and aunts who would be as close to them as their own mothers—yet I couldn’t kid myself that their relationship was my responsibility.

I would have laughed more at the post-Star Wars situation if I hadn’t been chagrined at my own naiveté, and if I hadn’t had to acknowledge that my disappointment had nothing to do with the kids.

I grew up knowing no cousins at all, and it was years before I could identify the slight ache that plagued me as I watched my friends play with their numerous nearby relations, or head off to family reunions. It was envy. I longed for that feeling of belonging. My family was anemic by comparison. I had only one cousin, and she lived in the Soviet Union, which in the 1980s was a place my father was still exiled from. I didn’t even know what she looked like. My family was tight-knit and insular: my mother and father, two sisters, my mother’s taciturn parents, a legacy of cats. I wanted aunts and uncles and piles of cousins to explore the Montana wilderness with, girls and boys who understood me and made me laugh, more than friends but not as close as my sisters.

That dream was never going to happen, and I knew that I wanted my kids to have the opportunity for something different. My sisters and I have seven children all together, and each of us wanted their relationships with their cousins to be a defining foundation of their childhoods. We would bring them together for summer breaks and Christmas holidays and they would romp and run wild and form all sorts of secret bonds of which we’d know nothing.

What I didn’t imagine was that we’d have my two oldest nieces visiting for New Year’s, and they’d go out to a movie with my son and their collective grandparents, and my son would come back crestfallen and angry because his cousin had called him a jerk for making poop jokes. And that I wouldn’t know how to deal with it. I had always imagined that my nieces and nephew would be able to turn to me as easily as they would their own mothers, and that I would know how to relate to them as naturally as I did my own kids. But they didn’t, and I didn’t, and I no longer knew how to proceed.

Cassie was the first baby born in my family. I visited when she was two weeks old, and spent hours holding her, humming to her, marveling over her tiny fingers and not-so-tiny voice. Somehow after I had my own children I imagined my sister and I were raising our kids on exactly the same trajectory, as if they were absorbing their aunts’ parenting and lifestyles all the way across the country, especially given our interminably long phone conversations. Because we were close, I thought our kids would be part of that closeness, part of that sisterly understanding that so often doesn’t require words.

Cousins are more complicated than I’d realized. They give more than I thought possible, with the sibling-like relationship that challenges and strengthens a child’s personality. But they also demand more than I’d ever known. Cousins allow an intimacy that friendship, at least at the ages my kids are now, does not, and at the same time they force a refinement of behavior that is not required for their own nuclear family (if I could get my son to stop making poop jokes for our sake I would have done it a long time ago). And for myself, I’ve had to face the reality that among all the busy, exhausting work of raising young children, forming bonds requires work, too. It means not just time spent together, but active effort to become a presence in my nieces’ and nephew’s lives. If I want to be able to say, “Knock it off” to them as easily as I do my own kids, without it being hurtful, it’s going to take a lot more work on my part.

do want my kids to have something I never had. But I am no longer a child yearning for the comfort of extended family. I’m the aunt, the one doing the extending, and also a mother, the one charged with raising and protecting her own little brood. I have no experience in how the dynamics between these two roles work. As all of these kids grow, the line between mother and aunt may diminish or broaden in a given year. The choices about how to keep our bonds strong while honoring our differences and boundaries will be up to all of us, our tribe, our family, to determine. Maybe that evolution of family is what I’ve really always longed for.

Antonia Malchik writes about parenting, environment, and education for a variety of publications, and is the managing editor of STIR Journal.

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