By Brian Ring
At times it is necessary for me to remind my older sister that I was the planned child. This is usually in response to her remembering a parental birthday or some other surprising feat of filial devotion. Anyone with a brother or sister will acknowledge that these instances of one-upmanship are a normal part of the pitiless dynamics of sibling relationships.
I’ve never actually dared to ask my parents if this is true, that I was the premeditated child and she was the one borne of haste, exuberance, love, or just simple accident. It’s not the type of question that readily springs forward in our family. I feel very safe to say that my sister’s arrival was, at a minimum, ill-advised. My parents both came from very modest families in rural Appalachia, and met while attending a tuition-free college in Kentucky for students from similar backgrounds. My sister was born while my mother was in her third year at the college, not long after their marriage.
Very few would describe this as a prudent decision.
I’ve never heard my parents express any regrets over my sister’s arrival. In fact they spoke with an irrational nostalgia of the tiny ramshackle cabin they moved into together after marriage. When one describes with fondness throwing a shoe to keep a rat away from the baby’s crib, you either have very low expectations for what young parenthood should be like, or have a very relaxed attitude towards poverty. Their next several years were ones that must have been difficult, or at least cluttered, with the three of them moving several times as my father worked, and then both of my parents continuing their education. My father eventually got a PhD in economics, and my mother a master’s in education.
I was born while my father had his first academic job as a professor at Columbia University. Now, secure in their early thirties, my mother could take a few years off to raise me through my early years. By the time I was in my double digits of age we were able to have summer vacations that ventured beyond visiting other relatives. Fresh milk was even purchased instead of relying on the cheaper powdered milk. Kings lived no better.
Clearly the benefits of uniting personal economy with family planning are manifold.
Or so I tell my sister. The reality of which path led to the better child may be less clear, though I would never admit that to her. Through no fault of my parents, I left home immediately after high school to attend college, and then moved across the country, and then to the other side of the country, and then eventually out of the country all together. My sister, on the other hand, stayed nearby home, always available for birthdays or when an extra hand was needed for a trip to the doctor or what have you. Her children were the grandchildren on hand, while mine were only photos or rare visits. Monetarily, neither of us proved to be a burden (nor a blessing) to our parents. If one was to tally all our scores, I wouldn’t bet on having a majority of points in my column.
Additionally, if you need to know my parents’ anniversary date or their ages, please ask my sister, as you won’t get an accurate answer from me.
Is there a lesson in this story of a parenthood, bookended by impractical and practical childbirths? Morals are best written by a story’s author, not the characters, so I’m not sure. One simple take-home message might be to not have me as your only child. As that is a feat that’s been achieved by everyone, including my parents, congratulations all around are in order. Beyond that I’m less clear. I’d describe my parents’ approach to parenthood as pragmatic optimism. That’s a common parental path, we’re buoyed by faith and hope, yet at the same time we fill our days with the down-to-earth minutia and practicalities necessary to make those dreams a likelihood. With that simple strategy, maybe details like planned vs unplanned, scheduled vs unscheduled, impulse vs prudence, don’t matter as much as we think?