Every week, starting when I was ten, my mother took me on a forty-five-minute drive to ballet school. We kept up this routine for two years, until it became clear that no amount of lessons would ever turn graceless, waistless me into the Sugar Plum Fairy. But if those car trips didn’t lead to the dancing career I’d dreamed of, they gave me something I prized even more: time alone with my mother. Ballet night was the one night of the week I didn’t have to share her with my sister and my father. During those long rides to and from dancing school and at dinner in a coffee shop after class, I had her all to myself and was the center of her attention. It was bliss.
I can’t be sure that all children want to have their parents to themselves, but I certainly did—and so did my kids. Just as my husband and I needed time alone together, my son and daughter made it clear they craved time alone with one or the other of us, mostly by asking unsubtle questions that included the phrase “just the two of us?”
I suspect that even the closest of siblings sometimes fleetingly wish that they were only children and could have their own rooms, their own stuff, their own moms and dads. This is hardly surprising; if kids have a tough time sharing their toys, how much tougher must it be for them to share their parents?
Recognizing our own kids’ desire to have at least one of us all to themselves, their father and I tried to give them an equal portion of our undivided attention by pairing off and doing things separately with one or the other of them. This practice allowed us to address their dissimilar interests and concerns and kept in balance the exquisitely calibrated scale of fairness all siblings seem to have implanted in their brains. We never had to field the question regularly heard in other households of four or more: “How come he (she) gets to do that and I don’t?”
My son, for instance, has always loved the outdoors in general and hiking in particular, something his sister has loathed apparently since birth. So, when he and his father would go off hiking together on weekends in the spring and fall, she and I would go to visit Grandma, who lived two states away and baked the best banana bread within a thousand-mile radius. And while the guys were bonding over trail mix, she and I were driving westward and talking about everything under the sun, from what she would wear for Halloween to the ever-shifting allegiances of fourth-grade female friendships. In fact, it was during one of these three-hour drives to Grandma’s house that my then nine-year-old little girl asked me if a teenager could have a baby. The question triggered our first serious talk about how her body would soon start to change and what that would mean as far as having babies was concerned. It was a conversation we could never have had at, say, the family dinner table.
My husband and I made sure that we didn’t always pair off girls on one side, boys on the other. So, I was the one who took our son shopping when it came time to buy him his first suit, and my husband was the one who took our daughter to play in her soccer team’s first weekend match. The result was that he got to cheer when she made her first and (as it turned out) only goal of the season, while I got to catch my breath at how handsome my son looked in blue serge. I’ll never forget how, at lunch that day, he looked up shyly from his cheeseburger and told me about the “really pretty” classmate he planned to ask to the seventh-grade dance.
Through the years, moments like these helped the four of us develop unique relationships with one another that were subtly different from the ones we had as a foursome. I believe these supplementary bonds strengthened us, both as a family and as individuals, because they satisfied a deep-seated and universal human desire. The fact is that no matter how good it feels to be an integral part of a family unit, all of us—big and small alike—yearn for intimate, one-to-one connections with the people we love.
Bette-Jane Raphael is a journalist and a writing coach at The City College of New York. She has two children.