How to Grow Up with Three Little Brothers

I am the eldest child in my family and the only daughter. Beneath me are three younger brothers ages 22, 14, and 12. I know this is next to impossible advice to give to any child in any family structure ever, but if you are a girl and you have the chance to be put into a living situation where you are surrounded by dudes 24/7, I say do it. DO IT.

There wasn’t always three of them and one of me. For about a decade of my childhood, it was just my brother Earl and I. We were only two years apart and spent a lot of our time together. Sometimes this was fun, like when we would sprint each other home from school to watch The Land Before Time III (again) and eat Cheetos out of a big bowl together. Other times, like when I wanted to go a girlfriend’s house after school and he wanted to come with me, this was not fun. That was more like babysitting than anything else. But for the most part, we were totally happy, content kids and during this time in my life, the mischief level of our household was operating well below the average bad kid radar.

Then the decade was up and my parents made the big announcement to us: we were going to have a baby in the household. Note the lack of exclamation marks. My parents were never like the ones I’d see in movies or read about in books that would approach the kids beforehand and ask them how they felt about getting a brother or sister addition to the fam. My parents just told us what was up and that was that. You could fight about it all you wanted and scream and cry and act out, but it still wouldn’t change anything. A baby would still be on its way in 9 months.

So it came to pass that when I was in the 5th grade busy one afternoon learning how to type on our Timon & Pumbaa Lion King computer typing game, my principal (who was subbing our class for the day) came up to me and placed his hand on my shoulder while I was trying to listen to Rafiki. “Heather,” he told me in a serious, gruff voice, “Your mom is giving birth to your brother in the hospital right now.”

“Okay,” I told him and turned back around in my chair to keep on typing. I remember hearing all of my classmates whisper in the background, stuff about “awww” and “cute!” and I think the phrase “big sister”, too. But what did they expect me to do? Jump up out of my chair and squeal with joy? Run from my middle school all the way to the hospital to see my mother in action?  I had absolutely no idea which hospital she was even at. All I could do was just sit there, finish the day and wait out the arrival of my new baby brother Neil at my mother’s friend’s house. And little did I know, I’d repeat a similar process two years later when Ethan was born.

Here are some notes to keep in mind when it comes to living with three little brothers:

Be Noisy

My parents’ house is routinely considered to be the loudest on the block. Considering that their house is directly across the street from my former high school, that’s a thing of pride to my family. Back when I used to live there, I would walk home from work in the summertime when we kept all of the windows open and hear my brothers screaming from well over a block away. Then I’d pop into the house and begin screaming too. That’s how we spoke to one another: in screams.

I remember when I was little, I used to hear this weird phrase “indoor voice” used by teachers. I also noticed that when I would visit a friend’s house, the decibel level was notably softer than my own home. But then again, I had zero friends who were only daughters in a sea of boys, so that might account for something.

Yelling was and still is the only way to get heard and noticed in a family filled with little brothers. One will start shouting, the next one will shout louder to get their point across. A soft voice will never be an alpha in our household; you need to scream the loudest if you want the most attention paid to you. We never just limited ourselves to our volume, either. There was a drum set in the far corner of our living room so if someone felt like bashing on the cymbals with the drumsticks at 5:30 in the morning, we would all be awake in a matter of minutes. We’d be seeing red, but we’d be awake.

Understand Being Gross

So. Very. Gross. We’ve all embarrassed each other to death out in public spaces, anywhere from the mall where my brothers would try to “get lost” on purpose to even a baptism at church. It’s all fair game. Even at home it didn’t end, especially at home where the nudity and dirty jokes ran wild and free. I remember one time I tricked Earl into playing a game with me when our relatives were over that was called “Drunk”. Basically, we lay around on the floor moaning and pretending to throw up and whenever anyone asked us what was wrong, we told them we were drunk off the beer from our parents’ fridge. Good times, good times as a Midwestern child.

You learn to take the gross moments with a grain of salt, though. The older I got, the more I went through phases where I was completely horrified by my family. During these times, I would try to better myself from them. When I started living on my own, I would come home occasionally and usually be really dressed up. I’ll be the first to say it – I looked like the typical joyless yuppie workaholic you see in the movies who gets their shirt drenched in ketchup by a little kid at the dinner table and totally freaks out and makes the kid cry.

In my defense, though, when you’re gone for a time away from your family, you get to create your own world. Your own little sanitized yuppie world. You learn to live without swearing like a sailor and suddenly, you feel as though yes, yes you might enjoy getting something described as “rustic” from Pottery Barn. Or you can go travel somewhere and stay at a hotel and know that it won’t be a Motel 6 with half the lights in the word “Motel” burnt out.

But when you go back to your family, there’s a sense of relief that comes with the gross times. You don’t have to “be” super big and important for days on end. You can breathe easy. Relax. Quote lines from Stepbrothers and Tropic Thunder. What my family has always wanted is for me to be myself with them. Be comfortable enough to not only laugh at that potty joke but make a better one in response. Sometimes I don’t like making these jokes, but deep down, they still make the corners of my lips turn upward. Kids, man, kids.

You’ve Got Their Backs

When I was in grade school, I was totally obsessed with shows like America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries and even with watching the news. Every night, I got routinely petrified at the idea of somebody abducting my little brothers from our family. Why was this so scary to me? We all walked to and from school from our house in the mornings. My grade school at the time was a good five blocks away from our home and I would routinely have dreams of Earl getting snatched. All it would take for that kid was a stranger saying, “Hey, I’ve got a new pack of Pokemon cards in my van,” and that child would have been a goner. Even though I only had Earl to be responsible for at the time, I let my morbid thoughts be my guide when it came to finding different streets to go down each way there and back. Streets with a lot of cars and traffic that is.

I won’t let anyone make fun of my little brothers or treat them poorly outside of our family. Within the family, it’s a different thing. We’d never tease each other daily to the point of dreading the sight of that person. When we tease, it’s all good and in the moment. Brotherly and sisterly love. People outside of the family, namely classmates from school, take this to a whole new level of douchery that is never justified. People like to think that boys don’t get it as bad as girls but they do. Sometimes they get it on both ends, actually. A mean bully kid can come in a girl or guy form and both are be downright cruel. Luckily for me, my little brothers are no longer as little as they once were and are really good about sticking up for themselves. Sometimes they do get into fights, though, and for a hot second there, our family’s life is akin to an episode of Malcolm in the Middle, but then the whole episode gets straightened out and we save the day with pizza or ice cream.

I guess if you come away from this post knowing anything about the art of living with boys, know that there is a whole lot of dirtiness and chasing each other around the house and stealing the last piece of cake from someone. But deeper than that, there’s a whole lot of love. And that’s the most I’ll say on the topic before this post starts talking about feelings and other gag-suppressant thoughts like that.

Boys, man, boys.