Chris Bernholdt thought that having kids would only make his family bigger. That wasn’t the case.
Having kids is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me, but I didn’t realize that it meant I was going to lose my brother in the process. Oh, he is very much alive, however, there is nothing between us anymore. I lost my brother a long time ago.
I expected that, when my wife and I had kids, we would lose touch with our friends that weren’t into kids—the hardcore partiers, the couples that could barely keep a plant alive let alone a person. I never imagined it would be my own brother who would disappear. But, as soon as my son was born, my older brother slowly vanished from our lives and, try as I might, he just seemed to move further and further away. Family can be your towering strength in the hardest of times when you are close, but they can also be your greatest weakness when you aren’t.
My older brother is ten years older than me. He was always doing things that I couldn’t do. “You’re just not old enough to play this” or “You are just not old enough to go here,” he would say. When he would let me do something with him, like running bases, I thought it was the greatest thing to be hanging out with the older guys.
My family used to live in a suburb of Chicago. My older brother lived a town over from where my wife and I bought our first house together. However, despite our geographical closeness, my brother and I inexplicably drifted further apart. I only noticed this change once we started our own family.
Suddenly, our brotherhood didn’t seem to mean that much to him. His wife would cut our kids’ hair, but even that limited interaction felt forced. The small talk was curt and uncomfortable. They never wanted to come over to our house. They never offered to watch the kids. They didn’t participate in family functions. They showed absolutely no interest in my burgeoning family.
I wasn’t raised that way at all. When I was young, in the summers, we would get together and swim at my Aunt and Uncle’s house. We had barbeques and the cousins all played in the backyard. Christmas was a special time for our family and we all celebrated it together. My dad has three brothers and their relationships were important. We had cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents all stay at our house every year. It was a Griswold kind of Christmas. My mom even lovingly referred to my dad as Sparky.
Family would come in from Virginia, Wisconsin, and Arkansas to be together for the holidays. We gave up rooms to our grandparents and bunked up together to make everyone fit. Every year, we would line up all the cousins on my mom’s staircase to take a photo. As we grew older, it became harder to stay on those stairs but we always managed it—we made the effort to be close.
But, after my brother had his children and I had my own, it became apparent that those regular family functions wouldn’t include him or his family and he distanced himself from the rest of us. My parents don’t know why he is this way. My other brothers don’t get it either. He’s the sort of guy that likes old school communication. He’s not on Facebook, he doesn’t respond to emails. Call him on the phone and he may not answer especially if he knows who it is. (As you can imagine, I just love leaving a message on an answering machine for a person I don’t really know any more.)
His three daughters are beautiful and talented young women but I don’t know them at all. I used to be friends with my nieces on Facebook but even that became strained when their values clashed with mine. I guess trying to be their friend was the last shred that I was hanging onto—hoping that we could one day develop a normal niece-and-uncle relationship. My brother apparently never stressed to them that knowing their uncle was important. (Don’t even get me started on how much my brother touts himself as a Christian, but, in reality, treats his own family like strangers.)
And, when we finally moved away from Illinois, I had to accept the fact that, for all intents and purposes, my family ceased to exist to his family.
We still maintain to our kids that family is important. When my kids were little, my wife made something we call a family book. It’s a photo album of all the people who are in our family and we’ve been looking at their ageless faces for five years now. Thanks to the book, my kids know my brother’s family by faces and names, but don’t really get who they are. After all, they haven’t made an effort to know us since 2008 and they only hear how we are doing through my parents, who now act like the moderators of a familial war where everyone knows that neither side is ever going to concede.
I tried to make an effort to stay connected when we moved away, but relationships are a two-way street. Who wants to be in a relationship where the other person makes no effort? It just won’t work. So I gave up and it hurt like hell. Now I don’t like to just roll over and give up on anything, but what are my options? Do I swallow my resentment and try again? What if he rejects me all over? How do other families deal with this?
How do I explain to my kids that they should always be there for one another—that the bond between siblings is a thing to be treasured and defended—when my sibling clearly demonstrates to them that, even within their own family, there are those who find that bond to be an incredibly easy thing to dismiss?
As I said, I anticipated that, when we had kids, our relationships with our friends might change, but I never expected it to happen with family. I thought that having your own family—your own spouse, your own kids—would only deepen the bond you had with the family you grew up with. So why does having kids sometimes cause the ones closest to us to walk away?
Credit: Original uncropped photo—Tom Williams/Flickr