“When am I getting some sisters?” my 6-year-old son Charlie asked me recently.
I knew the question was coming. When you have an only child, it’s only a matter of time before they start wondering about siblings. My wife and I had rehearsed our carefully-worded monologues about how lucky we were just to have him, and how families come in all shapes and sizes, and “Hey, who wants a dog? Let’s go get one right now. And then get some ice cream on the way home.”
Charlie’s broached the subject of his missing brothers and/or sisters before, but it’s always been a passing thought, a quickly forgotten observation like, “We don’t have a Wii yet. Can we get one? Fiiiiine, whatever.” It never had urgency. At least this was the case until he discovered The Loud House, an excellent animated series on Nickelodeon featuring a blonde 11-year-old boy named Lincoln — who looked, Charlie was quick to notice, almost exactly like him and who coexisted in a house with ten sisters. Ten bossy, irascible, egomaniacal, exasperating, always meddling, physically and emotionally abusive sisters. Or, as Charlie suddenly decided, the very thing he’d been missing all of his life.
“You see what I mean?” Charlie exclaimed, gesturing towards the TV screen in one of our many Loud House weekend binges. “Sisters just make everything better.”
He tried to explain. The sisters give Lincoln strength in numbers, an opportunity to get both lost in the crowd and emboldened by it. If a toilet got clogged, there were an abundance of likely suspects (or fall guys, depending on your culpability). If Lincoln didn’t feel like doing chores, he could go on strike and his ten sisters would eventually join him, ensuring that he wasn’t the sole bad guy.
“But you’re missing the larger message,” I argued with Charlie. “When Lincoln and his sisters go on strike, the house turns into a cesspool. The filth creates a garbage monster. A literal monster! That episode is a perfect indictment of mob mentality.”
“I don’t know what any of that means,” Charlie said with a sigh. “I just want a sister. Or a brother. Whatever you and Mommy can make happen.”
I understood his frustration. I’d grappled with it myself. I’d grown up in the ’70s with just one sibling — a younger brother — and a compelling TV argument for the virtues of an unmanageably large family. It was called The Brady Bunch, and it was irrefutable proof that my parents had failed in their responsibilities to provide me with enough comedy foils. Based on what I saw in the Brady clan, a huge family was excruciating in its complex social dynamics, but also so much more fulfilling than anything you could get from a house where you weren’t constantly waiting for your turn to use the bathroom. I didn’t have the maddening rivalry of sisters, and an extra brother competing for my parents’ love and economic resources. But if The Brady Bunch was to be believed, I was also missing out on the sense of community and belonging you could only get from a crowd.
The comforting chaos of a large family looks appealing from a distance. But when you become an adult, you realize why a big brood isn’t practical. The only way families like the Bradys or the Louds exist is because A) one of the parents has a ridiculous salary or access to a family fortune, and B) they don’t believe in birth control. Any reasonable woman is going to publically declare after her third child, “Enough people have come out of my vagina. We’re done here.”
I’ve tried explaining this to Charlie — minus the part about “coming out of a vagina” — but I can never make him understand. He always comes back with “How am I going to find the best seat in the car for a road trip if I don’t have sisters trying to stop me?” or “If I accidentally sell the baby’s blanket at a yard sale and I don’t have sisters to help me find it, what if it’s lost forever?”
“But we don’t have a baby,” I’ve reminded him. “There’s no blanket to lose. You’re worried about problems that don’t exist and solutions that don’t exist for the same reason you don’t have the problems.”
My logic bombs don’t work on him. No amount of common sense can compete with the emotional power of Loud House, where a sister who seems like your worst enemy one minute can become your only ally and co-conspirator the next, the one to cover your tracks, or play football for you when you realize you’re not in any way athletic, or teach you how to use jealousy to make your best friend recognize your social importance. The beauty of good television is that it enables you to live vicariously through the characters and imagine a life different than your own. And The Loud House allows my son to feel like part of a larger family.
I’ve given up telling Charlie he’s wrong. Cause he’s not wrong. Someday I’ll tell him that his mom and I waited too long, and how we went through years of fertility struggles just to get him, and how when you’re in your 40s you feel grateful just to have one kid as beautiful and perfect and exhausting as him. But that’s a lot to unload on a guy who’s just six. It can wait.
For now, we watch The Loud House together and laugh at the bedlam of too many people making each other’s lives difficult before they realize how much they love and depend on each other. And that will do it.