These boys don't often cough up love for one another, but when I catch these fleeting gestures -- one boy calls, the other answers -- I feel the strings pull taut. I think that maybe, just maybe, I've managed to give them a family.
09/24/2013 12:12 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

Years ago, when I was still trying to decide whether or not to add a third child to our family (never mind a fourth), I attended the wedding of two dear friends in Chicago. The bride was the baby of her large family, the groom the middle of three brothers. It was the speeches that got to me that thick summer night in a museum gallery in downtown Chicago, particularly those of the groomsmen: the brothers roasted the groom with love and laughter, using the language and the memories only three brothers could know. As they spoke, I could feel strings of family and love pulled taut throughout the room, and they moved me. I wanted that for my boys, then only ages 4 and 2. I wanted them to be entwined with family, to know private jokes, to have each other's backs, to share a common language. The following fall, we conceived our third son.

Yeah. Well. That pretty picture is not exactly the scene I see every day in my home. I still have hope that someday, my kids will have that camaraderie I saw at my friends' wedding, but most days, it's nowhere to be found. I have three boys with three very distinct, often conflicting, personalities. Instead of having each other's backs, my boys often sport scratches and bruises courtesy of each other. They sometimes throw video game controllers at each other. They often say mean, hurtful things to each other -- reckless but calculated words that I know cut to their cores and leave marks on their hearts. They fight over food, over video games, over favorite spots on the couch. It's less like The Cosby Show around here and more like WWF. The fighting can be miserable; this morning, one brother actually pried a piece of turkey bacon from another's mouth. (Brothers, I have found, fight over food. A lot. As if we didn't have, oh, twenty more pieces of turkey bacon at the ready.)

I don't want to push my kids to love each other. I don't believe that closeness can be manufactured. Instead, I try to foster it through shared experiences. But I come from a family of two children, as does my husband, and we are winging it (big time) when it comes to raising four children in one household. We don't always know how to perfectly execute "fair" when there are so many competing needs and wants simultaneously. I've resigned myself to the fact that I will never be able to make everyone happy all of the time. Also, that my kids will likely need therapy.

One day this week, we had a crazy afternoon. My oldest had to complete a big math project and a mound of other homework. He went to flag football practice at 5 p.m. My second boy had flag football practice at 5:30 p.m. in a different park. After I dropped him off, I took my younger two kids to the grocery store -- my THIRD grocery trip that day, if I was keeping count, and I was. I waded through the store with a hungry 5-year-old and a stick-a-fork-in-her done baby, and then I rushed home to drop the groceries in the kitchen before hopping back in the car to pick up my oldest from practice. We ended up parked outside the park where my second boy was finishing his practice. Everyone was exhausted, hungry, sweaty and dirt-streaked, including me.

I was sitting in the front seat of my minivan, holding the baby and trying to keep her entertained for the last 10 minutes before we could grab the final child and go home for dinner. My oldest sat in the third row sulking because he couldn't believe he was being made to wait for someone else, especially his little brother. My littlest boy was leaning out the middle window, using the outside of my van as a drum set. It became background noise to the point where I barely even noticed it:

Thump-thump-thump. Thump-thump-thump.

Thump-thump-thump. Thump-thump-thump.

He kept beating, rhythmically, staring out into the dusky sky, while I watched the baby manically pull and push buttons and knobs on my dashboard, setting the windshield wipers on, activating my turn signal. Suddenly, I noticed that the drumbeat had an answer:

Thwack-thwack-thwack. Thwack-thwack-thwack.

What in the world? I turned my head over my shoulder, and beyond my youngest boy, I saw my middle son walking toward the car, a water bottle in one hand, his mouthguard dripping out of his smiling mouth. He beat the bottle into his hand:

Thwack-thwack-thwack. Thwack-thwack-thwack.

I saw the boys' eyes meet, and a smile turned up the corners of my youngest boy's mouth. He opened the door for his brother, who lumbered in, sweat glistening around his eyes, and dropped himself in the third row. We were ready to go.

It was a small moment, but I felt it completely. These boys don't often cough up love for one another, but when I catch these fleeting gestures -- one boy calls, the other answers -- I feel the strings pull taut. I think that maybe, just maybe, I've managed to give them a family. In the next breath, one might throw a cleat at the other's head or blow up his house on Minecraft, it's true. But I have hope that while each boy definitely marches to his own drumbeat, once in a while, they might march side-by-side. They might even sometimes answer the other's call in a language they will know from their shared childhoods. One day, I hope they find refuge and reassurance, strength and love, there. For now, I'll take the fact that they all laugh at the same potty jokes as a good sign.

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