I had no pom poms, uniforms or acrobatic tricks — but I grew up as the designated cheerleader for my parents and siblings. 

I was the youngest of three. My two sisters were a year apart and tangled in one of those sibling knots that happen when people are born close together. I was four years younger, free and clear, seemingly optimistic and friendly, a perfect cheerleader. 

Do we have disheartened players on the field? Let me get out there and drum up some spirit! 

That was my adopted role. 

Was it nature, or necessity? Who knows? Whatever inspired it, it eased the discomfort of a family full of anxiety. Someone had to provide the cheers or tell the jokes to make people laugh around the dinner table. I was fine being my family cheerleader.

One after the other, my sisters left home. By default, because my parents were shy and untraveled people, I became the designated visitor. Each time one of my sisters moved, my dad bought me a ticket and sent me on my way. I went to Vermont, to Wisconsin, to Colorado, to Oregon. West and further west, and then as far west as you could go. I was the on-the-ground reporter, gathering information and bringing it home, where I would re-assume my cheerleader role and assure my mom and dad that everything was fine.

I was a detail-sweeper. I collected the facts, sifted through them, and brought home the ones I knew would make everyone happy. “Yeah, her apartment was great! It had a little sun room with small-paned windows on three sides. 

“Her boyfriend? Nice; yes, very sweet … Big red beard … He has his own gardening company! Yes, I think they live together. 

“But,” I would say, “wait until I tell you guys about this lady I sat next to on the plane.” And we would sit at the dinner table and laugh at my story of the lady in the tight red shirt who talked about her parakeet, Lucretia, the entire trip back home.

Changing teams

My family comprised the kind of people who were grateful to the air for allowing them to breathe — that’s how whispery their presence was in the world. I’m sure a psychologist could explain this to me, but the person I married was not this way. My husband had no trouble inhaling the bulk of oxygen from any room. 

What had he seen in me? He didn’t seem to need a cheerleader. What had I seen in him? A right to oxygen that I wanted to share? I don’t know. 

What I discovered was that he did seem to need an on-the-ground reporter, same as my parents. Not because he was afraid; he just wasn’t interested. He was a worker, a project person. He wasn’t willing to take the time to practice that painstaking skill that we on-the-ground reporters try to perfect. It worked out OK though; he did the projects, and I reported the news, and for a while it all went well. 

Then we had a couple of kids and discovered some dangerous differences.

In the family I grew up with, we never had real rules of any kind. We hadn’t needed them. The most rebellious gesture from any of us was my sister’s moves further and further west. 

But my husband had different ideas.

I never quite knew what his role had been in the murk of his own first family — but in our new family, he was a rule-maker. 

And unlike my first family, in my new family I had a kid who was a rule-breaker. This kid’s motto seemed to be “Give me a rule, and I’ll show you how I can break it.” My answer to this was, “Then why have rules? He doesn’t need them. He’s a good kid. He’s not actually doing anything wrong; he just doesn’t like being told what to do.” 

But my husband’s answer was the opposite. His answer was to give him more rules to break, more trouble to find.

Playing offense

So I developed a new role in my new family — that of warrior. I became the Grand Protectress of the Breakers of Unnecessary Rules. 

I barely recognized myself. In my whole life I had never fought with anyone, never waged a battle with a single soul. In my entire life, I had only been a cheerleader, a detail sweeper, a soother of human beings. Suddenly instead of pom poms and short skirts here I was swinging a mace and wearing a full suit of armor. 

I developed a new role in my new family — that of warrior. I became the Grand Protectress of the Breakers of Unnecessary Rules.

Obviously, I’m exaggerating. But the change in my role was profound, and I didn’t like it. It was hard to reconcile this flamethrower I had become with the balm-spreader I had been before. 

And it seemed so unnecessary to me. Not only did my kid not need all these rules, it forced his brother into the difficult role of diplomat. This poor kid spent his life making peace between all the factions in our family. Although I knew that my methods of parenting seemed wrong to my husband, I simply could not accept his. 

My husband and I had some stormy days that my parents and sisters witnessed. But true to themselves, they never said a word. They put their heads down and skittered into the corners. 

I wished they would have said something. For all their tentative grip on the bright, hard world, they were kind and tolerant people, and I’m sure they were confused and saddened by the firestorms they saw in my new family. 

But they never intervened or spoke up. It wasn’t who they were, I knew, because it wasn’t who I had been, either. Were they horrified at who I had become? New families apparently create new roles. Who knew who my mother and my father had been in their first families?

For better or worse, we got through it all, and we did stay a family. Our former battles have now become the stuff of wedding toasts and humorous birthday reminiscences. To me, these lighthearted references are painful, but I am back to balm-spreading, so I sit and listen. Nowadays, I spend my time wondering about these new families I see forming, the ones my own kids are creating. Who will they be? Will the rule-breaker become a diplomat? Will the diplomat become a flamethrower?

And if I see one or the other in an unhappy place, will I — like my first family — hide my head and say nothing? Or will I use some of the incendiary skills learned from my second family to speak up and say my piece?

Read more of Martha Slaughter’s essays here.

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