on alligators and family dynamics


I am nearing the end of the academic year and to be honest, I'm done with it. I've been spending every evening surrounded by textbooks and empty cups of tea. I knew I'd reached a boiling point this week, brain-wise, when I put my make-up remover in the freezer for no particular reason other than my sanity having temporarily departed. I am ceasing to function as a human being.

Chris has been nagging me to play Lil Gator Game for the last few days, so I treated myself to a couple of nights off, and I'm glad I did.

It starts like this: you (Lil Gator) spent your childhood playing in an incredible and strangely familiar fantasy world, invented by your best friend and sister. When Big Sis goes away to college, the game is put on hold. When she returns, Lil Gator (or Sausage, as I called them) is disappointed to see that she's kind of busy now. She's sitting on a swing, busy on her laptop, trying to focus on an assignment. Lil Gator, with their kid logic, decides that she must have just forgotten how fun the game is. A quest starts: if Lil Gator can gather up their friends and make the game look really fun, maybe she'll ditch all her grown-up stuff and play with them.

Lil Gator Game is just the right amount of cute for me: not too saccharine-sweet, balanced out with interesting and funny characters and the occasional surprising moment. The little island you're exploring is genuinely fun to traverse, and as the game progresses, you stumble upon more new friends to add to your crew. I explored every nook and cranny of that little island in case I missed something. It was time well spent.

This sibling relationship is a tender topic for me.

It feels like a long time ago now, but I've been trying to remember what it was like, jumping from one kid to two. I remember bringing my son home from the hospital in the early hours and my daughter, then three years old, scrambling into bed to meet him. I remember the look of awe on her face.

I have vague, blurry memories of those days. Of dragging myself out of bed after two hours of sleep, of sitting on the floor to play with my daughter days after giving birth even though my whole body hurt, putting on silly voices for her My Little Ponies. With a newborn glued to my nipple. I remember thinking: I must not mess this up. I must let her see that having a brother is the best thing ever.

I was so anxious about the bond. We tried so hard to make the transition work. And for the most part, it did. We had our moments, and there were a few tears (mostly mine). But my daughter adored my son right from the start. She smothered him in kisses, she did silly dances to make him laugh, she dressed him up in her fancy dress outfits and made me take pictures. The dynamic was Big Sister and The Baby. She had something to coo over, something to mother, and she did it well.

And then Covid came around. Sometime in those long and lonely months of isolation, my son became less of a baby, and more of an equal. What followed was a mostly blissful few years of companionship, peppered with the odd argument. What followed was imaginary Gruffalo hunts and den-making and cuddly toy zoos and the grand wedding of Mario and Princess Peach. What followed was imagination in abundance. I've loved watching them play, hearing them whispering together, hatching up little schemes, and coming up with strategies to persuade me to let them have a sleepover and eat popcorn at bedtime.

Fast forward to now. My daughter is ten and a half, and my son is seven. My daughter is in the between stage, the not-quite-teenager. Now, she's out with her friends quite a lot. Or she has them come here; they disappear into her bedroom and shut the door behind them and I hear them giggling and chatting and my son is on the outside of it all, as is the natural way of things.

She's entering a world completely different from his. And I want to celebrate it because it's exciting: growth is a good thing, and I want her to know I'm happy about her growing up. She has one year of primary school left, one year in the safe little bubble of teachers and friends she's known since the age of five. She'll be stepping into something else and leaving him behind, temporarily. We'll transition. They're going to have to learn to relate to each other as siblings all over again.

Lil Gator completes their quests early in the game, only to find that Big Sis can't just ditch what she's doing to come and play with them. Rather than leaving her be, Lil Gator doubles down: this time, they're going to make the game so massive and exciting that she absolutely won't be able to resist.

I won't spoil what happens. It's lovely, kind, gentle, and a little bit of a tearjerker. What surprised me about it was the shift in my mindset; I started the game pre-emptively thinking about my kids and how they relate to each other, and I ended up thinking about me and my sisters instead.

I am the little bald baby here. According to my sisters, I was bald for a LONG time.

I'm the baby of the family; there's a nine-year gap between me and my middle sister, and a twelve-year gap between me and my eldest sister. The dynamic, for us, was much closer to Big Sis and Lil Gator than my own kids. I never had a peer relationship with my sisters when I was little. I was the baby, and they looked after me. My memories of them from my childhood involved them doing something for me: singing Kylie Minogue songs, at my request, as they gave me a bath. Or patiently playing with my little toy animals. Or, as I got older, passing down their CD singles when they didn't want them anymore. They facilitated a lot of things for me, and I never appreciated that until I grew up. I remember missing them; I remember seeing fleeting glimpses of them, in their grown-up worlds, which I found both fascinating and very scary.

Now we're all adults. We have six kids between us, and we live far apart, and a lot of our relationship is conducted via WhatsApp. But we're closer now, because we're equals. At some point I crossed the threshold into adulthood and joined them. It took quite a while for everyone to stop seeing me as the little one. I still think they see me like that sometimes. Old habits die hard.

Lil Gator Game reminds me of that weird, last burst of childhood before things start to change. The protagonist is very much in their kid-world; they're bursting with energy and joy and imagination, despite any conflicting feelings they might have about his sister. But some of their friends are slightly further ahead of them. Marvin is a relaxed, chilled kind of guy. He's happy to go along with the plan, but he also has some cooler, more grown-up friends. Jill is a workaholic, constantly studying, and quite distracted. Of the main crew, it's only Avery! (the exclamation mark is important) who remains on Lil Gator's level.

I resonate with Lil Gator. I was one of the last ones to leave the kid stuff behind. I was the one quietly playing with my Pokemon cards way into secondary school when everyone else had ditched them. It's hard being one of the last ones to leave; the end of childhood is a bumpy ride.

Ultimately, it's Lil Gator's friends, new and old, that propel them through the story. These friends jump into the gap Big Sis left behind. And while it's not the same, exactly, it's still fun. It's something new. Lil Gator Game honours childhood, and allows space for the grief of what came before alongside the excitement of what comes next. And as a parent, this is a message I need to hear. I need to hold onto this when I get this increasingly familiar, bittersweet feeling I get when my children move onto a new stage.

My kids still play together. They hatch little schemes, make jokes, and dig out all their Squishmallows for the occasional imaginary game. I'm treasuring these moments more than ever because I know they'll eventually come to an end. But what comes next, hopefully, will be new friends, new adventures, and a solid, trusting relationship they know they can fall back on if they need to. Someone once described being a sibling as having 'allies in the world'. I know that not everyone has that kind of relationship, but I hope to God my kids do. I hope they know that wherever they end up, they can lean on each other.

And one more thing about Lil Gator Game: it is a true celebration of the importance of play. You're never too old, busy, or important to be a kid sometimes. Which is exactly what I told myself when I placed an order for a plushie of Lil Gator to sit on my desk. I'm hoping their presence reminds me to let go a bit when I'm feeling stressed, and to never let go of my inner child. Or something. That's how I justified spending the money, anyway. 💚🐊