I lived with my parent’s all through my college years while I attended a local University. I was 21 before I moved out and paid my own rent. After nine months of that, I changed my plans and decided I needed to save some money. I moved back into the only place I’d ever known.
My two older siblings (a brother, 7 years my senior, and a sister two years older) had already moved on with their lives an out into the world. Or so everyone thought–and in a few days, I’d be doing the same. By then, I was 23. My money had been saved and I wasn’t just moving out. I was moving to another part of the country, with a boy. I was excited. I was also anxious and scared and nervous.
Life hadn’t turned out the way my sister planned and as I was moving away, she was coming back. My parent’s front door has always been a revolving one. In more than 40 years, they have yet to live without one of their children, but that’s an entirely different story. For one short month before my final departure, my sister and I would live together again, as young adults, for the last time, and under my parent’s roof. The culmination of this month, and a summation of our entire relationship, really, would end in an epic brawl and a trip to the ER.
I’ve always been particularly interested in birth order theory. The clinical description of a last-born, third child seems to fit me to a tee. Risk-taker, crafty, social butterfly, black sheep. This theory also seems to describe my siblings and their respective positions.
Recently, I read a very thoughtful article on siblings in Brain, Child Magazine by Katherine Ozment. In an effort to understand her children’s relentless arguments and promote healthy relationships among them, she researched the topic extensively. I read the article with the same hopes; to understand my own children’s (boy, 2 and girl, 4) budding sibling relationship and get a sense of what I can do as their mother to help promote a healthy one.
I learned a bit about that, but more importantly, I learned about myself.
Ozment asserts that perhaps our sibling relationships are greater predictors of who we are as adults, than any other relationship; even our parental one. My first thought was–I’m in serious trouble.
My childhood is not filled with happy memories of me and my siblings. There were a few tender moments with my older brother– throwing the football in the front yard or him carrying me on his back jumping up and down in excitement just after passing his driver’s test. But as he was moving off to college, I was entering adolescence and the differences between us were insurmountable.
There are no pleasant memories with my sister. My mother claims that we got along when I was very young, but I do not remember those times. What I remember is sharing a bed until I was 11 and middle of the night, violent, kicking wars, waking up with bruises the size of softballs on my legs. I remember pulling out hair in fistfuls, bite marks and incessant tattle telling. As I am writing this, in the fleshy part between my thumb and my pointer fingers on my right hand, I can see a thick, quarter-inch scar. A forever reminder of those times.
I will not attempt to place blame anywhere for these things, just to state it as fact. It’s true. It happened. It’s the way it was.
I know this type of sibling civil war happens in other families, but as adults, most grow into healthier relationships. But in my case, time and maturity healed nothing. To this day I do not really know, nor do I speak often to either of my siblings. In fact, as I write this, I have been estranged from my sister for more than two years and have recently become estranged from my brother for loudly calling me a bitch at a family function. I say “estranged” to mean that we are not on speaking terms, but that is a mere technicality because prior to being “estranged” we didn’t really speak anyway.
Ozment writes about birth order and rivalries and the sociological and historical research involving siblings. She discusses the competition for resources, (i.e. parental attention), the instinct to differentiate ourselves from the pack, and the roles that parents play in all of this. Much of our behavior can be deduced to human nature and our needs for self-preservation.
As parents, out of good intentions, we often add fuel to this self-preservation fire. We treat our children differently according to their age and abilities which makes sense, but in a child’s eyes, it’s viewed as favoritism. Children start competing for whatever it seems they are lacking or to keep whatever perceived advantage they may have. In an effort to squelch the competitiveness of our human nature, we encourage sibling differentiation. We project alternate strengths onto our children thinking this will eliminate their needs to argue over whose better or is getting more of the resources.
To this day, whenever I try to explain to someone the relationship I have with my sister, the first thing I say is how different we are. And we are. I can point out every large and slight dis-similarity from how we look, act, dress, believe and choose to run our lives. In every discussion between us, there is not single instance where we have taken the same side. No matter the issue. We grew into oil and water. The only thing we have in common today is our parents.
One of the experts Ozment interviews says that as parents, the promotion of sibling differences, while well intentioned, is ultimately destructive.
We grow these freakishly dissimilar people so they won’t end up eating one another, then wonder why they don’t get along. ~Susan McHale, Professor of Family Studies at Pennsylvania University.
That makes a lot of sense to me.
Ozment concludes that the best thing we can do as parents is to foster a healthy sense of empathy between siblings when they are young. To inspire them to see each other as a person who has the same feelings and hurts and emotions and needs as we all do. That we should not accentuate the differences too greatly, but emphasize the similarities of our human-ness.
Ironically, the very thing that makes us rivals, is what also makes us the same. Our humanity.
The day my sister and I got into our last physical brawl I was feeling anxious. I was neurotically burning a CD off the computer of my favorite, most soothing, happy songs to play on the road trip across country with this boy. The songs kept messing up and I had been at this project for hours. I was getting more and more frustrated by the minute. My sister came into the room where I was working on this project and she was visibly angry. I can imagine that she was struggling with feelings of failure for not landing a job in Florida after completing a very expensive film school and having to move back home at the age of 25. She was in debt, unemployed, unsure of her future, probably lonely and a little depressed. I was anxious, scared, unsure of my own future as I was steadying myself to embark on a new adventure with a long list of unknowns.
Just as my CD was in its final stages she came in demanding that I turn off my music. She pressed power on the computer and erased my whole CD, again. I flew into a rage. I punched her in the face with as much force as I could muster behind my fist. Then I ran. She chased me upstairs and caught me at the door. She threw her whole body weight against the door and smashed me between the door and its frame until I could not breathe. One of my acrylic nails ripped off and took my real fingernail with it.
A few days later, the day before I was to leave on my trip, I was in a horrific car accident. The passenger of the other car was drunk and hit me head on at high-speed. At 2am that night, as I lay in the ER my whole family was there. My brother took over the first-born authoritarian position as my acting attorney, and my parents stood by as I was poked and x-rayed–concerned as ever. Then there was my sister. Sitting in the corner; the forever brooding, disengaged middle child with a bright, shining black-eye. Not saying a word. Nothing at all. Ever.