The unbearable lightness of siblinghood - FamilyEducation

The unbearable lightness of siblinghood

April 09,2008

A few years back, an acquaintance of mine was pregnant with her first child, a son. She told me that she was relieved that her first child was going to be a boy. This way, she told me, she wouldn't have to worry about whether her second child would be a girl or a boy. She didn't want two girls--girls, she told me, fight too much and usually just don't get along (as it turned out she had three sisters, and they fought tooth and nail for years).

I wondered at the time about this observation of hers. I too had a son back then, and hoped my future second child would be a girl--but not because I worried about sibling rivalry. In fact, sibling rivalry seemed kind of foreign to me, and something I equated more with grown-up children, rather than young ones. I don't remember fighting much with my own brother and sister when I was a small child, although I know we have our competitive moments now.

My kids love each other fiercely and deeply and wonderfully; but sometimes they also seem to hate each other fiercely and deeply, and in not-so-wonderful ways. They are all extremes, most of the time. Rarely do they, together, occupy some calm middle ground. T. used to allow herself to be bossed around by her brother, but ever since she turned four, an invisible but very distinct line has been drawn in the sand. She's determined these days to assert herself--and she does it well and loudly--and often.

"Why can't you kids get along?" I'll plead with them. Then I'll invariably pull out some tired story about how my siblings and I used to play together, so harmoniously and wonderfully, and even as I'm telling the tale, I know it just makes no sense to them.

Yesterday was one of those days when the kids woke up at odds with each other. L. was home from school for a doctor's appointment, and after some hours of listening to them bicker and squabble over just about everything, I devised a plan. The sun came out around 2:00 and the sky was that type of washed clean blue you get after days of drizzle and gray clouds. Only then, at the moment when I stepped out onto the back porch and felt the sun on my arms, did I realize that all this cloudy and rainy weather had been making me grouchy and tired. I'm sure the kids had been feeling its effects, too, because they've been grouchy and tired, and mopey--and taking it out on each other.

My plan involved the kids and the dog and L.'s scooter and two tennis rackets and a can of a balls, and a straw bag filled with bubbles and chalk, and a brisk walk through the neighborhood, through the woods, and down to the pool and tennis courts. The tennis courts are a fun place to be. They are old, and the court surface is bumpy, with lots of enticing nooks and crannies for the dog to sniff. Tennis courts also make amazingly fast surfaces to ride a scooter on. We had a wonderful time, the kids and I. They played together, chasing balls and throwing them back and forth, and all was harmony there, outside, away from the confines of the house. That part of the plan went flawlessly. The other part--the having to walk back through the woods, uphill all the way, with tired kids remembering to bicker, and a tired dog and a scooter no one wants to ride--that part didn't go so well.

"Hurry up, L." I nagged at him almost the whole way back through the woods. He's a dawdler, this son of mine. He dawdled the whole way back and then, at the critical moment----just as my back was breaking from lugging the scooter and T. began to fuss about needing to be carried, and the dog stopped to eat some grass--L. disappeared down the creek's bank.

"We're leaving, L.! We're leaving!" I called down to him, hoping to kick him into gear.

Then, when that didn't happen--"L. wouldn't even notice if we DID leave him behind," I grouched under my breath--to myself, I thought. And as I said those words, I started tiredly up the hill, intending to stop at the top and wait for L. But T., being four, heard me and took my words, and my actions, literally.

"No, Mama! No!" She shrieked suddenly, rooted to the spot and truly alarmed. "We can't leave L.! No!"

...He's my brother!"

I felt so ashamed that I'd alarmed T., and when I set the scooter down so I could explain to her what I'd really meant, I could tell in her eyes that she was still digesting the horror of Mama's suggestion that we leave her brother behind, in the woods, to fend for himself. I saw then so clearly how intertwined the two of them really are in her mind; how she really does wear her love for him so openly all of the time--even during the moments when she's most angry and upset--it's there, something she'll carry with her all her life, I hope. You can love a friend, and then fall out of love with them, and perhaps never find it in your heart to love them again, but with a sibling the love is always there, sometimes displaced for a bit by other, less pure emotions, but it's still there, woven from childhood into who you are, and who you will become.

Then, in an instant, L. reappeared and shot up the hill, leaves flying underfoot. He whizzed past his sister, careened into her accidentally, and knocked her to the ground. It was all fury and rage again, and bickering over who was going to carry the tennis racket, but we made it home somehow, that gift of what I'd seen that afternoon still shining before me, and lightening even the heaviest of loads.