Friday, April 12, 2013

In Honor of Sibling Day

When we were planning our family, Jeff and I never considered stopping after one. We always wanted to have at least two children (although, much to Jeff's horror, I initially floated the idea of going for four.) The reason was partly selfish. We didn't want to get stuck playing Legos with our kid until he left for college. But we also considered all the benefits siblings can provide each other. Like having a partner for Ring Around the Rosie. And having someone who will eat the rest of the mashed sweet potatoes (which T always does) instead of having countless Earth's Best jars accumulate in the fridge. And making up some silly song for his sister to make her giggle even though she has no idea what he's saying. And giving each other a little smooch when the other falls. We wanted our children to be there for each other when life's hardships inevitably surface. We wanted to find a way for them not to feel so alone in this world. To feel like there is always someone who has your back, who is sitting with you in your corner, even when Jeff and I are no longer around.

I've always been glad not to be an only child. I think I would have hated it. I pitied some of my friends who had no siblings. So many of them seemed lonely. And some seemed overly self-involved. And a few others seemed to have narrower exposure to the world, which I attributed to them not having as many influences within the family. Not all my only child friends were like that, of course, and I also have some perfectly well adjusted friends who have no siblings. But even they have to carry more burden than I would prefer in looking out for their parents and worrying about their well being as they age.

I know I learned a lot from my siblings. Even from my brother's heavy metal music, which I found painful to listen to at ear drum breaking volume. My sister introduced me to a lot of literature and ways of seing things. And we used to talk so much about our family issues -- and everything else. I miss that.

Yesterday morning, I saw a couple of posts on Facebook about Sibling Day when I first woke up, and I found myself bawling when I was later using the bathroom. Our family seems like such a failure these days, and I'm not sure why that is. Why our family fell apart when others manage to hold theirs together. It feels like the biggest failure in my life. It colors everything, making all else feel somewhat hopeless. Whenever Jeff and I have an argument, even the most trivial, I find myself saying, "Well, this is going to shit like everything else." I feel pessimistic and flawed, as if it is all my fault. As if I really don't have any skills in managing human relationships. I also feel alone in this world in an existential sense, in a way I've never felt before, even though I have a wonderful family of my own.

I've been reading about sibling strife to understand better why we have so much in my family. The book I recently finished profiles 60 different sets of sibling of different backgrounds and ages. I'm amazed to see how varied the specific disputes can be and yet, when it comes down to it, it seems there is just a handful of root causes of sibling friction.

I've heard many times that when siblings don't get along -- not just fight now and then, but are antagonistic to each other -- often, the deep down root of the conflict is not with each other but really with the parents. In other words, a sibling does not dislike his or her sibling because he/she is a fundamentally bad person. Rather, the sibling is angry or grieved about some sense of unfairness at the parents' treatment of the children. For example, when a parent favors one child over others, the unfavored child expresses anger at the favored child, but it is really the parent whose behavior should be addressed.

This is probably part of the problem in my own case. Not to blame the parents. I think most parents do what they can, what they believe to be right. And I know my parents had no bad intentions. But like most people, they have their blind spots, their unquestioned cultural norms, their own weaknesses and needs. And they tend to be passive more than proactive, and for large segments of our childhood, they didn't have the time to be actively engaged in our lives. I think a lot of the problems in our family stems from a combination of these factors.

I also think sibling relationships need a lot of help to follow the right course. I see it in my own children. They have so much affection to share, but at the same time, there is inherent competition for attention and control. Without some intervention from me and Jeff, I don't know whether my children could have a healthy relationship. We have to set limits and teach them how to treat each other -- and to respect each other. And to see each other as individuals, not just as the younger or older sibling. There is an inherent imbalance of power, and I make an effort to help our older child be sensitive to that. I also try to teach them to value having a cohesive family. I tell T, "Do you know that you and S are going to be such good friends? When she learns to talk, you can talk to her about anything and everything. You guys will have so much fun together!"

I'm not trying to say that I am blameless in my fallouts with my own siblings. I know we've all done things we regret -- and wish that we could have found ways to conduct ourselves more maturely and with more foresight. But severing a family relationship is such a drastic act, and I can't help but wonder if the tensions in our relationships didn't result from a pattern of unhealthy behavior that should have been addressed along the way. If the relationship wasn't already at a breaking point.

I thought reading about other siblings would make me reflect further about my situation. It has to a degree, but it has also had this unexpected effect of making me want to wash my hands of the whole thing. Seeing others persistently engage in such painful and noxious battles makes me want to disengage. When I read about these other siblings, I wanted to tell them, just move on! Live your life. Why keep going back for more?

Yeah, good advice for myself. I'm starting to realize that there is nothing you really can do when someone in your family cuts you off. You can mourn the situation, but you can't change their minds -- not unilaterally. And I think the willingness to throw away a relationship may reflect the reality that the relationship was unhealthy to begin with -- and maybe the one throwing away the relationship wanted to find a way to come out from under the burdens of the relationship. That for them, the burdens outweighed any benefits.

And I can see that a little more objectively now, without feeling so defensive. And understanding that the relationship may not have entirely been about me but also about the dynamics of our family or my sibling's sense of self helps me to understand that maybe some separation is for the best. Because that person no longer wants to continue to engage in that role in the family. Or needs to affirm herself, to say, "I'm worthy of more than that. You can't treat me like that." Or no longer wants to be in the shadows of another, to see herself in comparison with her sibling. Or maybe a separation from the sibling somehow helps them salvage the direct relationship with the parent somehow, although I'm not sure why it works like that.

I wonder at what age we start to see ourselves through our own eyes. When do we stop viewing ourselves through our parents' eyes and judge ourselves to be inadequate? When do we stop being the one who was loved less? The one who didn't receive the kind of approval we felt we deserved? When do we stop competing against each other? When do we stop re-living the childhood wrongs we feel we suffered at the hands of our sibling? And when do we recognize childhood acts for what they were -- as immature behavior of children with underdeveloped judgment?

It's amazing that you can live the remaining 60-80% of your life stuck in the mold set by those first 18 years. Or fighting it. Or bitterly engaged in repudiating it. And still feeling angry, or deprived, or cheated.

I think the only thing you can do is to find a way to achieve your own happiness. It sounds so trite, but it's not really. You have to find a way to get your emotional needs met -- and to even get to that stage, you have to work on yourself and figure out what your emotional needs are. You have to find a way to figure yourself out -- and a way to be honest with yourself. I don't think you can have a healthy relationship with others unless you're happy with yourself -- and I know I need to work on that to protect my relationships with my own family.

I'm not sure where I am on that road, but I know I have a long way to go. There are things about myself that I don't even know I don't know. I have so many blind spots about myself. But thinking about this makes me feel somewhat liberated -- and helps me start to pull my head out of the muddle.

So for all of you out there with healthy sibling relationships, I envy you -- and I toast you. I hope you took note of the day that just passed and made a point to celebrate it in some way, however small.


  1. I too have a troubled relationship with my sister. She's 1 year older than me and lives 3000 miles away with her own family. We haven't "really" talked since her wedding, about 9 years ago. OH MAN. it's been a long time. Anyway, I probably could beat myself over and over about the situation but I haven't really. For a while I told myself that she's a b*tch... which she is, a little bit... but I'm learning to own my part too. And right now, I am content with my life to notice how it could be "better" with her in it. Great post!

  2. I am an older sister. I have a good relationship with my younger sister. When i was growing up i used to envy other girls who had older sisters. They get their sister's old clothes (often more stylish than mine), their sisters help them with whatever girly thing they do. Almost like a second mother to them. After seeing that, i decided to be that kind of older sister for my own little sister. The good thing is we have a good relationship. The bad thing is she maybe little bit spoiled :). I am not sure if that is really true, i hope not. The truth is i loved and supported her unconditionally as much as i can. If i can't have an older sister like that, at least i myself can be one, right?
    I also have an older brother. Our relationship is normal, sometimes we fight, sometimes friends. However, we are not as close as my sister and i are. I think it is because of our genders.
    I don't know if you are an older sister or not. If you are the older one, please try to make peace with her. I am not saying it because i know this kind of things so well. It is just how i feel. We lost our parents in one year. I can't imagine how hard it would have been if my sister and i didn't have a good relationship. We cried together on each other's shoulder which is what we are for each other. I hope you and your siblings will become friends again. I hope my comment is not rude.