Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The complex and wonderful world of siblings

Welcome to the August 2013 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Sibling Revelry

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have written about siblings — their own, their hopes for their kids, and more. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

The complex and wonderful world of siblings == Hobo Mama

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Before I gave my firstborn a sibling, I was kind of pessimistic about the nature of sibling relationships. And now that I have two children, I sort of hope for better things than I'd come to expect — but am trying not to get too attached to the idea.

I guess it's because my relationship with my own siblings is tepid. There's no strain there, but we don't stay in touch very well, and we see each other every couple years, emailing or phoning maybe twice in that timeframe. I have one brother who's four years older and one brother who's nine years younger. (He was a surprise.) My parents had been planning to have my older brother and me five years apart, but the timing sped up when there were rumors that my dad would get an unaccompanied deployment to Korea for a year. That never developed, but I did: a little, girly sister to my macho brother.

He didn't have much use for me, being so much older and having a completely different personality and alternate preferences for spending his free time. I did the usual pining after him, cursing myself for adoring him when clearly he didn't give two pins about me.

When my younger brother was born — even when still in utero — I fell in love. Here was a real live doll for this nine-year-old to nurture, and so I did. I was his babysitter even when legally my older brother was technically in charge of both of us.

My older brother moved out and joined the Army when I was 14. He later went to West Point and off on his own trajectory, a fiercely independent soul rarely home even for school breaks. My younger brother was 9 when I left for college, so I've retained an affection for him that often forgets to see past his current age. Yes, ok, he's 28, but he's still a cute tousle-headed 9 to me.

We were all together this summer, a couple weeks ago, for several days, and we got along great. It turns out my older brother's a lot more tolerable in small doses when I'm not living with him. I can laugh off the more infuriating parts of his bullheaded nature. And my younger brother's sweet and sensitive and great with our kids. But, really, they both are good uncles. My older brother actually took off a diaper and helped Alrik onto the potty when he said he had to go. I have to admit, I was floored. My niece, my brother's only daughter, is 11, so it's been awhile since he's had potty training to do.

At any rate…I love them. I wish we were closer, both geographically and in other ways…but we're not. And I'm never sure how much effort I want to put into changing that. Mostly I just let it be that we're in a good place, if a distant one.

Funny enough, my own parents had more closely spaced sibling relationships of the same gender: My mom is two years younger than her older sister, and my dad is 10 months younger (Grandpa, you dog) than his older brother. And, yet, they also aren't especially close to their siblings — again, no animosity, but geographically and emotionally separate. And they were the parents who decided to space my siblings and me four-ish (and then nine by accident) years apart.

So when it came to planning my own family size and spacing, I figured: I don't need a lot of kids, and I don't need them close together. I didn't see any great advantage to giving my kids a bunch of siblings they'd grow up to be vaguely fond of. I didn't see any great advantage to me of having a passel of kids early on and closely spaced who would stress me out in terms of childcare with no ultimate payoff of a happy, close-knit clan of bestest buds.

And now I have my two kids who are four years apart, and I'm in my late thirties — and I wonder if I did it wrong.

I mean, we always wonder about the what ifs, right? And I wouldn't trade my twenties enjoying life with Sam for some theoretical family I won't now have. I think our family is just fine, as is, and we are thinking about another, but this future sibling still won't be very closely spaced. There were good reasons for our delay of having kids at all, some financial, some personal, some related to miscarriage, and some just based on preference, and there have been good reasons to wait several years between them. For instance, Mikko was not an easy baby, so we honestly needed the time to recuperate and get over the dread (yes, dread) we felt every time we saw a newborn. I also have had two very persistent extended nursers; I wanted Mikko to wean before we got pregnant with Alrik, but that was not to be. Now that I know how hard it can be to nurse a toddler during and after pregnancy, I have the same weaning wish for Alrik, so we're holding off a bit to respect his timing.

But the good reasons don't stop the grass-is-greener effect from setting in when I look at large families, or families with siblings close in age (even multiples), and glimpse those best-friend moments I've never had with my own siblings and doubt my own will share.

Because, so far as I look at my kids, it's much as I remember my own sibling relationship with my older brother, and Sam's with his (he has a brother four and a half years older and a sister four years younger), and on the one hand, I sort of expected this so it's no big deal, and on the other hand, oh — I wish they were more like the March sisters. Only: The March sisters fought and burned each other's prized possessions, so I guess maybe they are that way already.

Mikko is the big brother, and it's weird now to see him in the role that so befuddled and irritated the younger me. And yet seeing Alrik repeat my screeching hysterics to every intended or unintended slight is just as off-putting, as it turns out. I can now see why I so befuddled and irritated my older brother right back.

I'm trying (and failing? ha ha) not to project my own experiences too much onto theirs. I'm trying not to assume their story has to have the same ending as mine. I'm also trying not to panic — that whatever story they write, it is theirs, and there's no particular ending necessary. I do hope for something better than Cain and Abel, but other than that, they have freedom.

I'm also trying not to pit them against each other. I read (parts of) Siblings Without Rivalry, and it's excellent. I thought it was by a different author I'm not so fond of so started flipping through it only the day before it was due back at the library. Then I realized, No, this one is by authors I do like, so I read as much as I could before dropping it back off. C'est la vie de la mère. (That might or might not be readable French. I'm nothing if not amusant.)

Anyway, tips I've taken away include describing without comparing, whether it's positive or negative. For instance, I can say, "Mikko, you helped me with cleaning up! I appreciate it." I don't need to say, "For once, you helped clean up the way your brother always does." (I sort of hope I don't say things like the latter, but I know equally horrifying things have left my mouth.)

I'm also trying not to show favoritism (while not being overly concerned with being "fair") when it comes to meeting needs. Now that Alrik's a little older especially, I can just as well tell him to wait because I'm helping Mikko with something as the other way around. This can work with babies, too, though, within reason: "You need a new diaper! I just need to get your older brother a glass of juice first, and then I'll change you" — said as much for the big brother's ears as the baby's.

Another element the book pointed out was not labeling children in a family as The _____ One, e.g., the artistic one, the messy one, the athletic one, the lazy one. Whether positive or negative, it can be very limiting for the person being labeled and the other siblings. If a sister is the athletic one, then you might as well not try out for the team, or expect a lesser hurrah if you do. On the flip side, your sister might be feeling undervalued for all the hard work she puts into being athletic if everyone dismisses it as just a natural gift, and she might not pursue other interests. And, of course, being labeled "neat" or "messy" or other things can cause a lot of pressure on the "good" kid and a lot of negative feelings for the "bad" one. I don't think we've gone that far yet with the labeling, but I do know we do a lot of comparisons of the two boys as babies and toddlers — mostly for our own entertainment and reminiscing — and I can see how we could fall into a trap of valuing one experience over the other and oversimplifying our memories (i.e., Mikko as challenging baby vs. Alrik as easygoing one — Mikko had plenty of joyous smiles to give us, and Alrik had his crying jags where we wanted to scream along with him; and it's been very intriguing to witness the trajectory of their different physical development, but it doesn't necessarily mean much for the future). At this point, they're just two distinct people we need to value for who they are and where they're at.

What the book — and what thinking about this subject in general — have really brought home to me is that I have options for smoothing their relationship. I can't dictate how Mikko and Alrik will interact as children or adults, but I can do my best to foster harmony right now.

To that end, here are some other things I've been working on:

I'm encouraging them to hug each other and say they love each other. This is kind of a no-duh thing but one I avoided for a long time due to fears of pressuring them into emotions they didn't feel. I've decided that it's kind of the reverse, that the close contact inspires the feelings. Alrik's all about giving hugs and good wishes. Mikko's not always as gracious about receiving or giving back to his little brother, but I have hope. He's very snuggly with his dad and me, so I know it's in him.

I referee sibling squabbles but try to empower them to work it out in their own way. I don't want to leave it all up to them — that's a lot of pressure on a six- and two-year-old. But I do use phrases like, "I know you can figure out a way to share that car" to show I have confidence in their problem solving (mostly Mikko's). And I'm usually right to show confidence when I can muster it, because Mikko will come up with something, or Alrik will listen to my words and offer to give up his claim instead.

I've been using my history as a four-years-younger sibling to grace Mikko with some tips on older brotherdom. I've told him what I wish my brother had known about me: that including me a little more would have given him a devoted disciple. Mikko, in his own fabulous way, has turned this into calling Alrik his "minion" à la Despicable Me, but I find that too hilarious to chastise. What I mean is that he and Alrik can be on the same team — not just Mikko bossing him around and then dismissing him, but that he needs to do very little to have Alrik cheerfully follow his lead and become attached to him — and, therefore, make Mikko's life happier in the process. I've tried to give specific examples, such as asking Alrik to do little favors for him (he happily does) or including him in a game Mikko wants to play (so darn cute when that happens — in the hotel, they played pirate airplane for a couple hours one night, trading off being the pilot) or encouraging a playful us-against-them mentality where Mikko commands Alrik to "Attack Mama!" and he launches himself at me gamefully.

I hope that these techniques go some way to creating a long-term, satisfying sibling relationship between them. I really do hope.

The complex and wonderful world of siblings == Hobo Mama

How do you and your siblings get along? How do you help your kids get along with each other?

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  • The Damage of Comparing Siblings — Comparing siblings can lead to hurt feelings and poor relationships. What Jana Falls has learned and why she hopes for more for her son.
  • Connecting Through Sibling Rivalry — With four children who are spaced so that each child grows up in a pair, Destany at They are All of Me shares her method for minimizing the competition so her children can focus on bonding, rather than besting each other.
  • Sibling Revelry — Lucy at Dreaming Aloud shares the two-week transition that happens every summer as her kids transform from bickering to learning how to play.
  • Baby Brother born from an OceanAbby Jaramillo describes how her toddler connects in a possibly mystical way with her new baby brother and his birth at home, and Abby draws parallels with her own sister's new baby.
  • Hard, But Worth It — Claire at The Adventures of Lactating Girl discusses how difficult having two children can be, but how it's definitely worth it.
  • Raising Attached Siblings — At Living Peacefully with Children, Mandy and her husband are making conscious choices about how they raise their children to foster sibling connection and attachment.
  • It's Complicated — Henrietta at Angel Wings and Herb Tea reflects on how life's twists and turns have taken her from a childhood with no siblings to a constantly changing family life with five children, including one in spirit.
  • Supportsustainablemum reflects on how the differences between her relationship with her siblings and her husband's have affected their family and at a time of need.
  • Peas in a Pod — Kellie at Our Mindful Life enjoys the special relationship her oldest two children share.
  • Lessening the competitive enviornment in the homeLisa at The Squishable Baby discusses how downplaying competition in the home has led to cooperation, not competition.
  • The complex and wonderful world of siblings — Lauren at Hobo Mamareflects on her choices to have not too many children, spaced far apart — and how that's maybe limited how close their sibling relationship can be.
  • 5 Ways to Help Young Siblings Have a Loving Relationship — Charise I Thought I Knew Mama shares the strategies that help her three year old and 14 month old have a somewhat beautiful relationship and aid in keeping peace in their home.
  • 4 Steps to Encourage Sibling Revelry, even in Hot Moments of Rivalry — Sheila Pai of A Living Family share 4 Steps she uses to shift hot moments of sibling rivalry towards connected moments of sibling revelry and human compassion.
  • Twins Are Fun — Mercedes at Project Procrastinot witnesses the development of her twins' sibling bond.
  • Growing Up Together- Sibling Revelry in Our House — Amy at Me, Mothering, and Making it All Work realizes that there is great utility in raising siblings that are close in age, and is grateful to have been blessed with healthy siblings that both love and challenge one another every day.
  • Top 5 Ways to Reduce Sibling Rivalry — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now shares ideas that helped her two children be best friends along with Montessori resources for peace education and conflict resolution.
  • Sibling Uncertainty — Alisha at Cinnamon and Sassafras wonders how her children's relationship will change now that the baby is mobile.
  • Living with the Longing — Rachael at The Variegated Life sees that she can live with her longing for another — without changing her plans.
  • For My One and Only DaughterPlaying for Peace mommy reflects on her choice to not have more children in order to focus on other dreams.
  • Siblings: A Crash Course in Relationship Training — How have your siblings prepared you for later relationships? One of Dionna at Code Name: Mama's top priorities as mama of siblings is to help them learn how to navigate relationships.
  • The Joys of Siblings: An Inside Joke — Ana at Panda & Ananaso shares the a glimpse into the joys of having siblings through sharing a perplexing yet hilarious inside joke betwixt her and her own.
  • Sibling Support, even in the potty! — Even though Laura at Pug in the Kitchen's children didn't start out best friends, they are joined at the hip these days, including cheering each other on with potty successes!
  • Don't Seek What Isn't There - On Sibling Jealousy — Laura from Authentic Parenting analyzes the seeming desire people harbor for seeking out hints of sibling jealousy.
  • Sibling Love / Sibling Hate?Momma Jorje speculates whether her children will have a different sibling experience than her own. Did she make the right choices based on her own history?


Jana said...

My relationship with my brother could kindly be described as tepid and more honestly described as estranged. Which is sad because I have great memories of us happily playing together as young children - things like slide down the stream or jump off this high thing.

Thank you for the book recommendation. I've added it to my 'to read' list.

Olivia said...

My sister is six years younger than I am, and I am ashamed to say I was not a nice big sister. I saw her as an annoyance and never wanted to play with her. We fought a LOT. When she reached her late teens and I was mature enough to try building a relationship with her, she got married and moved across the country. For the last 11 years we have lived on opposite ends of the country and with limited money we have only seen each other once. We talk on the phone a couple of times a year and are on facebook. We don't fight, but we aren't close either. Looking back I remember adults describing us as being "as different as night and day", and I wonder if that focus on how we are different instead of how we are alike influenced how little I wanted to be around her.

I really hope I can foster a closer relationship with my children. They are 4 and 1 now and so far my older one seems to love her brother a lot and want to play with him so fingers crossed!

Momma Jorje said...

Gee, thanks. I now see that I've been horribly lazy with my own approach. I'm going to stick to the story that mine are only 2 years apart, that somehow makes it ok. But I'm also going to try to be more aware of (not) comparing any of my kids.

Unknown said...

"I wonder if I've done it all wrong."

Mine are 26 months apart and I wonder the same thing. I wonder if I would have had the space with my older child so she would feel more secure. I wonder if I would have been more nutrified and ready for my son. I wonder if I would have had an easier time "encouraging sibling revelry."

The reality is that every child and sibling relationship is unique. There are so many things we can try. The most important thing, I believe, is what you are doing in this post -- for us as parents to be conscious and clear about all our own beliefs and intentions. We are surely learning and growing.

Hopefully that's comforting in the rough moments...

Thanks for an honest, in depth, and thoughtful post.

I Thought I Knew Mama said...

I felt the same way before having kids! My brother is six years younger than me, and I can also describe our relationship as "tepid".

The strategies you are using with your kids sound very much like my own. So far, so good!

Thanks for hosting another wonderful carnival!

Unknown said...

I think you are doing a wonderful job modeling for both of your sons the love, creativity, and joy in being together that helps a family to live enjoyably with one another! Like Charise said, your strategies seem similar to ours here at the Willa household!

Inder-ific said...

His minion!! AWESOME. Totally! (Eldest of the family here.)

I've been thinking about this a lot, too, as I think many people with two kids do! My kids have a similar separation as my sister and I - three years, give or take. I also have a brother, but he is 13 years younger. I consider myself to be close with both my sibs - my sister lives 20 minutes away, and my brother lives WITH me, so I think it's safe to say we are close! But it's not without conflict. Lots of rivalry and issues.

My kids get along remarkably well. As someone who knows sibling conflict both personally and from observing it in others, I know that I should appreciate how much my kids LIKE each other. I have long felt that this is not something that can be imposed on children/people by their parents. Some siblings are just bound to get along better than others, due to basic personality. Nothing went wrong, they are just very different people.

In thinking about this a lot, I think that (1) getting along with people takes work; (2) it's messy; (3) you can't make people love each other; (4) you can try not to make them any MORE jealous of each other than they already are, or pit them against each other, or compare, etc. I've also read Siblings Without Rivalry, and it was hard for me, bc my own parents compared my sister and I nonstop. It brought up a lot of tough issues for me about my own childhood, honestly, and how I always thought my parents loved my sister more, and she thought the same thing. But one thing that I did take away from that is that, DESPITE all that, my sister and I are still close. So while parents can cause some harm to sibling relationships, if you basically get along, nothing is completely impossible to reverse.

So yeah. Not entirely sure what my conclusion is. But of course, I do dearly hope that my kids will be close the way me and my siblings are close, and I hope the cousins will be close too! But only time will tell!

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

I really like the concept of Siblings Without Rivalry, but the format turned me off. But it still has some nuggets of wisdom ;)
re: labeling and comparing as babies/toddlers - totally guilty of that too, I cannot help myself (but I need to)! It's just so amazing when they are these totally different human beings (they are individuals! I know, right?!).

Deb Chitwood said...

It was fascinating to read about the different sibling spacings. My kids are 5 years apart, and we all loved it that way. They're exceptionally close, but their homeschooling could have something to do with that, too. Your photos are adorable, and your ideas for encouraging close sibling relationships sound great! :)

Aili said...

Your comment about the March sisters made me laugh out loud.

I think that being deliberate about NOT projecting your own sibling experience onto your kids is valuable and difficult. My mom, for example, had a rough relationship with her brother, and she constantly reads things my kids do as sibling jealousy, and responds that way. I see the same behavior and just think, "Oh, he didn't have his nap" or whatever. The way you respond can create motivations that weren't there to begin with.

And I don't think there's any spacing that is perfect--so much more depends on personalities.

henrietta said...

Life is so complicated isn't it....its so easy to try to react or change from what our childhoods were like (I know I did....from an only to mama of five) But every family is so totally unique and what works/doesn't work in one is the opposite in another. So we can only follow our instincts rather than our heads....oh, and be receptive to 'little surprises'. Sounds like you're doing a great job though!!

sustainablemum said...

This is a really interesting post. My children are spaced a similar age gap to yours for, as you know, very different reasons but they are older than yours (currently four and eight and a half) and I don't remember them getting on when they were six and two. Two year olds don't really play with other children they play along side from my experience. So in another year or so their relationship will start to change, I would expect that as your younger son understands and learns about what playing with other children involves his relationship with his elder brother will change and I hope for all of your sakes that your eldest loves to play with him too!

Unknown said...

"Describe without comparing" and "not labeling" are the two tips I think will really come in handy as my twins grow up. I'm 4 years older than my middle sister and 6 years older than the youngest, so to have two close together is a whole other ball game! Interesting how you can see the older/younger dynamic in your kids' and in your own relationship with your brother! I think the fact that you are so mindful of their relationship is great and it sounds like you are doing an awesome job of fostering that bond!

Anonymous said...

My siblings are 24, 21 and 17 years older than I am. Two were out of the house when I was born and the other left for college when I was 1. My parents moved from the midwest to the Pacific NW in the late 1960s, so I never knew my oldest brother well. Tepid is probably the best word to describe our relationship. My sister is like a mother and my other brother is the only 'real' sibling I have.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Momma Jorje: Ha, I hope you're joking! I think your kids are still so young and so close in age that they're more likely to grow up close than not. So maybe "laziness" (read: not interfering) is the way to go. You can let me know! :)

Lauren Wayne said...

@Inder-ific: "Some siblings are just bound to get along better than others, due to basic personality. Nothing went wrong, they are just very different people." Very, very true. I think that's the main thing between my older brother and me, honestly, and why I don't want to be too disappointed or controlling in forcing the sibling relationship. I've often looked at various relatives and in-laws and asked, Would we choose to be friends if we weren't related? And the answer's not always yes.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Dionna @ Code Name: Mama: Yes, that does seem to be those authors' favorite format, doesn't it? The odd fictionalizing of a discussion group coupled with cartoons. I did find the cartoons helpful in giving me language dos and don'ts.

Lauren Wayne said...

@sustainablemum: What's funny is it's my 6yo who's resistant to playing with people! Not just his brother, either; you can ask his friends. ;) But you're right that their dynamic will change as they mature — you've given me a lot of hope for the future.

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