The first sounds of my morning are those of my almost six year old whispering, with a smile I can hear in her voice, that her sister is still sleeping. She leans over me to stroke her hair. Her feet gently pound the floor as she goes off to get dressed and brush her teeth. Minutes later, big sister, kid sister and I are engulfed in laughter as the last of us wakes from slumber to welcome the day. We tickle. We snuggle. We make jokes.
They love each other.
No less than ten minutes later, big sister roars into the room with stomping feet and hovers over her sister, mean face in full effect, as she snatches books out of her hand, “Those are mine!” she screams without kindness. Kid sister masks her hurt feelings, hand on hip, “I was just picking them up for you.” They huff and puff in opposite directions to end up sitting side by side at their craft table. Big sister begins counting for fun, kid sister begins to echo her. “Stop it!” Insert whiny voice. “I’m just counting.” Like a PMSing teenager, big sister flips her hair and goes to her room.
They love each other. Right?
This is an easy morning. There have been plenty of days with tsunami intensity screaming, bickering and teary whining. Beyond plenty of occasions when they’ve hurled each other’s personal belongings across the room or hidden each other’s stuff in not so hard to find places. They are 4 and 6. I’m an only child and completely dumbfounded by the dynamics of their relationship. I am told, however, by other adults who have survived childhood siblinghood that this is par for the course. They enlighten me this is just the beginning; things will continue as is or worsen before true love swallows them whole in a big bubble of sister PDA. They assure me my daughters will come out the other side just fine, unscathed by their daily torment of each other, all Pippa and Kate-like.
The schizo-multiple personality-bipolar nature of sisterhood leaves me, an only child, completely baffled. As a young girl, I dreamed of having a sister. We would brush each other’s hair, share secrets, face life’s ups and downs as a team, act as each other’s protector, each other’s biggest cheerleader. No part of my vision included annoying the crap out of each other every other second. I wasn’t entirely naive, disagreements are a natural part of any relationship. Trouble is I imagined they’d be resolved with the dimpled smiles, group hugs and the kind of heartwarming aw-shucks of a Charles In Charge episode.
Even in my most intimate friendships I’ve never experienced the emotional polarity of sisters. My friends are the people with whom I can be my most brutally honest, vulnerable and silly. We share great moments of laughter and secrets and silence. We endure months, sometimes years, apart. We annoy each other and disagree. But somehow, in my 30+ years, have never had an all out battle of the wraths with any of my nearest and dearest amigos.
Don’t get it twisted. For every second of crazy they unleash on each other, they’ve got hours of unbridled love to share. However, being an only child raising young children, where as the saying goes the days are long but the years are short, it’s the nails on the chalk board moments which are hyper magnified for me. I’m left slack jawed at how their tender hearts survive the ups and downs of a 60+ year marriage in the span of a day, every day. But they do. And they have an abundance of love and forgiveness for each other that is completely foreign to me.
I watch them with complete fascination, like discovering a new life form on Mars. Their sisterhood fills me with joy and an emotion which I can only describe as .05% fear and 94.o5% WTF. Those are the ends of my scales when I observe them and I regularly teeter totter from either extreme. As frustrating as it is to watch them be less than kind to each other, I’ve learned my feelings about their sisterhood are mine to deal with not theirs. Once each of my daughters was old enough to get on the other’s nerves, my instincts had me jumping in at every squabble, big and small. I quickly realized I rarely ever actually helped the situation. I was applying my only child logic to a sister relationship I know nothing about.
I’ve since figured out to keep out of the way. I’m most helpful when I let them have it out and give them the space to find their way back to each other. It ain’t so bad when I try to comfort each one individually on the merits of their own individual emotions but when I try to fiddle with the sister dynamic I tend to make matters worse. Two things to note. First, having it out is all about letting their emotions run their course as long as they’re not hurting anyone. If they start hitting or throwing dangerous objects (remember they’re 4 and 6 so they’re relatively harmless) then of course I intervene lest you think I’ve got a wrestling ring of some sort in our living room. Second, comforting is a matter of validating their feelings and gently reminding them of the emotional skills we’ve been nurturing since birth (translation: using our words and kindness, call it the religion we’re currently practicing). So I resist my natural urges to make them hug it out. I let them be, huffing and puffing, stomping feet, arms crossed tight across their chest, angry faces in full effect.
I let them be. However, I also work damn hard at creating household rules and organization which helps their sisterhood blossom in a positive way. Am I always successful? Nope. But if 1 out of 5 tactics work, then I’ve hit the jackpot. I never imagined raising sisters would be such a juggling act. You’ve got to learn how each one needs to be loved. You’ve got to learn how each one communicates best. You’ve got to learn how to soothe tempers in the best way for each individual. I’ve got to do all of these things without setting off the other sibling during a disagreement. I’ve got to be a leader for my daughters when some days I just want to lie on the couch and watch Dirty Dancing, Cruel Intentions and My Best Friends Wedding all day long.
All of this to say, I don’t know what I’m doing but, like all parents, only children or not, I’m figuring it out as I go along. And like all parents, my children are my teachers and, my fellow parents, insightful tutors. I can’t raise two only children. All I can do is love them each individually and let my love for each be an example of how they should love one another.
*Original image by keithbsmiley via Flikr
Sisters, siblings fascinate me. For a long time, I’ve wanted to kick off a series here on the blog discussing tactics for raising siblings. Because while I believe in staying out of the way, I also believe there are proactive steps a parent can take to set the tone, create an environment where a healthy, loving, supportive, long term sibling relationship can thrive. If you’ve got siblings who you love dearly and who you also happen to like tremendously, let me know in the comments if you’d be up to be interviewed for a future blog post. I want to pick your brain!