They Are Not Half Sisters

They Are Not Half Sisters

By Stephanie Sprenger


 I believe with all my heart that my children will never regard each other as half of anything.


A row of three-year-old ballerinas clad in leotards fidget at the barre, a gangly eight-year-old wearing jeans and a T-shirt smack in the middle. My oldest daughter holds her tearful little sister’s hand as they plié together. It is my three-year-old’s first dance class, and the instructor gently invited her big sister to dance as well, a panacea for her jitters and sobs. Izzy bends down to whisper words of comfort in Sophie’s ear. Little brown heads pressed together, I again marvel that their hair is the exact same shade of chestnut. When I come across an errant baby picture, it’s sometimes hard to tell which daughter I am looking at if eye color—one of their few distinctions— is not immediately evident. My own childhood photographs contain uncanny whispers of each of their faces.

“Strong maternal genes,” I hear from friends who are in the know. I concur, astonished by my daughters’ similarities when they only share partial DNA. My youngest inherited the brown eyes accompanying the fraction of Native American blood in my husband’s veins, while her older sister’s eyes are the nebulous and changing color of the sea, framed by a luscious canopy of thick black lashes. Her chameleon eye color matches mine, but her large eyes and ebony lashes are a gift from her biological father.

Her “birth dad,” she calls him, on the rare occasion he comes up in conversation. When she was in preschool, we began awkwardly referring to him as “Dad in Phoenix” to distinguish him from my husband, whom we called “Daddy.” “Dad in Phoenix is on the phone,” I’d announce every 2-3 weeks. I couldn’t find the gumption to change his moniker, so when he moved to Texas I never bothered to tell my daughter. “Did you see the card from Dad in Phoenix?” I’d inquire, ignoring the postmark from north Texas. It bordered on comical. We had no plans to visit him, so I assumed my lie of omission was harmless.

After several years of using a geographically incorrect nickname, Izzy finally asked the hard questions. On the way to first grade one snowy morning, we managed to fit uncomfortable words like “divorce,” “biological,” “legal,” and “adoption,” into the same vast conversation that encompassed her gay uncles. I pulled away from her school building feeling stupefied, wishing I could temporarily resurrect my decade-gone cigarette habit to absorb the enormity of the ground we’d just covered.

I had never concealed her intricate history—details unraveled as they needed to, and, possessing an excellent memory, my thoughtful daughter even recalled details of “adoption day,” a stifling day in June several months before her fourth birthday when my husband became her legal parent.

Soon after her adoption, Izzy began campaigning for a sister. Not a sibling, a sister. She eerily placed her hand on my belly days before I hovered over the stick on the bathroom counter, praying for a pink line. “There’s a baby in your tummy,” she announced matter-of-factly. She continued to inquire until the day I finally confirmed her hunch, confident that the preceding pregnancy losses wouldn’t jinx my unborn child; Izzy jubilantly ran around the backyard proclaiming, “I’m going to be a big sister!” Whenever we stopped to converse with acquaintances, Izzy would possessively touch my belly, marking her status as big sister.

One day during my pregnancy, a friend innocently, if not foolishly, asked if I was worried about my husband loving Izzy as much now that he had his own baby coming. The implication was unmistakable: only one of his daughters was a real one. My daughters would only be half siblings. Waves of nausea rolled over me and I could feel the pink rushing to my face. “Izzy is his real daughter,” I replied stiffly, causing my flustered friend to back pedal.

When my phone rings this time, it’s been over three years since Izzy laid eyes on my ex-husband. As I announce the call, I suppress the old urge to label him “Dad in Phoenix,” and carefully articulate each syllable of biological dad, mentally tripping over the complications the term brings.

“I want to talk!” my three-year-old announces gleefully, elbowing her way onto the sofa while her big sister glares at her. “He’s my dad,” she whispers irritably, and I stiffen. My youngest child is simply not equipped to absorb such distinctions; having only met the man once, during her infancy, Sophie has no paradigm in which to tidily arrange him. I try to distract her with Daniel Tiger, but she erupts into sobs as I haul her from the room in an effort to respect the sanctity of Izzy’s connection to her birth father.

“That was my baby sister,” Izzy explains ruefully, and I wonder how this makes him feel. He had a family once. He doesn’t anymore. His daughter has a sister who does not belong to him. Do these surreal truths keep him awake at night?

Last Christmas, Izzy tore open a box of gifts from her paternal grandmother in Arizona. She brandished a conciliatory gift bag with one misspelled name, “To Izzy and Sofie,” but the generosity of the gesture was not lost on me. I pictured my former mother-in-law carefully wrapping the presents, deliberately including a sibling who would surely be jealous and confused when no corresponding package arrived bearing her name. A bag filled with marshmallows, candy canes, and chocolates that a pair of sisters would share.

From the moment our tentative five-year-old climbed into the hospital bed next to me to hold her sister for the first time, she was a full-blown sibling and took her role very seriously. Izzy orchestrated elaborate adventures, her dazed infant sister a captive audience in her vibrating bouncy chair. As her sweet companion became a tower-destroying toddler, Izzy tolerated The Wiggles redux while I lamented my bad luck at enduring a second round of the Australian quartet. She quietly advocated for the inclusion of her sister when other children would have begged for respite.

Her efforts to create a playmate paid off—oh, how they play. They race around the living room, vintage aprons tied backwards around their necks. Yellow gingham superhero capes and peals of laughter stream behind them, and they collapse together on the floor in a heap. While I originally entertained fleeting concerns that the five-year age difference would be an obstacle to their closeness—a worry dispelled by deep affection and a shared love of toilet humor—not once have I ever regarded them as half siblings.

Maybe it would be different had there not been a biological parent who signed away legal rights, had my husband not adopted Izzy. Maybe the fraction present in their genetic link would be magnified if there were custodial arrangements, a step-family with other children for whom to apply classifications and nicknames. I’ll never know. What I do know is this: I believe with all my heart that my children will never regard each other as half of anything. Their relationship contains everything that full-blooded siblings experience. It is full of loyalty. Full of conflict. Full of that deep understanding and witnessing that only siblings can share. Full of love.

Author’s Note: As I watched my daughters playing superheroes, it dawned on me how often I forget our family’s complex history. As the girls are only 3 and 8, we have many hard conversations ahead of us.

Stephanie Sprenger is a freelance writer, music therapist, and mother of two girls. She is co-editor at The HerStories Project and blogs at

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The Outsider

The Outsider

By Lynn Adams


My children have shut me out of their closed relationship, and that’s a wonderful thing.

It began during a friend’s visit, in the playroom with my newborn daughter and two-year-old son. The friend had brought a blanket for Margot and a red pinwheel for James. James wasn’t able to blow yet, and I was concerned about it, and later I’d see it as an early sign of his Autism Spectrum Disorder. So he couldn’t work the pinwheel, even after we showed him. Dread was a familiar feeling by then.

My friend and I talked about my baby. Her delicate size, her tendency to sleep angelically all day and cry all evening, her mop of hair the same color as James’. I looked over at James just in time to see him inspecting the sharp end of the pinwheel’s stick. His gaze next moved to his baby sister’s fuzzy head, then back to the pinwheel. He reached out with the pinwheel and poked her lightly. Their eyes locked, but what passed between them surprised me: a combination of thrill and interest as if they’d each just opened a surprise birthday gift and found the other inside.

This is it, I thought: the beginning of the older brother menacing the younger sister. I’d known it was coming, as that’s what I’d experienced with my own brother, four years older. My brother, now a perfectly respectable father of two, had dipped my face into a creek like a chicken nugget into mustard sauce. He’d given me “noogies” well into his thirties. He’d lure me into his room, turn off the light and close the door, and murmur, “When you least expected it… expect it.”

That evening, when I announced bath time, James shouted, “You can’t hear! Baby cry!” He reversed his pronouns, “I” for “you” and “you” for “I,” another early sign of autism that stoked my dread. But he was also using his new sister as a smokescreen. Could they be working as a team? Could James even do that if he had autism?

There are as many ways of having autism as there are people who have it, and James did eventually receive the diagnosis. Since before Margot’s birth, he had been attending developmental therapies to address his delays, and appointments with specialists to rule out other problems. His main challenges during those early years were language development and big-time tantrums. We also had to work to connect with him socially, to bring him out of his own head and into the world around him. Through the appointments and the tantrums, though, Margot tagged along.

At one, Margot started each day by standing up in her crib and yelling, “Jay! Jay Jay!”

He’d hop in with her and they’d roughhouse for awhile.

One morning I heard James saying, “That’s right, Margot. Just pick up a leg and put it right there. Now pull with your arms. I’ll catch you, don’t be scared.” He was mimicking Ms. Sharon, his occupational therapist, almost word for word.

Bump! Margot hit the floor and they both exploded in giggles. From then on, Margot was out of her crib like a super ball every morning before 6:00, bouncing into James’ room.

The next year, James took Margot’s hand, led her into the bathroom, and closed the door. “Just a minute, Mommy,” he said over his shoulder. “I’m going to teach Margot how to use the potty.”

She was his little doll. Everything that was done to him, the instruction, the encouragement, he did to her.

Soon the shenanigans began. One would distract me with a lost toy or a spill, and the other would get into the forbidden fruit, whatever it was that day: my makeup, the toilet bowl, the cookie jar, the trashcan.

“I can’t bear it,” I said to my mother. “They’re the dynamic duo, working together to spread mayhem. How did you handle it when we were little?”

She paused, then said, “It was different with you two. Mostly your brother just menaced you and you tattled on him. Other than that, you didn’t interact all that much.”

Interaction. One of the main areas of impairment in autism, that’s what James and Margot did all day long. Starting with the curiosity of the pinwheel poke, moving through the brother-to-sister lessons on climbing out of the crib and using the potty, culminating now in the give-and-take of the hi-jinks, James and Margot already had a closer relationship than I’d had with my own brother. And neither of us had had autism. What was next? Empathy, that holy grail of social skills development?

Close relationships are not always harmonious ones. James and Margot do their share of fighting, physically and otherwise. They’ve left longlasting marks on one another’s bodies that other people have noticed. But no scars. I continue to complain to my mother about the fisticuffs, the potty words at the table, the madcap dashing around the house.

I’d worried that Margot would have to take care of James, that she’d visit him in the group home, her kitten heels clack-clacking on the linoleum. And that was because of James’ autism. Even before he was diagnosed, though, I worried I’d have to protect her from the menace of her older brother. Like many a worry, these were misplaced.

One day last year after school, Margot got out of the car, sat down cross-legged on the sidewalk, and refused to move. We’d parked a few houses down from ours, so James and I set off down the block, figuring she’d get up and follow. Instead, she began to scream, “Mommy! Don’t leave me here! Don’t leave me all alone! Mommy!”

The girl just needed to get up and walk into our house. But she wasn’t going to go quietly. This had all started when I told Margot she couldn’t have a stick of gum. Of course, that wasn’t the whole story. It had been a long day. But she wasn’t the one with autism. Why couldn’t she just do as she was told?

How did I handle it? I didn’t. Because before I could get over my internal argument about comforting my distressed child versus giving in to a brat, James came to Margot’s rescue. He walked back down the block, hoisted her up, and carried her home, her little legs flapping against his shins. She rested her cheek on his shoulder and closed her eyes. He put her down on the front steps and kissed her.

“Thanks, James,” I said.

He kissed her again, not even seeming to hear me.

Lynn Adams lives in New Orleans with her husband and two children. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, Salon, among other publications. She is a co-author of Autism: Understanding the Disorder and Understanding Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism. Read more from Lynn on her website.

Sibling Rivalry: When Fighting Became A Good Thing In Our House

Sibling Rivalry: When Fighting Became A Good Thing In Our House

By Emily Cappo


Their frequent fighting had become so normal in our house, I think I would have thought something was wrong if they didn’t fight each day.


I grew up with one sibling: a brother, who was two and a half years older. Looking back, I’m pretty sure my parents had it easy with us. Of course we fought like siblings often do, but in general we got along and if we didn’t, our brother/sister fights were usually relatively tame. And now as adults, my brother and I are the best of friends.

I always assumed I’d be a mother to a boy and a girl, because that’s what was familiar to me. I also always assumed I’d only have two kids, because that too was what defined a family for me.

I was wrong on both counts.

I have three kids—not two—and they are all boys. The five of us joke that we are just like the family in “Diary of A Wimpy Kid.” In these books/movies, the mother is a writer who has a column about parenting. The father is a businessman who loathes that his sons play too many video games. The oldest son, Roderick incessantly picks on his middle brother Greg. And, Manny who is the youngest, seemingly receives all the ‘special treatment’ because he’s the baby of the family. Yup, sounds exactly like us.

Except then one day, our family was hit with a crisis that threw us into a tailspin. Suddenly, our rambunctious and occasionally chaotic family looked nothing like the Wimpy Kid family dynamics.

My youngest son—our “Manny” of the family—was diagnosed at the age of 9 with a rare type of pediatric cancer. His treatment required 43 weeks of chemotherapy plus 6 weeks of radiation. Needless to say, it was a long, tough year, but through the entire ordeal, our son showed us what true resilience looks like. He is now back to being a regular kid, going to school, playing with friends, and participating in sports.

Before my son’s diagnosis, my boys would constantly play fight, real fight, and basically instigate any kind of physical activity that frequently ended in bloodshed. In other words, my house may as well have been converted into a boxing ring. With three sons ranging in age from 9 to 16, I was always yelling at them to stop pushing, punching, wrestling, and chasing each other. I’d sometimes wonder if I were cut out to be a mom to three boys. My anxiety would remain in overdrive, worried about whether I’d be headed to the ER with a sibling-induced concussion or broken bone.

After my son’s diagnosis and during his treatment, my two older boys knew that they had to be more gentle, both emotionally as well as physically. Thankfully, they were old enough to understand that their little brother was in a “hands-off” protective zone.

Occasionally though, my sons would forget. Someone would get mad at someone else and before anyone could remember to leave my little guy alone, the fighting would begin. Normally, I’d put on my referee hat and start screaming at them to stop, even though there was no chance of them listening to me. Eventually, someone would get hurt and then it would be over. In fact, their frequent fighting had become so normal in our house, I think I would have thought something was wrong if they didn’t fight each day.

But, when my son was in treatment, the constant fighting and waiting for the inevitable injury was not an option. One day the boys were going at it and it was particularly intense. I thought about breaking them up myself, but then I quickly thought of saying something that I knew would stop the fighting immediately and keep me out of the ring.

“His platelets are low!” I screamed. [Note: This point may have been mildly exaggerated].

The boys instantly separated, even though the two bigger dudes had no idea what a low platelet count was. All they knew was that it sounded important and they did not want to be responsible for harming their little brother, who was already dealing with a low platelet count, whatever that was. I think I caught a discrete wink and smile from my youngest son, who knew that his platelets were not in fact, too low.

Once everyone calmed down, I explained what low platelets were and how an injury, especially one that involved bleeding, could be dangerous.

From then on, and yeah I know this was a little sneaky, I decided that my son would have low platelets for the rest of his treatment. If I saw another fight brewing, all I had to say was, “Platelets!” and it was like a magical cease-fire.

His platelets WERE always on the lower side, although never low enough to need a transfusion. Even so, I justified my little white lie to keep the peace in the house.

Recently, my middle son and youngest son were play-wrestling. My instinct was to stop it, but then I realized first, that they were mostly kidding around, and second, no one had to be careful because of low platelets anymore.

I was never so happy to see my boys fight.

Emily Cappo is a writer and blogger at Oh Boy Mom. ( She is a regular contributor at Huffington Post and has also appeared in a Huff Post Live segment. She has recently completed a memoir, “Hope All Is Well” which chronicles mid-life loss, re-connection, and revelation.



Are You Anyone’s Sister?

Are You Anyone’s Sister?

By Maggie Mulqueen


Having lived through abandonment, it has been difficult to trust that separation can be a component of closeness.


It is because of my relationship with my two older brothers that I questioned whether I ever wanted to be a parent.

“Are you anyone’s sister?” my then four-year-old son, Taylor, asked one evening as I was making his bed, I suddenly felt tears welling up. It was a rare quiet moment between us. At the time he’d been trying to sort out family relationships—trying to comprehend how his grandpa was also his dad’s father. 

My brothers weren’t at my wedding. They weren’t at our father’s funeral. They have never met my husband or my three sons. In truth, I don’t know where my brothers are. I haven’t seen either of them for more than forty years.

So how to begin to answer this question? “Yes” was my answer and that is the truth. But of course, rather than ending the conversation, my answer led to questions that were harder. The next question was “Whose sister are you?” “Well, I have two brothers” I said. We were still on fairly familiar ground as I turned to the wall to hide my tears and tuck in the top sheet. “Where do they live?” “How old are they?” “When will I see them?” 

When my mother divorced my father, I was 12. The years preceding my parents’ divorce were filled with fighting that at times turned violent. Not long after, each of my brothers disappeared from the family. They severed connections with each of us, including each other. Their absence broke my parents’ hearts. I functioned in the world as an only child, shuttling between my parents for holidays and bringing the three of us together for major milestones in my life. I vividly remember the shocked reaction of my future in-laws when they learned I had brothers but no idea how to contact them. As a parent myself I now have more sympathy for my in-laws’ response. As a young woman I felt shame.

After tucking my son into bed, I closed his bedroom door and sat on the landing. Although my son had been satisfied with my answers that night, I knew more questions would come.

It is rare for me to be questioned directly about the topic of siblings. I have learned how to offer only enough information about my brothers to be polite. It can be especially awkward around the holidays (Who are you visiting? Who is coming to dinner? Where do your siblings live?). But that night I decided the tactic I take with the rest of the world, one of evasion, was not one I wanted to use with my children. I wanted to provide information that was age appropriate, while leaving the door open for further questions later. As much distance as I try to put between my childhood and myself, I didn’t want my children to perceive the topic of my family of origin as hidden or forbidden.

Like all parents, I wanted to foster close bonds among my children, and so I created many traditions to lay the framework for a strong sense of family among the five of us. But when my sons fought or pulled away from me, I felt myself panic. The intensity was rooted in memories of family fighting and laced with fear that my sons would leave me, as my brothers had left me. Having lived through abandonment, it has been difficult to trust that separation can be a component of closeness.

Taylor, who is now twenty-one, called home recently and said, “It’s time, Mom. I want to know more about your brothers than just their names and ages.” 

In the intervening years since that night when Taylor was four, the questions had been infrequent but I always answered them as truthfully as possible. As a young adult, however, my son has more probing questions. Taylor’s interest in family relationships became a theme in his own writing during college. This time I did not turn and hide my tears but trusted him with painful details of my childhood that few people have ever heard.

Even though he has never met his uncles, Taylor has questions—about what they look like, what they do for work. He also wonders if he has cousins. I could not answer these questions and doubt if I could even recognize my brothers after so many years. He is a nephew as I am a sister, but only in the abstract. Yet, the fact that I was a sister, the youngest in our family of five, shaped my childhood. The fact that there are two uncles my sons have never met has shaped their childhood as well.

Why is it that we have words such as “widowed,” “divorced,” and “orphaned” but no way to describe ourselves as siblings? Taylor’s recent questions led me to search the Internet. I tried to find my brothers, not necessarily to make contact with them, but to see if they were still alive and if I would recognize them. We are now all in our 60s, a far cry from the young adults we were the last time we saw one another. With some effort I found out they are still alive; both are married. There was no mention of either of them having children. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any images of them.

The existence of the Internet has only compounded my ambivalence about connecting with my brothers. Now that it’s easier to find them, am I somehow obligated to do that? Some days I think I will try to contact my brothers, but other days I feel less inclined to make myself vulnerable to be hurt again. Growing up with them made me strong in many ways. We were competitive both intellectually and physically. Their presence taught me assertiveness and gave me insight into gender differences. Their absence has also made me strong, but in other ways. I place a premium value on relationships and pride myself on the depth and longevity of my connections to others. Ironically, I am probably a better mother to my sons because I had brothers.

There are also days when I find myself wondering if my brothers have ever been tempted to search for me, their sister. Has anyone ever asked either of them, “Are you anyone’s brother?”

Maggie Mulqueen, Ph.D. is a psychologist, writer, and mother of three sons. She lives and works in the Boston area.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: A Book Review

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 11.57.19 AMSibling relationships are some of the most significant ones we have. While their emotional depth and complexity provide fertile ground for fictional explorations, we actually know very little about how we might improve these relationships. In her newest book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, clinical psychologist Laura Markham tackles this important topic by blending her experiences as a mother, parent coach, and researcher.

Many will know Markham from her 2012 book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. In that book she details three ways parents can create a peaceful family environment: 1) regulating emotions, 2) staying warmly connected, and 3) coaching instead of controlling to foster emotional intelligence. These three principles continue to lead in Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, especially as they work together to develop empathy in kids. Markham explains:Empathy helps children develop self-regulation. When a child feels understood, he feels closer to his parents, so he’s more likely to accept limits and cooperate.” The argument is that you could easily swap the word “parents” for “siblings” in the above statement.

At the core of developing this empathy between children is the idea that how parents interact with each child individually—and especially how they discipline each one—shapes the relationships between children. In Chapter 2, one of the best chapters in the book, Markham draws upon research to explain how this works and she then translates this to everyday practice in our often chaotic households. She argues that we should not punish when children mistreat brothers or sisters, but rather set firm limits. The reasoning? From Markham, “As crazy as it sounds, that means they see it as YOUR job to stop them from attacking their sibling when they get angry, rather than as THEIR job to control themselves. When we set limits so the child feels understood, she ends up internalizing our limits—and taking responsibility for herself, even in the absence of authority figures.”

Markham is reassuring that all children will sometimes fight. In fact, this fighting is a good thing because it teaches us how to work out differences with others. This is particularly acute with siblings because, unlike with peers, there is no threat of an exit. For some number of years these little individuals must share a household. This is why, as Markham explains, siblings help kids learn to manage difficult emotions and smooth off the edges of early self-centeredness. In a line I would like to print out and hang in my kitchen, “Our goal as parents isn’t to keep things peaceful by settling our children’s differences. It’s to use the many daily conflicts that arise between our children as opportunities to help them create successful resolutions to their conflicts.”

If you only have a few hours to read, in between sibling fights, I recommend Chapter 5 (along with Chapter 2), which focuses on teaching conflict resolution and the role laughter can play in breaking the tension. In particular Markham discusses ten reasons kids bicker and how to resolve them in this chapter. Also for parents with younger kids looking to nip conflicts in the bud as much as possible early on, focus on Part 3, which contains tips on preparing a sibling for a baby through to the crawling and grabbing phase.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings provides lots of concrete suggestions to improve sibling relationships—note that my husband’s favorite is the thumbs-up to roughhousing—but all of these tips are very general. You won’t find passages focused on brotherly or sisterly relationships, the dynamics between multiples, or any other thoughts on complicated birth order patterns or larger families.

This drawback in Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings is precisely what makes sibling research so difficult in general—there are so many different combinations and configurations and often not a very large sample size. A lot of factors come into play including biology, anthropology, psychology, and sociology when we talk about siblings and it’s often hard to disentangle which factor has the most influence and hence which one to target.

In the end what Dr. Laura Markham does in Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, and what more parenting writers need to do, is succinctly pick out the overarching aims, takeaways, and to-dos to benefit the greatest number of families. For this reason Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings is a solid addition to your parenting library. And I am looking forward to celebrating, thanks to some inspiration for Markham, our families first ever sibling celebration day this year!

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child, the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, and a professor in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.

Somewhere Between A Wish And A Truth: Two Generations of Siblings

Somewhere Between A Wish And A Truth: Two Generations of Siblings

By Carinn Jade

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It was something about becoming parents that rendered our shared childhood irrelevant.


My brother slides his infant daughter into her high chair at Thanksgiving dinner. She picks up her plastic spoon and flings it across the table whereby it hits her brother in the head.

“Ow!” he yells and begins to cry. “She hurt me!”

“She didn’t mean it,” my brother explains. “She’s your sister, she loves you very much.”

Hearing those words from brother’s mouth amidst the tension that hangs between us triggers something so deep that I lose my breath.

“That’s right,” I whisper at the dinner table, my gaze moving from my nephew and niece to my own son and daughter, all four born in as many years.

With my eyes I want to warn them, but I don’t know how. I don’t know when it went from us playing school, and sharing late night mac and cheese, and visiting one another’s colleges to the awkward tension between us now. Was it choosing godparents for our children? Was it trying to plan our parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary? Was it everything in between?

Growing up, my brother and I were so close I barely knew where he began and I ended. We cared for one another, made each other laugh, drove each other crazy. There were periods of time when we drifted apart before we came back together, but I don’t remember the distance and resentment the way it exists today.

For most of our lives we drove in our own lanes. I was the teacher, the writer, the future lawyer. He was the investigator, the scientist, the future computer genius. I was the one who dated, while he waited for “the one.” My brother sought answers; I dwelled in the questions. Since we were opposites in almost every way, there was no competition. On our worst days, we did our own thing side-by-side. On our best days we supported and complemented each other perfectly. The yin to my yang.

My brother and I were born twenty-three months apart, exactly the age difference between my own son and daughter. I watch my children play and fight, scream and hug, shifting from one to the next and back again without any transition. My husband, unfamiliar with this dynamic, looks at me and wonders aloud, “is this normal?” and I’m so choked up I can only nod my head yes. This is exactly how it used to be. Until it was no longer.

It was something about becoming parents that rendered our shared childhood irrelevant. My brother and I live across the street from one another in a city of millions, and our children go to the same school. Yet those hours we’d spent reminiscing about how we grew up were now replaced by bickering over the way we’d raise our own. You let them eat that? You let them watch this? The way we used to rib each other, as siblings do, suddenly felt like daggers to the heart when they involved our progeny. Everything became a competition and we judged each other harshly.

I fear I will spend the rest of my life watching my son and daughter interact, waiting for the rift that will send them in a new direction, one where the sibling bond is stretched so thin it no longer filters anything. I had two children close together so I could replicate what my brother and I had. How could I have known that having them would change us?

At five and three-years-old, we haven’t yet touched on the inevitable sibling rough patches that will sprout up. Right now they share a room, they love doing everything together and neither one remembers a day that the other didn’t exist. There is no hint of the playdates where one will be ousted or the secrets they will share with friends the other doesn’t know. How long will this cohesion last? A few years? A decade? As a mother and a sister, that’s not good enough. I want them to be close forever. Because I believe we can be close forever, despite where we are today.

When I hear my brother say to his son, “that’s your sister, she loves you. She will always love you, no matter what,” I wonder if it’s a wish for his own children or whether he knows it’s true.

Carinn Jade is a mother, lawyer, writer and non-sleeper. She tweets @carinnjade and blogs at

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At Home

At Home

By Kris Woll

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Our blue Ford extended van, a rental, broke down about 10 miles outside of town. We—my big brother, my three older sisters, my mom and dad, our temperamental terrier, and myself—were on the way home from our second and final vacation as a family. It was the summer of 1985. The big kids were 19, 18, 16, and 13; I was the 7-year-old baby of the family.

The van had carried several coolers, stacks of suitcases, piles of pillows, and a steady stream of Mom’s Salem Lights across South Dakota, into Wyoming, through the Rocky Mountains, and back through Nebraska and along the edge of Iowa. We’d just made it into our little corner of Minnesota when it broke down—in the dark, in the heat, the shimmering lights of our small prairie hometown visible, so close, but so far away, on that vast horizon. My father swore. My sisters complained. My mom smoked. I am pretty sure I cried. The dog whined, and my brother took her for a walk in the ditch to go pee.

On that night, in that moment in time, home seemed to be a pretty clear-cut place. From the vantage point of that broken-down rental van, it was somewhere in the middle of the low row of lights shining in the distance: the white two-story with brown shutters in the center of town, with crab apple trees in the yard and a basketball hoop on the garage and a blue metal swing set out back and wood paneling in the hallway and crowded upstairs filled with kids. It was the place where we all lived, together. A bum engine might delay our arrival, but we all knew where we were headed.

And thanks to a kind soul who stopped and brought Dad into town and to our garage so he could pick up our Caprice Classic station wagon and come back to get us, we got there. That night my brother and sisters and I climbed, tired and relieved and one by one and as we had for years and years, up the soft brown carpeted stairs to the second floor filled with bedrooms, four for the five of us. We all brushed our teeth crowded around the one small sink the bathroom we shared, littlest in front, five strikingly similar faces—those cheekbones, that nose!—gathered in the medicine cabinet mirror.

And then summer turned into fall and everything changed. Well, not everything. The stairs still had soft brown carpet; the second floor kept all four bedrooms; the metal swing set remained firmly cemented in Dad’s neatly mowed backyard. But the oldest two—my brother and one of my sisters – packed up their (Billy Joel) records and (Toto) posters and moved away. To college, two hours away. I was asleep in my bed—the top bunk, in the room I shared with the sister closest (at 6 years older) in age—when they left. My brother stopped into my room and kissed my cheek. I pretended to be asleep, too sad to say goodbye.

Despite vacated space just across the hall, I refused to change my sleeping arrangements. My parents tried everything—new bed linens in pastel plaid, a relocated Barbie Dream House and bookshelf for my Little House on the Prairie books—but I would not comply. My Cabbage Patch Kids rested on my undisturbed comforter each night while I wandered back into the room I had shared with my closest sibling, a sister 6 years older, since my parents set up my crib in her corner. She kindly put up with my presence. For years. For her teen years. I filled my sticker book with scratch-n-stiff stickers and snuggled my stuffed Smurf while she studied the periodic table and wrote papers on Fahrenheit 451. We listened, together, to the “Top 9 at 9” on her clock radio by the twinkling light of the reading lamp clipped up behind her bed.

Two years later, the next sister left for college, leaving behind yet another mostly-empty room.

I continued to cross the hall to share a room come bedtime.

Until one day, five years and two months after the van broke down south of town, my roommate left for college. I helped my parents move her into her dorm room, carrying in her new comforter and a mauve plastic milk crate filled with microwave popcorn and towels and apple-scented shampoo into the low brick building where she would now live. On the ride home in our four-door Buick—a downsize purchase when our Caprice Classic hit the skids—I had the whole backseat to myself. That night I slept on my own, surrounded by empty bedrooms that I would, eventually, colonize and then, six years later, leave.

My parents sold that house a few years ago. By the time they did, we all had families and houses of our own; the old house’s upstairs filled only on a couple holidays each year. Its rooms featured minimal furnishings—cast-offs from downstairs, the few items that none of us pillaged for our first apartments, the bike and treadmill Mom and Dad bought for the free time and space they had after we all left. Even that one back closet—the one that once held a vast collection of old prom dresses and bridesmaid dresses and piles and piles of dyed satin shoes—was empty, thanks to a big donation to the high school drama department. (Now you know why every production there looks remarkably like a 1990s special occasion.)

Before my parents moved, they hosted one last family cookout. I expected it to be an emotional event. The 20-and-a-half (I was 6 months pregnant at the time) of us gathered—some from close by, others of us from a bit further away—in the big back yard on a hot, sticky June evening. We said our goodbyes to the place in a rush when a summer storm blew up quickly, as they often do in that prairie town. We didn’t have time to walk back up the soft brown-carpeted stairs together one last time. Instead we abruptly gathered our bags and our Pyrex bowls of coleslaw and our children, and ran through the wind and thunder to our own cars—vans and sedans parked in a row in the driveway. I teared up a bit as we drove away that night, as my childhood home faded into a blur of rain and night, but my sadness only lasted a few minutes …

Which was about how long it took us to drive to my brother’s house, a recently restored old gem in the center of my hometown where he now lives, and where my siblings and our partners and our children reconvened. We sat on his porch and watched the lightening and wind. We told stories, like the one about the blue rental van that broke down at the end of our second-and-final family vacation, the summer before the oldest kids left for college. And we were, on that summer night, as at home together as ever.

Kris Woll is a Minneapolis-based writer. Read more of her work at

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Play With Me

Play With Me


In the fall, Emily will head off to college, leaving our nest lopsided—and her only brother behind. Like Daniel, I was the youngest child of the family; I can understand how he’ll feel when she’s gone.


“Mom, I need you!”

I hadn’t heard these words from my almost 15-year-old son in what seemed like a decade. Calling for me from his end of the hallway was something he hadn’t done since a bout of bad dreams and restless sleeps a few years ago. “What’s up?” I said, resting the book I’d been reading on my chest, propping my glasses on top of my head. “I need you,” he repeated, this time a little firmer, a little louder. “Can you come here?”

He sat at the edge of his unmade bed as I entered his room; he was shirtless and wearing gym shorts, a baseball cap hung low over his hazel eyes, his foot crossed over his leg, resting on his other thigh. A quick scan of the room revealed a wet towel or two, inside out clothes, was that a fork and a plate with banana bread crumbs on the floor next to his bed? I cringed before refocusing my attention to the strange looking item sticking out of his size-12 foot. He was looking down at it, shaking his head, his hair still damp from his shower, sweat lingering at the nape of his neck.

“Can you pull this thing outta me?” he said, his man-like hands still gripping his foot. “I think I’m gonna pass out, ” he added, his wince coated with a thick layer of Daniel-like drama.

He’d been playing hockey in his room with the new stick we had just given him for Hanukkah. An accidental hit of the rubber ball somehow ricocheted off the bulletin board hanging on his wall, with a direct strike to a thumb tack, the one with a neon green clip and a white strip of paper still attached. A slight misstep and now the tack, clip and all, was lodged in his foot. But it wasn’t just the length of the tack and clip jutting out of his foot that had my attention—it was the strip of paper with “Play With Me Coupon” written in royal blue block letters.

It had been Daniel’s 7th birthday, and big sister Emily gave him a stack of her homemade coupons, all wrapped up in a shoebox filled with hues of blue tissue paper she’d found in the upstairs closet. Over the years, he had used them all, or so I thought, presenting strips of paper to her, like tickets to a show, whenever he wanted immediate access to join her fun.

Not many things had been pinned to Daniel’s bulletin board, only his most special and coveted trinkets—a New York Giants Super Bowl pennant, a Derek Jeter picture, and a homemade “Play With Me Coupon” his sister had given him for his 7th birthday. And he had kept it, all these years.

“I’m Mrs. Olin and you are my student,” Emily had said to Daniel, her lopsided pigtails bobbing as she pointed to the purple plastic chair for her younger brother to sit in. She had hung geography and math posters on the walls of the playroom, using a pointer to “teach” him. On a different day it was a game of library, she and her friends the librarians, setting up areas of different themed and labeled books, Matt Christopher in one corner, Junie B. Jones and Henry and Mudge in another, with a check out station, using bookplates and a stamp pad for Daniel to take out and return his selections. Over the years the games changed, made up worlds on the backyard swing set or on their bikes, drawing roads and stop signs with different colored chalk on the blacktop of our long driveway.

But then, one day, it stopped. “Mom, can you tell him to leave us alone,” Emily said, her bedroom door shutting, her make believe games now “for members only,” behind closed doors, with her friends. Her brother now stood on the outside, his head and gaze downward, his little shoulders slumped; he was no longer invited.

Growing up, my brother was my childhood playmate. We were superheroes running around the backyard, DJs choosing our radio station’s playlist from our selection of 45s and cassette tapes. What I didn’t know then but am certain of now is that besides our parents, our siblings are the only true witnesses to our childhood, the ones who share the kaleidoscope of family experiences both high and low. If we are lucky, like I have been, they are among the deepest and most meaningful relationships we will ever know. “I’m playing ball with my friends, go find something else to do,” he told me one Saturday afternoon, discarding me along with our days of head-to-head Coleco football, Battleship tournaments and Monopoly marathons.

He was the first to leave for college, my brother. The dinner table felt quiet without his sports talk and our inside jokes, his humor and our banter. Our family square quickly became a triangle and I hadn’t been ready for it. In the fall, Emily will head off to college, leaving our nest lopsided—and her only brother behind. Like Daniel, I was the youngest child of the family; I can understand how he’ll feel when she’s gone.

Had Daniel been holding on to the coupon these past eight years for the right moment to cash it in, or was the strip of paper a silent reminder of the passage of time?

“On the count of three, I’m going to pull it out,” I said, crouched down next to him. “OK, go for it,” he said closing his eyes. “One. Two. Three.” I pulled the tack out quickly, in one shot, and it was gone. Blood spurted, and Daniel re-opened his eyes as I held a bath towel firmly on his foot, putting pressure on the wound. “You’re going to be fine,” I said. “The pain will eventually stop.” Surprisingly, the white “Play With Me Coupon” was still intact, without a spot of blood, a crease or a tear. Without him noticing, I slipped the paper into my pocket, not wanting anything to happen to this remnant of my children’s bond. “It’s done,” I said, our eyes locking a half-second longer.

Without another word, he picked up his hockey stick and found the rubber ball, as if nothing had happened. And I headed back to my room to finish the chapter I had been reading, trying to pretend nothing had yet changed.


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Saving My Sister

Saving My Sister

WO Saving my Sister ART

I hated visiting my sister in the hospital, but I did, because though her personality had completely changed, she was the same sister I once thought was in charge of my earth’s orbit.


“Liddy, what’s going on?” I asked my older sister who sat across from me at the kitchen table, scratching her arms until they looked raw. Lydia had been home only six weeks from a three-month stay in Harbor Fields, a psychiatric hospital.

“Dr. B gave me the wrong medicine,” she said. It was obvious now that her psychiatrist had prescribed, for the second time, the wrong medication and Lydia was having an allergic reaction. Her skin itched and her eyes appeared frosted.

It was a Saturday morning in November, Lydia’s 21st birthday, a day I had planned for all week, thinking I could make everything better for her, make up for the months she lost at Harbor Fields. I was 16, anxious, and in charge, our parents away for the day picking up our brothers from college. I’d made confetti birthday cake with pink frosting and rainbow sprinkles, the kind Lyds always made for my birthday when I was little, before she got sick. “Make your wishes,” she would say, “a sister-wish too,” she’d add, which meant a wish for something for both of us.

Lydia and I always made a big deal of each other’s birthdays. When I turned 13 Lydia bought me the eye shadow kit I had wanted from Woolworth’s. My mother wouldn’t buy it but Liddy had saved her allowance. “Check under there,” Liddy said, pointing to my pillow when I went to bed that night. I pulled out the pink plastic case. Inside were four squares of glittery powder the color of Easter eggs. Lydia showed me how to apply the eye shadow and made my eyelids look bluebird blue. I looked in the mirror and for the only time in my life felt almost as pretty as Lydia.

It was past noon now, the medication mix up ruining my birthday plan. The pills were having an impact—Lydia did not want the cake, she dumped it in the garbage, saying “not now.” She insisted on eating grapes fast, two at a time, telling me they had to keep each other company in her belly, while she paced around the perimeter of the braided rug.

I left two more messages with Dr. B, following up with calls to CVS to see if the prescription had been faxed in. By 3:00, when there was no call back and no prescription, I told Lydia to get in the car. “We’re going to Dr. B’s,” I said. I sped north on Round Swamp Road. Dark haired and dark-eyed, her eyebrows plucked into thin crescents, Lydia sat in the passenger seat, picking her cuticles.

As I drove, anger boiled inside of me. Anger at Dr. B and anger at the mental health system that had done little to help Lydia. Her stint in Harbor Fields had simply sterilized months of her life. There, she lived like an inmate, as animated as a potted plant, the drugs having diluted her once vibrant personality. During her stay she was labeled bipolar and given so much medicine that her speech slurred and her hands shook.

I hated visiting my sister in the hospital, but I did, because though her personality had completely changed, she was the same sister I once thought was in charge of my earth’s orbit. I remembered when I was six and Lydia eleven and Lydia saved my dollhouse, which had drowned when a hurricane flooded our basement. The dollhouse floated in the murky water but Lydia waded knee deep to rescue it. Late that night, in the room we shared, I woke to the sound of her blow drying the miniature wood furniture, using a toothpick to get the mud out of the thumb-sized drawers.

Not long after the dollhouse rescue Lydia got noticeably sick, rocking wildly in the chair beside my bed late at night, whispering to the doll she kept on her lap, writing the same sentence line after line in her velvet-backed journal; something is wrong with me. The worse Lydia got, the more passive and quiet I became; an onlooker watching her wither. My role was to stay calm in the midst of her cracking psyche. I was the steady sister, the perfect child my parents would never have to worry about.

The drive to Dr. B took half an hour. I wondered what I would do when we got there, what I would say. We pulled into the parking lot. “Come on Lyds,” I said grabbing her hand. The elevator didn’t come, so she followed me up eleven flights of stairs. There was no receptionist. I tore into Dr. B’s office. He was in session with another patient, a 40-something woman sitting in a stuffed chair, stunned and staring at me while Lydia stood open-mouthed at Dr. B’s door.

“I called you twice,” I said. “It’s Lydia’s birthday for Christ sake and she’s not going to be doped up on the wrong medicine.” I shook the plastic bottle of pills like dice in front of Dr. B’s face. He was a little man, an old man with pitted skin and I wondered how the hell he could possibly relate to any of Lydia’s issues. “He’s a quack,” I said to the woman in the stuffed chair, my voice rising in the room.

“You calm down,” Dr. B said, putting his arm around my shoulder, pointing me out to the reception area. “Call the prescription in now. I want to see you do it,” I said. My heart double pumped. “I’ll have your license for this,” I shouted as I slammed the door and raced down the stairwell with Lydia, laughing now. I laughed and cried at the same time. “No doctor is going to screw up your birthday, ” I said, empowered and exhilarated for having yelled at Dr. B and for having stood up for my sister.

“Do you think he’ll call it in,” Lydia asked. “He will,” I said. We drove directly to the CVS and waited an hour for Lydia’s medicine. We went home and changed into miniskirts, then met our cousin Marybeth at Ole Moles, Lydia’s favorite Mexican restaurant. Over guacamole and bean burritos Lydia told Marybeth “the story of the break in on Dr. B” as Lydia had already begun referring to it. “She called him a quack,” Lydia went on, gesticulating wildly, happier than I had seen her in months. This time Lydia ate her cake and her hands did not shake, I brushed a stray bit of chocolate frosting from her cheek. When we left it was dark, our old blue Cadillac with the taped up glove box lit below a streetlamp. Lydia got in, looking like a kid next to me in the big bucket seat, her tie-dyed shirt loud against the black leather.

Author’s Note: This moment took place 25 years ago. My beautiful sister is my mentor and my hero. She has her MA in social work.

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The Twins and The Pendulum

The Twins and The Pendulum

By Andrea Lani


It’s Thanksgiving morning. I’m in the kitchen making pies and my nine-year-old identical twin sons are in the living room torturing and murdering each other.

I blame video games and movies.

Stupify. Protego. Protego. Protego. Expelliarmus. Imperio. Rictusempra. Crucio. Crucio. Sectumsempra. Avada kedavra!

The boys have recently discovered they can download games on an old cellphone, and whenever the house falls silent—which is far too often these days, for a household of five—I find them squeezed together on the couch, heads bent over that silly little screen. This morning, I gave them a list of things they needed to do before they could have any screen time: play outside, practice their multiplication flash cards, read for half an hour, work on writing.

They did everything but the writing—their nearly wordless comics didn’t meet the requirement—and I nixed the game time and told them to find something else to do. Go back outside and make a snowman. Build Legos. Play cribbage. Anything, anything, but stare at that screen. They’ve decided to have a wizard duel—no doubt inspired by the five-hour Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows double-feature we indulged in yesterday, in celebration of my being let out of work early due to a snowstorm—and now blast each other with spells and curses.

With these two boys, there is a fine line between playing and fighting, the main difference being how long it takes for one of them to start crying. I have grown used to their near-constant wrestling, fake fights, and general rough-housing, only noticing when something breaks or when a friend is over and, as her sibling-less child plays with my boys, I see her visibly cringe with each crash and slam. Last summer, I attended a performance of Macbeth at a local community theatre, and, as Macbeth and Macduff, dressed in modern costume, threw fake punches at each other, I laughed out loud, despite the drama. The scene was exactly what I witness every day in my own living room, only less convincing.

There is a thing called a pendulum wave—a framework with twelve or fifteen heavy balls, or bobs, suspended in a row by incrementally longer strings—that is used to demonstrate principles of physics like energy, forces, position, and velocity. When the bobs are released together, they begin swinging in time, but soon break away into “quasi-chaos,” all of the bobs swinging in what appears to be wild disarray. After a few moments, however, the bobs align themselves so that each bob swings exactly opposite the next, like children on swings, one swinging forward and the other back, reaching their point of equilibrium at the same moment. Finally, the bobs break into the “wave,” like a crowd in a sports arena, each pendulum following the next in smooth, snake-like undulations.

The first time I saw a pendulum wave demonstration, I thought, that’s the twins! Like two pendulum bobs, sometimes my boys swing wildly out of sync. They call each other names (“turd nugget” being the current favorite), pick on each other, boss each other around, and, occasionally, they tumble together in a brawl. At these times all I need to do is send them into separate parts of the house. The two of them share a bedroom, ride together on the same bus, spend the day in the same classroom, attend the same daycare, and sit at the same dinner table—sometimes they need a break from each other. After five minutes alone, the friction usually calms and the quasi-chaos settles back into something resembling equilibrium.

More often, each pendulum will swing opposite the other, as the boys take turns being the difficult one and the compliant one. It’s like the Road Runner and Coyote punching out at the end of the day, but instead of working the same shift, they’re job-sharing. One day one boy hates dinner, slides out of his chair fifteen times while working on a single math worksheet, spends half an hour avoiding getting in the shower, keeps his light on long after bedtime. Meanwhile, the other gobbles his food, races through his homework, hops in and out of the shower, and is asleep by eight o’clock. The next day, or the next week (unlike objects governed by the laws of physics, my children’s moods are completely unpredictable) they switch.

As with the pendulum wave demonstration, things around here get most fascinating when the twins synchronize, like when, from different corners of the house, and apropos of nothing, they break into song—usually something by Weird Al or a bawdy tune handed down through fourth graders from time immemorial—one boy starting just a beat behind the other; when they invent an imaginary world and move through it as if they both can see the exact same invisible walls and buildings and creatures; or like now, while they point their wands at each other and fall down, petrified.

Of course, if they were real wizards with real wands, both of them would be dead by now and my living room blown to smithereens. But they’re not wizards, just two normal boys—as normal as you can be when you share the same DNA—a pair of pendulum bobs swinging through their days, sometimes crazily out of whack, and sometimes in near-perfect alignment.

Andrea Lani is a writer, public servant, and mother of three boys. Her writing has appeared in Brain, Child, Orion, About Place Journal, Kindred, and Northern Woodlands, she is an editor at  Literary Mama, and she blogs at at

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I Have Kids Ten Years Apart/I Have Kids One Year Apart

I Have Kids Ten Years Apart/I Have Kids One Year Apart

There is no ideal way to space children. But a family dynamic can be dependent on how many years there are between siblings. Julie Bristol has three children, two of whom are ten years apart.  Debra Liese has three children, two of whom are less than a year apart. Their parenting experiences have been very different as a result.


I Have Children Ten Years Apart

By Julie Bristol

juliebristolExactly ten years, two months, two weeks and eleven minutes after my firstborn entered the world, my middle child assumed her perch on the family tree. My older girl was quietly enchanted with this new addition to our family. When I first placed her new sibling in her arms she beamed with pride, holding her gently and gazing endlessly at her tiny form. The first days were blissful as my older girl became a sister but, at two weeks old, the baby found her voice and began screaming. For hours. Every. Single. Day.

In trying to soothe my infant, suddenly my ten-year-old no longer had my full attention. And, as I was not willing to inflict a wailing baby on others, we could no longer go to many of the places that my older child loved to frequent, hushed places like Barnes & Noble with its world of exciting books, plush chairs and hot chocolate. One day I found her sobbing in the living room. She turned to me and asked desperately, “Mom, how can you stand this?” “The baby is sensitive,” I replied. “No! She’s just a brat!” It was clear my older daughter was beginning to resent the tiny usurper.

Yet as the baby grew, in between the screaming fits, she was bright and full of joy. My older girl could not help but to engage with her. And as a toddler, when she started to explore more of the world around her, her big sister sought out toys for her, tickled her tummy and toes, brushed her dark hair and raised smiles with tender kisses on her cheeks. Each week, when we took my older child to the stables where she worked and rode horses, the little one would tramp around after her in her ladybird wellies, listening intently as her sister told her about each horse, and explained what she was doing as she cleaned stalls.

It was heart-warming to see them play together—my oldest would run around on all fours, pretending to be a horse, with her younger sister perched precariously on her back, amidst gales of laughter. There were times when my older daughter grew tired of her younger sister’s attention, but the big age gap meant that the usual kind of squabbling and fighting simply did not occur. When she was unhappy with me, the little one would run to her sister—her ally. And whenever I spied them snuggled up together on the sofa, the oldest reading to the younger, I felt my heart become a universe of joy.

One of the loveliest things about having a large age gap was that all of the firsts remained firsts. I was truly amazed at each milestone with each child. I was able to fully indulge, unabashedly, each of my babies. What happiness for my older child to also witness those events, to delight in her sister’s progress; to be as much a part of helping teach her about the world as I. Being an older sister by so many years also helped my firstborn gain confidence, for she was so revered by her younger sister that she could not help but to feel important and valued.

With that decade between my children, I never had to leave my baby crying because my toddler needed me. I did not have to contend with breastfeeding an infant while negotiating a two- or three-year-old—with two children in diapers, two children potty-training, two children to settle into bedtime routines, two car seats, two sets of toys, two little ones sick, the terrible twos alongside the taxing threes. If I needed to have a quick shower during one of baby’s rare, quiet moments, her sister would watch over her. No concerns for me about a toddler trying to feed the infant buttons, or coins, or dirt from the plant pot, or poking her in the eye because she did not like her in a moment.

The relationship between my girls was, and is, incredibly special—the older to the younger part sister, part friend, part mother-figure, paragon of virtue. As adults, they are firm friends sharing a mutual, deep respect and affection for one another, the childhood hurts and resentments tucked away in a place of acceptance, and very much forgiven.

There is a gap of ten years between my first and second children, six-and-a-half between my second and third and, thus, a whopping sixteen-and-a-half years between my first and last children. Despite this, all three girls are very close. And having such large gaps allowed me to learn and grow as a mother at more leisure than those who have children close together. Some of the success within familial relationships is due to personalities, but having time and space were magic ingredients in our family. I would choose the same again.

Julie-Marie Bristol is a writer, mother of three, and is also a stained-glass and mosaic artist.


I Have Children One Year Apart

By Debra Liese

linked armsMy sister and I are not twins, but growing up, we were incessantly asked if we were. When we said no—though sometimes we also said yes, because what could be funnier than pretending you share more genetic material than you actually do—they’d say, with some incredulity, “but you may as well be!”

So you’re Irish twins, our inquisitors would exclaim, undaunted in their zeal for classification. Half Irish herself, my mother never warmed to the term. There was good reason for her aversion. Though the modern vernacular appears to refer benignly to children born in the same calendar year, the term originated in the 1800s as a derogatory slur directed at a surging influx of poor Irish Catholic immigrants. The invective was nasty in multiple ways; close-aged siblings were implied to be the result of scant birth control, education, and restraint.

My sister and I, at thirteen months apart, were technically not Irish twins. But, with an age difference of just under twelve months, my own children are.

These days, parenting op-ed pages are bursting with debates about the “best” possible age spacing, as if full control over the precise moment of conception is a luxury everyone enjoys. A two-year gap often gets the best showing, purportedly for striking a responsible balance between close-in-age cohesiveness and care-taking ease. In an era fanatical about planning, Irish twins are often assumed to be the result of impulsiveness or miscalculation, though children are born close together for all kinds of reasons, some of which are quite intentional. Rising maternal ages often compel women who want more than one child to hurry up and produce a second. For parents who plan to cut back on work during their children’s earliest years, but can’t afford to do so indefinitely, closely spaced births can help them to make the most of that time.

It didn’t take long for me to gather in those chaotic early days that my happily growing family inspired a kind of slack-jawed amazement or concern, the abject expressions of which I met with every time we’d set foot in public, which to be fair, was not often for at least a year. The writing was on the wall before my third pregnancy even ended. As if returning from maternity leave already pregnant was not laughable enough, when I attended my four-year-old’s school picnic with her baby brother balanced—gracefully, I thought—on my pregnant stomach, two other mothers walked past me murmuring, “That poor woman.” It was, I admit, a little disconcerting.

Not long after that picnic, my youngest daughter was born. A tough, sweet girl who seemed to intuit the need for cooperation, she was great at upending preconceptions about the difficulty of three children, and close-in age-siblings alike. She was, quite simply, a joy—which isn’t to say those years weren’t powered by a lucky brew of sleep deprivation and adrenaline.

No matter how you cut it, having two children within the same calendar year is no slight commitment. If mine were a result of an optimistic read of my own energy levels, they were also the result of my own childhood. I had every reason to be optimistic: My sister and I shared a closeness that was built as much on syncronicity of life-stage as it was emotional resonance. I have no memory of a childhood before she arrived, and life without her remains unimaginable. But others’ concerns regarding my own children’s spacing persisted well until we were out of the woods of joint infancy, when once again, strangers crowed “what a lovely family!” instead of gasping “how do you cope?”

The projected anxiety is an interesting mirror of our increasing tendency to view parenthood as an enterprise that should be less primordial and more a carefully orchestrated dance of timing around any number of factors, personal and professional. Space siblings too much, and you’re dragging a bored twelve-year-old to the playground. Space them too close, and you’re risking premature labor, robbing your children of the ability to revel in separate infancies, and forcing them to share everything.

Now preschoolers, my younger two simply look like boy-girl twins, an illusion that puts many questions to rest. And for certain practical purposes, they are twins. There were, inevitably, two in diapers, two in strollers, two, in a twist of ridiculousness, eligible to start kindergarten in the same year. Asking educators for advice on this particular issue, I’m more often than not met with baffled silence. It’s not, apparently, a scenario occurring with enough frequency to have inspired any policy at all.

And yet, a year of their own, both in school and other arenas, is something I’ve come to see they each need. The trickiness of raising Irish twins lies not in the many ways they are like twins, but in the ways that they aren’t. To the untrained eye, they are identical developmentally, their strawberry blonde heads bouncing along at the same level, their car seats traded for boosters simultaneously, even their meltdowns rising in twin volcanic peaks at the witching hour. The persisting fascination with all things matched makes the world eager to swoop them up in twin mystique, muse about shared languages and shoe sizes. And yet, they are in subtly different places on the continuum of childhood. Their growth is staggered when it comes to many milestones that are important to them: learning to read, riding a bike, saying a brave goodbye at the school door.

My twins-who-aren’t-twins no longer evoke concern for their mother’s imminent survival. They are newly capable of wonders like walking in a straight line at school pickups, and riding contentedly in a grocery cart. They attend (adorably) a mixed-age preschool, take care of each other when they cry on the playground, and fight over who gets to sit on my lap at breakfast, usually coming to a truce, teetering on their half to spear strawberries from a shared dish. Close and independent, the same but different, they will grow up answering a question I know by heart. Are you twins? Sometimes they answer yes and sometimes they answer no, but I don’t need to ask why. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Debra Liese works in scholarly publishing and lives in a country town with her husband and three children.

Sibling Rivalry, a Lament

Sibling Rivalry, a Lament


 I didn’t think it would be like this, that my love for each of them, so fierce and unique, wouldn’t be contagious among them. 


I didn’t think it would be like this, that my children would fight so much. I wanted a big family to stand over, the captain of a team, not a referee endlessly blowing my whistle on the fifty-yard line of their rivalry.

I didn’t think it would be like this, when my belly started to swell only a year and half after our first son was born. I chose for them to be close in age, I believed less time between them, less air, would create intimacy, like a vacuum. What more beautiful gift to give a two year old than a baby brother?

I didn’t think it would be like this, that they would be so different. “Chalk and cheese,” as we say in Britain, “apples and oranges.” Both fruit, but the juice doesn’t run the same. Intense, focused, solitary meets quirky, frenetic, outgoing; introvert rubs against extrovert. A strange irony that the qualities I relish in one are the very thing that drives the other to distraction.

I didn’t think it would be like this, their dynamic so repetitive, so predictable it defies logic. The same scenario played over and over again, the dance they do. The younger one goads, the older one lashes out. He’s annoying me. He’s hurting me. It’s a tired record, but it keeps on spinning no matter where I put the needle.

I didn’t think it would be like this, that our third child would be two children, that the way they vied for space in the womb would become a template for all that came next. A tug of war so intense it kindles in me anger, the hotness of which I have never felt before in my life. Bicker, squabble, tussle, tangle, twins who inspire a veritable thesaurus of fighting words. This is mine. No, it’s mine. Value defined solely by another’s interest.

I didn’t think it would be like this, the little ones locking horns with the big ones. Leave each other alone! It’s my mantra in moments when they are four strong, a policy of disengagement, of splendid isolation, the ticket to getting us through the next meal, the next outing. How many times a day do I say it, do I shout it, in a voice shrill and shredded, a voice I hardly recognize as my own? Don’t. Even. Look. At. Him.

I didn’t think it would be like this, my husband and I cleaving the family in half to buy a weekend’s respite. He takes two and I take two so the siblings nearest in age get a break from the all-consuming-ness of their relationship, so we get a break from it. The animating cliche of our parenting not “safety in numbers,” not “strength through solidarity,” it is rather sadly: “divide and conquer.”

I didn’t think it would be like this, that my love for each of them, so fierce and unique, wouldn’t be contagious among them. That their care for one another would sprout, haphazardly, in the cracks between their impatience and resentment. That it would manifest itself in headlocks more often than in hugs. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference, true enough. But aphorisms are cold comfort when your first son is telling your second son he wishes he was never born.

I didn’t think it would be like this, that we would be so close now. She used to pin me down, knees pressing hard into the flesh of my upper arms. She used to lock me out of her room, a lonelier kind of hurt. We fought with purpose, we did: fistfuls of hair, perfectly primed insults. The last time it was physical we were in college already, too old for me to be chasing her up the stairs, ripping a shoe off her foot, because, well because it was mine.

I didn’t know it would be like this, that thirty-six years later my sister would be my best friend, the joint curator of the antiques of our past, the only other product of our idiosyncratic parents. I didn’t know it would be like this, how much I would cherish her simply for being the witness to my childhood.


All My Children

All My Children

18883895975_2a16b01868_bBy Katherine Ozment

Our five-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Jessie, is curled in my lap—as much as any five-and-a-half-year-old child can curl in her mother’s lap. Her long, gangly legs don’t quite fit anymore. She’s got one thumb in her mouth, the other hand pulled tight to her chest, and her face is resting against my breastbone—the fetal position, kindergarten-style.

Across the room, Annie, our eighteen-month-old, sees Jessie in her favorite spot and blows a gasket. Her brow furrows and she waddles toward us like a mad duck, her round belly clearing her path as she steps on strewn toys and bangs into the table, then a few chairs, en route. She’s making a noise I can only describe as keening, and I’m reminded once again of the wild intensity—and sheer absurdity—of this thing called sibling rivalry. A keening, waddling, pissed-off duck is coming at me as a delicate, too-tall flower lies limp and sad in my arms. This can’t end well.

Annie reaches us, and with one meaty-armed shove—surprising in force for someone who weighs as much as a holiday turkey—pushes Jessie, who falls from my lap in a long, drawn-out tumble, like an origami swan coming unfolded. Writhing on the floor, Jessie yells, “I hate her!”

Annie smiles, climbs into my lap, tilts her sweet face up to me, and chirps, “Book?”

William, our nine-year-old son, saunters by on his way to the fridge for a snack, notices Jessie crying, and says off-handedly, “She just wants you—like we all do.”

And, with that, our big, bookish boy sums up the whole mess. A natural historian peering in through our kitchen window might call the episode a clear case of the survival of the fittest. An economist might deem ours an obvious example of competition for scarce resources. And a writer might wax poetic on the positive outcome of all that sisterly competition, as Simone de Beauvoir once did: “She helped me to assert myself … I believe I should count the fact of having had a sister, younger than myself but close to me in age, as one of my pieces of good luck.”

Brother-brother, sister-sister, and brother-sister relationships have been mucking up the works ever since Cain fell out with Abel. But, as a field of study, sibling relationships are relatively new. While Freud probed parent-child and husband-wife bonds, the study of siblings has long existed in a kind of academic backwater. But, with a rise in new ways of looking at these age-old relationships in fields as various as evolutionary psychology, sociology, biology, anthropology, and even zoology, siblings have taken their rightful spot amid the forefront of the study of families. What has emerged can be as thorny as it is fascinating. But at their best, such studies shed new light on these fundamental relationships, which, perhaps more than any other, shape who we ultimately become.

This fall, a new book was published that condenses much of this research in one volume. In The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal about Us, published in September, Jeffrey Kluger, a Time magazine writer, gathers the latest sibling research and intersperses what he learns with his own memories of growing up with three brothers, and later, a half-sister and half-brother. The result is a rich, thought-provoking mix of social science and memoir.

Looking back on his childhood with three brothers, Kluger often waxes nostalgic. “The four of us, we came to know at a very deep level, were a unit,” he writes, “a loud, messy, brawling, loyal, loving, lasting unit. We felt much, much stronger that way than we did as individuals. And whenever the need arose, we knew we’d be able to call on that strength. Even now, several decades on, we still can.” But the point of his book goes much deeper: Those who don’t feel such warmth toward their siblings have also been shaped in fundamental and inescapable ways by them, whether they like it or not. We may believe that once we leave home and the daily company of our brothers, sisters, step-sibs, and halfs that we’re free of their influence. But the new research suggests that that is far from the case.

Eighty percent of Americans grow up with at least one brother or sister, and our bonds with our siblings are often the longest lasting and the most intense of our lives. In contrast to parents, whose relationship with us is more authoritarian in nature, our siblings swim alongside us in the family pool. We take baths with them, share bunk beds, kick each other under the dining room table, and wrestle across the back seats of station wagons through the crucial years of our young lives. From such intense, abiding bonds grows a family tree so tangled, so beautiful, and sometimes so bruised that those of us with siblings see traces of them, like a fine dust, on everything we do—even, or perhaps especially, when we become parents to siblings ourselves. In my case, I am particularly attuned to how my kids play—and fight—with one another, because I lost a brother when I was nineteen, and it wasn’t until long after he was gone that I realized how much his life had influenced my own. Will it take a lifetime—and a tragedy—for my own children to reach similar conclusions?

Turning to Kluger’s book not just as a sister but also as a mother, I was sometimes left with more questions than answers. Like: What power, if any, do I have in shaping my children’s relationships with one another? Should my husband and I try to promote loving bonds among our three kids, or is the degree and type of connection they share pre-ordained by birth order, age spacing, and temperament? Does the way they act toward one another now affect how they’ll interact later in life? And, most importantly for me these days, when all hell breaks loose, should I step in and referee, or can I let them pummel one another in the other room as I drink my coffee, serene in the knowledge that their relationships are their own and have nothing to do with me? For answers, I dug more deeply into the history of siblings, and the research itself.

For decades, sibling research lagged behind other kinds of psychological and sociological family study. In large part, that’s because it is so hard to do. Unlike probing a simple two-person relationship—say, a mother and child—the study of siblings is rife with variables. Researchers have to take into account such elements as age, background, gender, and overall family size and structure. And, not only is each family different from one another, each one changes, itself, in multiple ways over time. Added to that, the increase in divorce and remarriage in modern times have blurred family boundaries. So now, for the purposes of research, who do we call a sibling? For those of us in blended families, how do we explain which branch we occupy on the family tree? In my case, for instance, my parents divorced and my father remarried, so I grew up with two full brothers who were nine and seven years older than me, and, later, two half-sisters, twelve and eighteen years younger. At various times in my life, I have thus been the youngest child, only child, oldest child, and middle child. What can any researcher really say about that?

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Nor have sibling relationships been the same throughout history. Over time, the imprint of culture has shaped the way families behave. From the countless sibling stories in the Old Testament and classical mythology, it’s clear that Western civilization has long acknowledged the importance, reward, and difficulty of sibling bonds.

Sibling relationships evolved dramatically through the modern era. By the eighteenth century, historians note, sibling relationships had grown strained by the practice of primogeniture and the rules determining which daughter could marry when. The resulting sibling conflicts began to subside as those laws and customs fell away. The nineteenth-century saw middle-class families embracing the importance of loving relationships within the family, especially between mothers and children. With family money no longer handed down strictly according to sibling birth order, parents began to emphasize loyalty among their offspring instead.

At the turn of the twentieth century, sibling rivalry among the middle class heated back up as families had fewer children and an even stronger focus on maternal-child love developed. No longer steeped in messages of cooperation or required to pitch in to raise the youngest of the brood, children started competing for their parents’ love and affection. Sibling relationships continued to evolve in the twentieth century, as closer age spacing and longer time spent in high school meant older siblings were even less able to care for the younger ones. Instead, they were more likely to turn on each other in jealousy. By the late 1900s, the prevailing parenting philosophy led parents to foster a strong sense of individuality in their children via such things as private bedrooms and separate toys.

Interestingly, it was around that time—the 1980s and 1990s—that the modern science of sibling research took off. In 1996, Frank Sulloway, a psychology professor now at the University of California at Berkeley, published Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, which quickly gained acclaim; Harvard’s E.O. Wilson described the book as “one of the most important treatises in the history of the social sciences.” It begins with this startling fact: “Siblings raised together are almost as different in their personalities as people from different families.” Sulloway wanted to know how this could be. He was particularly interested in creative, revolutionary types, wondering why some people through history are able to reject the status quo to upend societal thinking. Did they owe this capability to age, Oedipal rivalry, gender, random influences—or something else altogether?

Sulloway argued that birth order was the greatest driver of lifelong achievement. Using Darwin’s theories of evolution, particularly the survival of the fittest and competition for limited resources, he attempted to show how birth order determines personality, achievement, and adaptability throughout one’s life:

In nature, any recurring cause of conflict tends to promote adaptations that increase the odds of coming out on top. In their effort to gain a competitive edge, siblings use physical advantages in size and strength … Over time, the strategies perfected by firstborns have spawned counter strategies in later-borns. The result has been an evolutionary arms race played out within the family.

In other words, once struggling for survival, and now vying for love and attention, siblings compete by developing unique character traits. As in nature, according to Sulloway, children are constantly adapting to get what they need from their parents. This is why the oldest, with assured resources, often cherishes authority, he proposes; the middle child, who can’t possibly gain firstborn status, often disengages; and the youngest, nearly lost in the shuffle, seeks the most creative ploys for attention and ends up the family risk-taker. And though other scholars have pushed back against Sulloway’s theory (most famously, Judith Rich Harris, in her 1998 opus The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do), such a scenario gives me some sense of solace; maybe my kids’ fighting isn’t because of something we’ve done—it’s in their genes. Surveying the chaos on our dining room floor, I start to see my kids less as ill-behaved rapscallions than as a band of Galápagos finches clawing for territory in the family nest.

After our son, William, was born, he, my husband, Michael, and I were a simple triad. As first-time parents, we had lush reserves of time, energy, and resources. Sure, we were slightly panicky in our new roles—William made more first-year trips to the ER than the other two kids have, combined, in their lifetimes—but he seemed to bask in our undiluted attention.

Could we ever love another child this much? According to Jeffrey Kluger, though every parent denies it, “Firstborn favoritism is a very real thing.” That’s because all the resources we ladle onto our firsts are, in corporate-speak, “sunk costs.” Like a business creating its original, flagship product, first-time parents pour so much time and energy into their first child that he will never lose his top spot. We really want him to make it worth our while, and we’ll do whatever we can to bolster him so our investment pays off. Then, as the brood grows and we don’t have the same reserves of time and energy to dole out, we become less invested, consigning ourselves to being happy with the younger ones for simply breaking even.

The decision to have more than one child—when it is a decision, of course—is personal. In our case, it was born in part from Michael’s experience with parents who were both only children. When first his father and later his mother died, Michael and his brother were thrust into caretaker roles for their aging grandmothers. They vowed then that they would each have more than one child. My own family fractured early, and there are wide age gaps among me and my siblings—and a brother who died. I knew I wanted William to have what I never did—a companion of sorts, or at least a sibling who wasn’t leaving for college as he was going into fourth grade or being born when he was graduating from high school.

I remember a friend whose family I admired saying, “You have your first child for yourself and your second child as a gift for your first child.” I took those words, along with my and Michael’s past experiences, to heart. We had that next baby, and then another. And, while our family of five now feels full and complete, I imagine our kids sometimes wish they could return their “gifts.” But they can’t, and I’m increasingly determined to figure out what, if anything, I can do to make their sibling experience a good one.

“You never say anything when she mimics me,” William complains to me one night. “You turn a blind eye, and I can’t take it any more.”

He’s talking about Jessie, who, be it known, cried in my arms that very night because she’ll “never be first in our family” then, in the next breath, howled: “I wish I was still a baby but that I didn’t fall off the bed or the table.” (Because, I suppose, falling off the bed or the table is inherent to the experience of being a baby in our house.) She does have a way of sneaking in her attacks, but they’re small and slight—at least to me. To him, they seem to cut like knives.

It wasn’t always this way. When Jessie was born, William went through the age-appropriate regression: crying more, sleeping fitfully, and being generally more needy. And then she started to babble and scoot and do outrageous things like slather herself in melted Fudgsicle and make her hilarious “old lady face,” and he loved her and it was good. For several sweet years, he tugged her around like a beloved puppy dog. Once, as I pushed them through the aisles of the grocery store in one of those giant blue whale carts, he sang a made-up song: “Jessie is a good little baby, and she will never die!” She followed him, laughing and joining whatever game he devised. She would even try to comfort him when he was upset, toddling over with a stuffed animal or a gentle pat on the back.

But, while she played along when he introduced a game he dubbed “Tackle Jessie,” you could see that she was just learning his tricks and biding her time. And then, one day, it was her turn to make a few decisions. The roughhousing and teasing that he’d taught her, she demonstrated with ease. Suddenly, she wasn’t such a cute, innocent baby anymore. She was her own person. “Tackle Jessie” became “Tackle William.”

And so, for the past year, he has grown increasingly angry, muttering beneath his breath—and worse—when I don’t choose to punish her for a perceived (and, in my mind, microscopic) infraction, and taunting her with his big-boy privileges of sleepovers and a later bedtime. (Of course, it could be worse. If I were, say, a black eagle mother with two eggs in my nest, my first chick would have already pecked the other one to death, days after its hatching. Or, take spotted hyenas, wherein a quarter of pups are mauled to death by their siblings. The sad thing is, in our house, chicks used to play lovingly with chicks, and hyena pups once laughed and frolicked.)

My attempts to quell the rising hostility around the dinner table often take dramatic twists, like a series of Hail Mary passes I keep making as my desperation increases. I’ll start by trying to channel the How to Talk so Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk technique. Turning to William, I’d say, “So, you’re feeling like Jessie making a weird face at you was unkind?”

When that tactic doesn’t work, Michael and I will go old-school on them, pulling privileges like computer time, TV, and dessert. By the end of it all, everyone is usually in a time-out in his or her bedroom. Clearly, we’re doing something wrong.

I picked up the Kluger book for insight. I could recognize that something was going a bit haywire in my own family dynamic, but I could also recognize that I was one player in the middle of our unfolding story. The researchers, I hoped, could offer a broader view—one that could help me gain some perspective so I could find a happy ending. Or at least one with less bickering.

It turns out that the influence of birth order is just one corner of sibling research. Researchers have moved beyond how your rung on the family ladder shapes your personal trajectory to explore more complex issues among a variety of sibling configurations. The range of findings is broad, and sometimes leaves me with cognitive whiplash. For instance, according to a study by psychologists Holly Recchia and Nina Howe at Concordia University in Montreal, when parents get involved in sibling conflicts, it takes kids twice as long to resolve the problem, but, with their parents present, they reach compromise slightly more often. (Is “slightly more often” enough of an incentive for me to buckle down and intercede?) I also read that intense sibling rivalry in childhood can lead to difficult relationships later in life, according to Deborah Gold, a psychologist at Duke. (So maybe I should step in and try to squelch it before I miss my chance?) An “unfavored” child is more likely to suffer anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression, according to Clare Stocker, a research professor of developmental psychology at the University of Denver. (So, don’t have favorites. Got it.) Having an age spread of four or more years eliminates the issue of competition, says Shirley McGuire, associate professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco. (Really? Cause I’m not really feeling that one.)

Of course, I realize no single study can encapsulate the whole ball of wax. I call Susan McHale, a professor of family studies at Pennsylvania State University, for an in-depth discussion of why my kids may be acting up and if they’ll ever get along. She explains families are “comparison machines” that exaggerate children’s differences to prevent head-on competition (as, for instance, you might see with those fratricidal hyenas.)

She brings up the idea that launched Sulloway’s book—that, in terms of personality, siblings are no more similar to one another than they are to strangers. How can that be?

“Parents think that they’re treating their kids the same,” McHale says. “And yet, you get these findings. So what is it about the non-shared part of their environment that causes this?” By “non-shared environment,” she means anything that multiple kids in the same house experience as being different.

“One of those differences is in the sibling relationship,” she goes on. “One has a sister and one has a brother, or one is a first born and one is a later born. And then there’s the differential treatment of siblings by the parents.”

And that’s where we come in. As McHale explains, some in the field believe that the differential treatment of siblings is the most powerful shaper of personality. In other words, you are who you are not just because of how your parents treated you but because of how your parents treated you as compared to how they treated your siblings. Is this why William is getting so upset with Jessie—because he’s constantly comparing the way I treat him to the way I treat her? I’ve long known that I do it, but not in a bad way. It’s just that they are such distinct individuals, I can’t imagine treating them each in an identical way.

Yeah, McHale goes on, it doesn’t help matters. “In order to reduce competition,” she says, “siblings de-identify with one another—they consciously or subconsciously pick the niche that’s different. So, if you have a smart older sibling, you become the jock, and if your family already has the student and the jock, you become the social butterfly. And if there are no positions left in the family, you become the black sheep.”

The kids do this themselves, but—and here’s the rub—the parents egg them on. “Parents can be very good at managing this,” she says. “We studied sisters who played soccer and we asked them how different they were, and they said, ‘Oh, completely different, totally different,’ and, ‘Well, how are they different?’ And the answer was, ‘Well, she’s on the offensive and I’m on the defensive, and so we’re totally different.’ So we can see how parents orchestrate this so that their daughters can’t compete on how many goals they made that day because one girl’s job was to make the goal and the other girl’s job was to keep the other team from scoring.”      

What ends up happening, McHale argues, is that the family acts as a powerful, too-bright hothouse, based alongside a nuclear power plant. We grow these freakishly dissimilar people so they won’t end up eating one another, then wonder why they don’t get along.      

Put this way, it makes sense. But what other counter-intuitive insights are out there?

I call Judy Dunn, developmental psychologist at King’s College in London, and co-author, with her husband, Robert Plomin, of Separate Lives: Why Siblings Are So Different (1992). She and Plomin found that young siblings are profoundly affected by their mother’s interactions with their siblings, and that the little ones notice these interactions from a surprisingly young age.

That little fifteen-month-old or seventeen-month-old, she says, “is watching like a hawk” what goes on between her mother and the older sibling. In one study of this behavior, Dunn noticed that “if either the mother or the sibling showed irritation or anger, the younger child did not ignore it. And the way in which they responded differed, depending on the sort of relationship they had with their siblings. So, if the older child had ticked off the mother by breaking a rule, the younger child would come in and repeat the broken rule and so join the older child in antagonizing the mother.” Alternatively, the child might show support for the mother. But, whatever the situation, it’s clear—the kids are watching from the get-go. “And the greater the difference in the maternal affection and attention,” she argues in her book, “the more hostility and conflict between the siblings.”

Starting with the birth of the second child, Dunn and Plomin write, parents can set the tone by minimizing the differences in their relationship with each kid. This, Dunn says, goes against the conventional wisdom doled out in parenting magazines. “A line you see sometimes is, ‘Think how you’d feel if your husband said, “It’s been so lovely having you, I’m going to have another wife too.” ‘ The implicit advice is not to dominate this first child’s life with the baby.” But she found the opposite tactic was more effective. In a study of fifty mothers, she found half of them were “those who went out of their way to draw the first child into looking after the baby. So, if he’s crying, they’d say, ‘Oh why is he crying? Do you think he needs his bottle? I wish we could cheer him up’.” The other half took the commonly held advice of keeping the kids separate so they could have full-on parental attention. Guess who fared better.

“On the whole,” Dunn says, “the ones who brought the child into the baby’s life and vice versa, talked to the first child about the baby as a person with needs and feelings—in those families, the relationship with the siblings did develop more positively.”

I like to think I did all that, but as with so much else in those early months with a new baby, I can’t precisely recall.

However it all started, I’d like to know how to make it stop. I call Laurie Kramer, a professor of Applied Family Studies and director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who was the among the first to quantify sibling conflicts (typically, eight an hour).

Kramer works with parents who want to stop the incessant fighting but don’t know how. For her research, she wires kids up with recording devices and leaves them with alternating parents on two separate occasions. The results show that, while parents believe they should intervene in sibling battles, they rarely do so.

“Parents often chose not to respond, and when we looked at the questionnaires we’d asked them to fill out, we found that their confidence was low,” she says. “They didn’t feel skilled.”

I nod so hard in agreement into the phone that my neck starts to hurt. When I describe my own struggles, Kramer replies in a soft, soothing voice.

She explains some of what the Family Resiliency does in teaching siblings to interact with each other. “Maybe your older child needs to get in your middle child’s head and vice versa.”

This approach sounds good in theory, but I sigh inwardly, imagining another failure.

“Couldn’t I just leave them to their own devices?” I ask.

“What we found,” she says, “is that when parents do nothing, kids fight more. Especially for kids under age eight, they just don’t have the social and emotional competence to work it out themselves.”

So, turning a blind eye, as William claims I always do, will not solve this problem.

Armed with the fruits of all this new sibling research, I’ve started to view our family interactions in a fresh way. I spend thirty minutes rubbing Jessie’s back at night, then, exhausted, give William a pat and race off to bed. (Differential treatment.) As I tend to Jessie’s tangled hair before school, Annie climbs onto the Thomas table and dances like a wild chicken. (Not Enough Resources, Risk-Seeking Behavior). When we try to get Jessie to take up basketball, she turns up her nose, saying that’s an activity for her big, athletic brother (De-identification.)

I also start trying to put the practices that may well work into use. When, for example, a recent dinner was about to implode, I asked the two big kids to try understanding what the other was feeling. It wasn’t pretty (I believe the word “nincompoop” was tossed around), and I was glad Laurie Kramer hadn’t wired us all up for close examination and Judy Dunn wasn’t lurking in the corner with her notepad in hand. But, staying firmly rooted at the dining room table as I attempted to guide them, instead of throwing up my arms in surrender, felt like a small step toward my goal of family peace. The two of them even shared an exaggerated eye-roll afterward at my expense, and our little one made us all laugh by making her own version of “old lady face.” It was a rare instant of family harmony—the sort of thing we might one day remember, not in stark detail, but in the warm feeling of belonging that washed over us in that moment and remained, in some intangible way, as night fell around us.

Siblings matter. I’ve always known that, but I guess I hadn’t appreciated just how much and in how many ways. But now, as I watch the unfolding tableaux of my own children’s relationships with one another, I think of how all the moments they spend together and all the feelings that crop up, are collecting into the fine dust they will carry with them, whether they like it or not, for the rest of their lives.

Sometimes, at night, I watch William and Annie as they play on our bed. He likes to “babysit” her while I read to Jessie. He carries her up the stairs and bounces her on his lap. Later, when I come up, I see her laughing and squealing as he tickles her. He sometimes tells me she is the only person in the family who understands him. I catch my breath. I fight back tears. I think: What will they give each other in their lifetimes, and how will they break each other’s hearts?

Author’s Note: It wasn’t until after my second daughter, Annie, was born that I realized she and my son, William, share the same seven-year age difference that separated me and my brother, Matt, who died. So, watching them now, I see something I can no longer touch—him and me, growing up. Sometimes I stare, falling out of myself and into the deep chasm of my life’s great, unanswered question—not so much “Who am I?” as “Who have I been?” I know the root of the answer lies in our childhood home, with my brothers, one of whom I so rarely see and the other of whom is gone.

I have but one photograph of my brothers and me when I was a baby—we are sitting in a circle, holding hands. My back is to the camera, but I can see their faces, angled toward me and smiling. Other than that small, glossy, black-and-white photo with the thin white border, I don’t exist to myself before I began having my own memories. And, once I start to exist, I do so most immediately in the context of my brothers. My parents, dwelling across some invisible bridge in their grown-up world of work and relationships, moved to the periphery of my days and the edges of my consciousness. But there, in the center—in the backseat of the car, in the neighbor’s pool, in the garage filled with their motorcycles and my toys—are the three of us doing the complex, fitful, sometimes tender dance of figuring out who we are.

Brain, Child (Winter 2012)

Katherine Ozment is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Boston Magazine, where she also writes a weekly parenting blog. The baby boy she was pregnant with when she wrote this essay is now ten years old, stands up to her shoulder, and has two younger sisters, ages six and two. More of her writing can be found at