“Relationships with siblings are ineradicably fixed in our psyches.” (Belinda Sharp)
Oh siblings. The implied permanence of the sibling relationship makes the connection so damn serious. You just can’t escape them no matter how you try. No matter how much hurt, how much love, you are still just…connected. How can you not be?
By the time children are 11, they spend 33% of their free time with their siblings--more time than they spend with friends, parents, teachers or even by themselves. (Penn State University study, 1996)
33%??? That’s crazy! We must learn so much about relationship management from our siblings. Nurture, competition, rivalry, emulating, sharing, manipulating, pushing boundaries, acquiescing, pecking order, conflict resolution, who you are when faced with crises – it’s endless. The sibling exchange has also been called the “rehearsal for adulthood.” It truly must be one of the most pivotal relationships of our lives.
I knew it was grossly important for my kids to reunite with their sister, have resolution around her absence and what that meant for them. I wasn’t quite sure how we would DO at it, but it was time to try.
Violet went to Wilderness in June, graduated in September and transitioned into a therapeutic boarding school. Now it was Thanksgiving break. Our other two children hadn’t seen their sister in nearly 5 months; they were dying for her. It was time to get the band back together. I was completely petrified.
INTERJECTION: Wilderness and the 3 local visits with Violet at school were FULL of hope for me. They were all very “successful” – no disrespect or uncontrollable outbursts. I was extremely optimistic that things would be better from here on out. I feared struggle but did not anticipate it. I have learned that this is an insane rollercoaster of thrilling growth and depressing regression. A hard ride to endure, yet thus is life when change is the mission.
The younger kids, Soleil (6) and Axul (5), seemed so very excited to see Violet. However, all the kids are SO different from each other. Ax was very vocal and overt, and Sol was extremely internal. She didn’t want to discuss Violet, didn’t want to draw pictures for her. As the visit came closer, she seemed quiet. I could FEEL her concern. She loved her, they both did. But there was a rift between the two girls.
Among the children, Soleil had gotten the brunt of Violet’s acting out. They both wanted attention from Daddy most of all. Violet had been Daddy’s only girl for a year and a half (stepdad who has never NOT acted as the real dad) and Soleil arrived, dethroning her. They looked different and they acted differently.
Violet woke up scowling, needing silence for about 20 minutes while she shook the night terrors off. Soleil was the kid who woke up singing, skipping into the kitchen for breakfast. You can imagine how annoying the singing would be. Well, I can, and I am the morning girl too.
When Violet was in a good mental space, Soleil worshipped her. Copied her dance moves, wore her clothes, liked what she liked, tried to be old like her. When she was in an insecure spot, Soleil’s confidence grated on her. Soleil had her feelings hurt a lot, and developed some walls to protect herself. None too great that you couldn’t see her die-hard desire for Violet’s love peeking over the top of them. Painful.
We got to the school and all reunited. Nervous stomach. Axul was all over Violet asking questions, jumping around, following her like a little puppy. Soleil was hugging Violet, but standoffish. Violet noticed.
We drove to a house we rented in the beauteous blue mountains. There wasn’t a TV. There was a roaring fireplace where we did puzzles, art projects, read. We hiked together, played hide-and-seek, cooked. Played jump rope outside. Chased and laughed and screamed.
First day? Great. Easy, calm, sweet, lovely. The second and third day became difficult. Hide-and-seek would be so hysterical that it would get edgy. The screams too loud, the touching too rough. I could feel the eggshells creeping back in and my attention getting sucked up by Violet’s mood maintenance.
Thanksgiving dinner came and there were just too many old triggers with everyone together. Violet had tools and strategies written out, goals in place. Didn’t matter. Her emotional strength could not rise above the familiar frustrations of the 3 child dynamic. I started getting worried.
The impending doom culminated in a full-scale-screaming blow out. I panicked and called in reinforcements (school therapist) who said to bring her back to school if she couldn’t calm down. Uggggh, nooooooo. How could it STILL be this hard?
The kids did not want to see her struggle, they didn’t want to see US struggle with her. There hadn’t been screaming in our house for 5 months and it was scary. My husband and I argued. Felt like we dipped right back into the same old place.
We had a family meeting to reset. We all decided to try and make everyone feel heard and ready to proceed together for the next day. We made promises, agreements, structure. We were going to try to have fun, and that was it.
After bedtime, in the quiet moments with my husband, I cried. I was SO disappointed. I wanted everyone to just love each other and have fun being together. WHY COULDN’T WE DO THAT? I felt like a bad person when there was arguing and yelling. I didn’t want the kids or my husband to resent me or Violet for re-introducing the drama. It was just not what I thought it would be. That was a bitter pill to swallow.
Soleil did not seem to be latching back onto Violet. It was probably a defense mechanism, a protection, but I wanted to fix it. I knew it wasn’t right for me to force the issue, so I had to back off. I had to let her be who she was.
“Mommy why doesn’t Soleil seem happy to see me?”
“Babe, I see what you’re talking about. You know what? Everyone is different. I think we just have to let her warm back up on her own time. The good news is, when she does? You can trust it is genuine because she clearly isn’t gonna fake it.”
The sibling relationship. SO SACRED. These are the people who knew you when you were formulating your first words and thoughts. Your first giggles and interests. Your first terrible dance moves and mistakes. Your first understanding of love and family. The idea that my kids weren’t connected was killing me. I have always adored my brother. I have so many amazing memories with him. I didn’t want any precious love or time to be lost.
From the time they are born, our brothers and sisters are our collaborators and co-conspirators, our role models and cautionary tales. They are our scolds, protectors, goads, tormentors, playmates, counselors, sources of envy, objects of pride. They teach us how to resolve conflicts and how not to; how to conduct friendships and when to walk away from them. Sisters teach brothers about the mysteries of girls; brothers teach sisters about the puzzle of boys. Our spouses arrive comparatively late in our lives; our parents eventually leave us. Our siblings may be the only people we'll ever know who truly qualify as partners for life. (Jeffrey Kluger, TIME)
As we were leaving the house and driving Violet back to school, the kids giggled in the back, harboring a secret. They finally told me that every night of our days together, Soleil had snuck out of her bed to sleep with Violet.
“Are you mad at us Mommy? Please don’t be mad!”
I sat silently trying not to cry. Was I mad? My heart throbbed in my chest. Nope, this wasn’t mad. This was quiet peace and understanding. She did love her. She did forgive and miss her. She just wanted to tell her herself, in the silence of sleepytime, without anyone looking.
One day my husband and I will be gone. Our children will have their own families who know and love them. But no one will ever know their youth the way they will know each others’. No one will have as many funny stories and insights into how they were formed to be who they are. Seems like it’s a part of my job to take care of it, no? Let our legacy be siblings who love each other. I promise to try my hardest.
Reuniting, forgiveness, repair.
Oh Siblings. Partners for life.