I am an only child. I like to think that I defy the stereotypes that go hand in hand with only children but here we are. My mother was an only child too. My father is the eldest of six. My husband is the eldest of two. My mother-in-law is the youngest of nine while my father-in-law is one of eleven.
It’s not that I don’t know of sibling relationships, I do…It’s just that I find them distantly exotic because at the end of the day, I am an only child. I’m raising siblings and here’s my confession…I am totally out of my depth, navigating emotional minefields that I’ve never traversed through before. It’s all a bit trial and error. My idea of siblings consisted of inventing code languages and midnight feasts.
For a little over five years, my eldest was an only child too and we became set in our ways, funneling our attentions, emotions and, let’s be honest – neuroses- into one child. My second pregnancy was so difficult that it took my whole family by staggering surprise and my treasured eldest had to adjust to being a ‘big brother’ before there was even a baby for him to hold.
Post birth, life ostensibly became much easier but my trauma hadn’t faded. My entire consciousness was focused on ensuring that my youngest was thriving. I read about things such as RSV and overreacted every time my eldest so much as sneezed. He, bless him, would run out of the room every time he felt ill. He was in the first year of kindergarten at the time and bought home every single virus going. There was one awful, truly awful night, when I screamed at him for throwing up near his sister. Imagine a banshee on steroids. That was me.
My youngest had experienced a brief hospital stay, she was small – I desperately didn’t want her to fall ill again. But my reaction was unjustifiable. Regret doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Everyone around me had begun to sense my anxiety. No doubt they thought I was out of line. In my circle, pre and post-natal anxiety isn’t a ‘thing’. There are only good mothers and bad mothers. Undoubtedly, I was a bad mother. People who probably meant well would talk to my eldest and ask him ‘who does Mumma love best?’ Invariably, he would answer ‘Bonu’. They would use the adjective ‘bechara’ which translates to ‘poor thing’ when describing my eldest. Those questions were horrible, those words were cruel and unnecessary but at the same time, it reminded me that I was doing a terrible job at raising siblings. I needed softness and understanding but no one was going to give me that, least of all myself. Like I said, in my circle, there are only ‘good mothers’ and ‘bad mothers’. There are no in-betweens. And thus, my eldest and I grew accustomed to hearing that whatever I was doing was setting up my children for a really awful relationship, fraught with sibling rivalry. We continue to live in the shadow of that judgement. In my case, I also live in the fear.
This series is titled ‘Field Notes from a Mum in Progress’ for a reason…I’ve told you about my lows – isn’t it always the case that it’s our failures we dwell upon most often ? But there have been a few highs as well. There have been things that have gone right too.
My husband doesn’t write a parenting column but when it comes to sibling relationships, he probably should. He’s the one I’ve yielded to when it comes to my understanding how to do ‘this’. He shares a very close bond with his sister and it’s a relationship which has been very nourishing for my young family too. His strategies have challenged my preconceived notions.
For example, he showed me that siblings don’t need to be treated with blanket equality at all times. If we, for example, celebrate one sibling’s birthday with a big present, it doesn’t mean that we have to buy the other one a big present on the same day or even on their birthday. He taught me that we needed to respond to needs equally rather than blanketing them in ‘things’ and ‘wants’.
I find bickering, complaining and arguing very triggering. My tendency is to approach it like a very politically correct secondary school teacher (which I am). My inclination is to wade in and solve all the problems. But, over time, I have learned to stand back and ignore it. I have learned to respond only when the situation begins to escalate and when they are being hurtful to each other. We try to ensure that they articulate their feelings about each other and communicate rather than act as their interlocutors.
As I watch their relationship progress, I’ve also accepted that I have to undertake a journey of my own. I’m beginning to maintain my neutrality there too rather than take sides. I’m getting better at telling them to sort things out by themselves and articulating why so that they are able to reinforce their own relationship rather than see me and my husband as their go-betweens.
One of the other things we have done is to ensure that they work on projects together. This could be something as simple as helping each other to tidy up their spaces and rooms. It could be building something together. We have very recently moved so there’s plenty of that. It could be structured activities such as board games but it could also be something like listening to music.
As with everything else, sibling relationships in my household are a work-in-progress. I will never say that we have it nailed but I will say that it’s getting better.
They are very happy for each other when something goes right for the other.
They are perpetually buying each other treats and snacks – like me, their love language is also food.
They are each other’s champions and hype person.
They look after each other and comfort each other.
But, of course, they also bicker and whinge and drive each other up the wall… I suppose that’s normal, right?
From our family to yours:
Top 5 Recommendations
1. Address the equality of needs rather than the equality of things. Each child is unique and thus focus on their unique needs. Give according to individual needs.
2. Equip them with the language to articulate their emotions and feelings about each other.
3. Ignore low-level bickering. Adult intervention is only needed for when they are being hurtful to each other or there is a real danger of someone getting hurt.
4. Give them projects to work on together.
5. Spend structured and unstructured family time together. Enjoy each other’s company while unplugging from screens.
And finally…As parents, spend time with each child individually and together – one parent at a time. Here’s one of my favourite memories Last year, when the Lucy lights went up over Bahnhofstrasse, the eldest and I took a team ride into the city while listening to ‘The Beatles’ (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, of course) and took pictures together. It cost nothing but time thanks to our travel cards and we made some lovely memories, just for us. I’ve done similar things with my youngest as well. My husband goes running and cycling with them together and individually as well.
I don’t think we will ever be able to call ourselves ‘good parents’ or even feel like we have this whole parenting lark nailed but I do know that we do keep working on ourselves so that they learn how to work on themselves and their relationships too.
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