I recently made a six-hour car trip with my two children, ages 14 and 11. As a wily old veteran of this particular form of maternal torture, I thought I was as prepared as humanly possible. Both had fully charged phones and iPads and backpacks full of books and snacks -- two of everything, just like Noah's Ark. They had the option of watching movies, listening to music, reading, talking to or texting with friends. What was not an option was to constantly bicker with one another. That was the trip rule.
By hour two, I conceded defeat. Sibling rivalry kicked in and I was threatening to turn the car around if they didn't knock it off. They did and I didn't, but it got me thinking: At what point will my children stop the sibling rivalry and begin acting like a family?
A post-50 friend who lives less a mile from her brother in Los Angeles and talks to him maybe once a year gave me this answer: Possibly never.
In some cases, sibling rivalry grows into adult envy. Whether the underlying reason is that Mom loved you more, or it's just a simple matter of old habits dying hard, I find this possibility unsettling.
I'm an only child and grew up in the company of my older parents and their adult friends. I learned at an early age how to behave around grownups and how to entertain myself without another child in the house to play with. I grew up feeling comfortable with being alone -- not lonely mind you, but alone. Even now, as an adult, I still find the need to be alone sometimes. I think I never really learned how to share my space with others. I sometimes sneak off and hide out in the shower, just to escape the family noise on occasion.
As a child, what I wanted most was a sister. I remember asking my parents to please get me one, and promising to help train her -- much like the dog they got me hoping it would end the discussion. It didn't.
Having a sister would have been a game changer for sure. At least I think it would have. All I know is that I mourned the absence of a sister my entire life, but especially when my parents' health began to fail and the burden of their care fell to me with no one to share it. There was no one but me to run them to the doctors, to help them fill out the paperwork, to manage their lives, their meal preparation, their financial and physical safety. And as we neared the end, there was no one but me to make the tough decisions.
Now, when I look at my two children, I wonder whether they'll be among the one-third of all siblings for whom discord sown early lasts a lifetime. Back in 1993, Psychology Today published a piece with the bold news that "conflict is not the natural state of sibling relationships." So I am clinging to the hope that one day, their need to annoy one another -- is it vying for my attention? my love? -- will be overridden by their need to support each other.
Until then, I fear my son will continue to count the peas on his sister's plate and complain if she got more. He doesn't even like peas. My daughter, who has displayed tolerance for every living thing on the planet -- including the spider who must be relocated instead of stomped on -- has been known to haul off and slug her brother because he "keeps looking at me Mom!"
And then my thoughts go back to my friend who never sees her brother. Their last major conversation came at their mom's funeral and it was over distribution of the estate; he wanted to know when my friend expected the accounting would be done and how long she thought it would take to sell Mom's house in this market.
I prefer to not pass judgment on people I don't know, but I can't help but wonder how many missed opportunities came before that funeral day? Could their mother have done something differently to quash the dissidence and mend the gap?
Surely, this isn't really about the number of peas on the plate.