“To the outside world, we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other’s hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time”.- Clara Ortega
Brothers and sisters. For most of us, they are the longest relationship we’ll ever have in life. They show up early, before our spouses or partners, and way before our children, and they stay late, longer than our parents. We share the same genes, but rarely the same outward personality or inner self, but between siblings are secret codes, old jokes, old pains, and memories that span generations. When I started wandering through old pictures, I thought..besides my parents, who have I been connected to since the 1950’s? The little group above, that’s who. Researching it, I found that siblings have an enormous impact on how we live, how we love, and the choices we make.
LET’S START WITH SIBLING RIVALRY
Patty Davis, daughter of former President Ronald Reagan once said, “I had this odd sibling rivalry with America”. I had an odd sibling rivalry with….my siblings. In graduate school, we had to describe our family of origin as a TV series. We were such an interesting mix, sons and daughters of a cattleman and a debutante growing up in America’s heartland, but what I came up with was suburban Brady Bunch on the outside, with a piece of Dallas thrown in just for fun. But our own little mascots were always Charlie Brown, Lucy Van Pelt, Sally Brown, and Linus Van Pelt. What I loved about Peanuts was that these wonderful characters essentially lived in their own world,fighting their battles and living and loving with adults as only a muffled blur. Those kids set their own little rules, and although our parents were far from a muffled blur, so did we, among ourselves.
Early research showed that siblings do relate, at least in younger years, in a competitive way. Let’s face it, we’re a group of little souls in the same space competing for the time, attention, resources, and love from two adults and sometimes one. It’s also reported that brother to brother rivalry is the strongest, or at least the most overt, and sisters rivalry tends to be more covert. Sisters don’t compete with brothers as much, a good thing in my case as we have a teacher, a social worker, and… two guys that started a computer company on my dad’s farm that went pretty big. In the early days of the company that made them both so rich, it seemed to my sister and I that our family’s focus was that business. We quietly went about our own business, until what happened to all of us became just a fact of life, and not some freakish change in the unit that we were before. It took us all a while to get used to the reality of what big money means, but we are still the same at our core, or at least I hope we are.I think as we’ve gotten older, the skills and gifts we might have all had get recognized and not resented. Maybe we just got wiser or we like ourselves better now, but a situation that could blow some families apart (as it did us, for a while), has eventually allowed us to be closer.
SISTERS GET CLOSER WITH AGE
I read that sisters actually become closer with age, and that made sense for us as when we watched the world of our brothers become increasingly surreal, we had to connect on a “we’re still normal and they aren’t” level. Rivalry can be completely destructive and disheartening. as I’ve seen, but it can also be strangely empowering. My sister and I couldn’t possibly compete with my successful brothers in the area of influence, power, and money, but we can keep up the family “rivalry” by doing good with the abundant resources the boys brought to the table. Our early connection wasn’t easy, but going through serious challenges (and joys) with children, divorces, and a parent dying helped draw us together in ways I would never have imagined growing up.
THEY ARE OUR FIRST TEACHERS IN SOCIAL INTERACTION WITH PEERS
Of course they are the first teachers…we were always with them. Here’s a little group of facts I picked up. “By the time a child is eleven years old, he or she devotes about 33% of available spare time to exclusive interaction with siblings – more than the amount of time spent with parents, friends, teachers or even time spent alone. Adolescents appear to spend an average of 10 hours a week exclusively with siblings. ” Essentially, especially older siblings teach us to share, to be patient or impatient, kind or not so kind. We can choose or not choose, at that age, to be with our friends, but the sibs are always there. So, we are the first models for what children do, and later, what we do as adults. It’s not just mom and dad, who do a great deal of modeling, it’s our first peers. What we do with those mini role models in our lives, though, is up to us and the modeling good or bad, doesn’t always have to stick.
WE CAN PICK UP NOT ONLY THEIR BAD HABITS, BUT THEIR GOOD ONES TOO
I thought it was really cute to sneak cigarettes when I was 16. My sister didn’t pick that one up thank goodness, but little brother did until he wisely threw them out years ago. I wasn’t as wise. Here’s something I gathered, “If you have a sibling who is participating in those types of activities, then you’re at higher risk for participating yourself,” says Katherine Jewsbury Conger, an associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of California-Davis who has studied those effects. Yeoowww….We Waitts had some legendary bad behavior, and at the time, we thought it was damn adorable. Were we trying to outdo the others in mischief? My brother Norm had the misfortune of generally being caught, though, as he’s not as devious as his younger siblings (a good thing). Marcia was also known to alert the parents to our foibles, but my little brother Ted never told on anyone. Why? Because we paid him not to. His drive was showing at an early age. It’s interesting, though,that now that we are “grown ups” with kids, we tend to want to present our healthier lifestyles and behaviors to each other. Still rivals, just now in a different way. I generally lose the “healthy lifestyle” contest, but the fact that my siblings are so physically fit inspires me to do better.
Having sisters and brothers can give us more confidence with the opposite sex.
Research tells us that we not only learn social interaction skills from our siblings, but they also can boost our skills with the opposite sex. Have you ever dated someone with all brothers? You can tell within a week or two that the testosterone balance in their family of origin may have been out of whack. Little sisters and little brothers watch us relate when it comes that time. In my family, we had a weird pattern of not being able to land in relationships long, and having a lot of relationships…who started that? Did we watch each other struggle through or just go merrily along our way? We’re all grown up now, kind of, and we’ve all worked on that, but our paths have been eerily similar.
YOU CAN BE ENMESHED AND DISENGAGED AT THE SAME TIME. My sister and I, the social worker and the pyschology teacher, like to analyze our sibling relationships. We have determined that we are “enmeshed” and disengaged at the same time. An example. My family bases here in the Midwest some of the time, at varying degrees, and in California the rest of the time. We’re all still drawn to home, but the coast had a draw. It’s warmer in the winter and there’s lots of cool stuff out there, that’s it. But when anyone asks in what city my family lives when they’re in California, I say, and I say this correctly….San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Pacific Grove, and Rancho Mirage. Everyone loves California, but everyone chose to not be in the same city. And, when we all gather for Christmas, do we all camp at the same place? Hell, no! We’re fine elsewhere, we had a lot of years under the same roof. But…..not a week goes by (sometimes it’s daily), when we aren’t happily getting into each other’s business, not just because we love each other, but because our boundaries are a little blurry. Byron Katie says, “There’s your business, there’s my business, and there is God’s business”. Not so fast, Byron. In our world, there’s “Waitt business”.
One of the things I learned as a social worker was John Bradshaw’s famous “family roles. They are supposed to be big in the 97% of us who are called “dysfunctional families” (who are these healthy 3%, I’d like to meet them?) Dr. Ilona Tobin, explains roles we can take in families, based on Bradshaw, Virginia Satir, and Claudia Black The roles were…
The hero is the responsible one. She gets good grades in school, is goal oriented and self-disciplined. From the outside, she appears on top of her game. Internally, however, she bears the burden of making the family look good. She also believes that if she is perfect enough, the family problems will go away.
The Placater or People Pleaser
The placater tries to ease and prevent any trouble in the family. He is caring, compassionate and sensitive. He also denies his own needs, is anxious and hyper vigilant.
The Scapegoat or Rebel
The scapegoat is the family member who is blamed for the trouble in the family. He acts out his anger at any family dysfunction and rebels by drawing negative attention to herself. While he is more in touch with his feelings than the other roles, and is often creative, in school he gets poor grades and is often in trouble.
The Mascot is the cute, funny class clown with the uncanny ability to relieve stress and pain for others.
The Lost Child is quiet, withdrawn, lonely and depressed. She doesn’t draw attention to herself because she doesn’t want to be a burden. But what she wants most is to be seen and loved, and to be healthy, she must allow herself to be visible.
What I find interesting is that that’s a good start, but people change and grow over the years, and yesterday’s scapegoat can become the family leader. I can probably pin point which of my siblings was which at any stage, and sometimes we took on two roles. Watching us shift over the years is fascinating. I’ve been rebel, placater, and maybe the lost child at different times. I’ve learned that you don’t have to be stuck in one role, so grab onto that inner child, give him or her a great big hug, bless it, grow up, and move on.
Siblings can be heaven. Siblings can be hell. But, I am absolutely blessed to have 3 adults who are not only brothers and sister, but close friends. We share our private time, our public time and we know how lucky we are. Next year, we’ll all be in our 50’s, and I know, in my heart, that every one of them would be there if I were at the end of my journey on this earth, and I’d be there for them too. And so it goes.