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Jane Isay explores sibling love, rivalry

Jane Isay, in "Mom Still Likes You Best: The Unfinished Business Between Siblings," explores the sometimes heartbreaking but always meaningful bond between brothers and sisters. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Jane Isay, in "Mom Still Likes You Best: The Unfinished Business Between Siblings," explores the sometimes heartbreaking but always meaningful bond between brothers and sisters. Based on scores of interviews, Isay explores a wide range of relationships between siblings, from the very close ones to those who are virtually estranged, and she takes up the role of parents in setting their children apart or together. An excerpt.

I watch my 3-and-a-half-year-old grandson dealing with his baby sister. He tells me he loves her and misses her when he stays over at my house. I think it's cute, but my son says it's a lie. One weekend, the whole family came with me to the shore, and every time Benji noticed one of the adults doing more than just feeding or changing the baby, he would make a beeline for her. "Ruby, I love you," he'd say, rushing to plant a kiss on her head. These airborne attacks of love scared me, because they were a little too energetic. He wanted to hold her hand or pat her all the time, especially when she was on my lap. Benji is an articulate and affectionate little boy, and I could see him working overtime to act like a big boy when he was around the baby. He loves his little sister, but he does not understand — and cannot really control — the strong feelings she evokes in him. The baby uttered her first laugh at Benji's antics, and she never lets him out of her sight. She's already attached to him. He will be her idol and model, and he will be good to her, I know. But his struggle to get used to the baby, his effort to deal with the unfairness he feels when her needs come first, his attempts both to control his anger and to understand the limits of his love reminded me of what we all experienced as kids. Watching them a year later, I see how his efforts to be a good older brother have created a bond of deep affection.

Recently I eavesdropped on a young family sitting next to me in a restaurant. The little boy had plunked himself down in the seat that was needed for his little sister's high chair. The father asked him to move to the banquette, to make room for the baby. The little boy was adamant. He refused to change seats. Folding his arms across his chest, this 5-year-old wore a look of pure rage. He didn't cry or scream, but the anger and determination turned his little mouth into a dark circle. He eventually relocated to the other side of the table, but his mood did not change until a kind waitress distracted him and he joined the family meal. Later, as they were leaving the restaurant, I saw the boy take his father's hand and say, "I guess I'll have to marry her." "No," his father replied, "you won't." "Why not?" "It's against the rules." This little boy was in the process of learning the rules.

That brunch, with all its conflicting emotions, represents one of countless moments in the lives of kids as they learn to live with the fact that they must make room for others. First children have no reason to doubt their centrality — until the new baby arrives. Second children — the interlopers — rarely get the sole attention of the parents, and they often are greeted with jealousy and hostility by the former titleholder. Subsequent siblings are born into more complicated social situations, and they soon learn to navigate a complex world of loyalties, coalitions, and betrayals.

As adults, we may remember bits and pieces of those early experiences, but we generally have forgotten the intensity of our feelings. That intensity is the hallmark of childhood, and watching our own kids or our grandchildren reminds us of the amazingly strong bonds forged in the nursery. When young siblings are unsupervised, the time they spend together gives them the opportunity to experience every imaginable emotion and to express their feelings unfettered by the adults in their lives. Might makes right, older kids hold the power, younger ones snitch and bite; they steal from each other, tease each other, make each other cry, grab each other's toys, pinch each other's arms, and sneak each other's food. In (almost) the words of the "Monk" theme song, "It's a jungle out there." By the same token, children give each other a degree of support and comfort they cannot find elsewhere. A child with a nightmare crawls into his brother's bed; a sister hugs her brother who has been wronged; little soldiers venture into the adult world to protect their siblings. A beloved blanket is found; a doll is mended; a tear is wiped away. Loyalty and loving acts also form the bedrock of nursery behavior.

Children are either/or people. They go from "I love you!" to "I hate you!" in an instant. Brothers and sisters evoke powerful feelings a hundred times a day, and they often switch tracks, finding each other alternately a burden and a gift. Having a sibling is both. We were scared by our siblings' actions, and sometimes we shocked ourselves by the force of our anger. We loved them with a power that is hard to recover, and sometimes we wanted to kill them. Learning how to balance positive and negative feelings is a major task of childhood, as is the ability to deal with our siblings' hurt feelings, rages, and cruelties — as well as our own. These early moments when we expressed love and hatred, laughter and loyalty all happened before we had a full understanding of the world, before our brains developed the ability to reason or use logic. This explains both the profundity of the connection and the selective amnesia that many people over 30 have about their childhood experiences. Many of these events happened too early for us to remember and were felt too powerfully for us to fully forget.

From the hundreds of stories I've heard over the last years, I've found that nursery behavior exhibits at least five of the Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony (they stuff their own faces to keep others from getting the goodies), Greed (they want everything the others have, and will steal to get it), Wrath (oh, the explosions), Envy (including secret pleasure at a sibling's disappointments), and Pride (the joy of outdoing a brother or sister). These sins may be deadly to the church, but at home they aren't. We understand this behavior as ordinary and expectable childhood responses to conflict and competition. Parents have a responsibility to keep their children from harming one another. But their authority over feelings is limited. It is the brothers and sisters who teach one another the lifelong lessons of getting along — or not. Home is the first schoolroom for the education of the emotions. It is a relatively safe place in which to express and experience raw emotions — after all, it's home. This is the gift.

By the same token, five of the Seven Virtues emerge in these early years: when a small child shows her grandmother how she helps her little sister fall asleep, Love is present; a child's sense of Justice is honed when he and his brothers begin to recognize what is fair, even when they are fighting; Courage can be seen in the playground when a small boy defends his older sister from the class bully; Restraint arrives when a girl stops herself in the middle of pulling her sister's hair and wonders what she could have been thinking; Hope can be seen in the eyes of a sister, standing on the sidelines of the hockey field, cheering on her special needs brother.

We are all capable of this mix of vices and virtues, and we experiment on our siblings. Some nursery behavior on a play date would probably mean permanent social exile, but the farthest place to which a brother or sister can be exiled is the bedroom or what some families call the "naughty chair." It is no wonder that adults remain powerfully connected to — or distanced from — their siblings, even after the years have softened their memories.

When we are grown, old childhood feelings can sneak up on us and overtake us, and when we are together time has a funny way of telescoping. Memory flashes beyond our control emerge from a long-ago time when we were trying to make sense of our world with the limited understanding of children. They are pure emotion, unfettered by reason. Even when we're in our seventh and eighth decades, brothers and sisters can still push our buttons. This is the burden.

Things can be going smoothly when, all of a sudden, something slams us back to childhood. "She was always judgmental," a woman will think of her elder sister after they have clashed about where to go for lunch. The tone more than the words raises the old antagonisms, powerful feelings that are thoroughly out of proportion to the dispute. Or a small detail can beam us back to the tender times of our childhood. Visiting my brother after many years, I caught sight of a tiny child's cardboard suitcase sitting atop a tall cabinet. My brother had carried it all through Europe when he was a small boy traveling with my mother, in the late 1930s. They pasted stickers of each country they visited on the suitcase, along with the icon for the Cunard Line. This battered relic of his childhood — I was born after they came home — brought me a rush of deep sympathy for this little boy, who is now over seventy.

I'm not suggesting that any of us regress to our childish states of being; that would be a disaster. But I have learned that in the process of growing up and dealing with those passions, we may misunderstand our brothers and sisters. We see them through the eyes of an adult, but we are experiencing them with the primitive feelings of a child. The inability to revise our childish responses keeps us in a bind. Some people may be able to reconnect with distant siblings by seeing their memories through grown-up eyes and reframing their past. But first, people may need to reconnect with their childhood experiences.

Excerpted from "Mom Still Likes You Best" by Jane Isay Copyright © 2010 by Jane Isay. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.