Mariah was having trouble with her brother the other morning. “So which one of you is Satan?” she asked. “Because I’m pretty sure he’s the spawn.”
Ouch! When I was pregnant with Nick, this was hardly the future I was imagining. Even though I’m one of four children myself and should have known all about sibling rivalry and the petty squabbles that kids get into, I somehow thought that having our kids 7-1/2 years apart would mitigate all that. Not to mention the fact that she had spent the last three or four years before her brother was born asking for a sibling. You can’t hold kids to those things, I knew that. Still, Satan? Things were worse than I thought.
My ideas about siblings are formed, of course, by a complex mix of reading and experience. An often-told family story has my older brother, maybe age three, running into the kitchen announcing, “I’ve killed Libby, I’ve killed Libby!” Apparently, he’d been warned that certain behavior would permanently damage his younger sibling, and rather than avoid the behavior, he simply confessed to it. While I don’t suspect him of harboring murderous thoughts against me throughout our lives, we certainly competed through much of our childhood and made friends only when we no longer shared a roof.
But in my childhood reading, my favorite sibling novels focused on sisters, either leaving the brothers out or relegating them to sidelines I could safely ignore. Among my favorites from childhood were the Little House books. Both the Ingalls and Wilder families depict siblings relatively realistically: they squabble on occasion, but there is a deep undercurrent of love and affection binding them together. Laura’s distress when baby Carrie is lost or her anxiety for Mary when the smallpox epidemic hits them strikes me as realistic as her annoyance at Mary’s goody-goody ways or her baby sister’s inability to keep up. In Little Women, another terrific sibling novel, some of the most memorable scenes are those between Jo and Amy. When Amy burns Jo’s manuscript, I am outraged right along with Jo: all that work, up in flames! I completely understand, then, when she ignores her little sister on the frozen pond a day or two later and inadvertently lets her fall through thin ice. I understand as well the love and guilt she feels as she helps rescue and care for Amy in her recovery. Sibling relationships are fraught with ambivalence, as Alcott well knew, and I’ve always wondered what she meant by having Amy marry Jo’s best friend, Laurie, near the end of the novel. I know she’s happy with Professor Baer and everything, but it still has to sting.
I also read my way voraciously through Noel Streatfeild’s “Shoes” books; many of them focused on three talented sisters and their efforts to make their way as artists. Like Alcott’s Little Women, I think the girls in the Shoes books got on each others’ nerves and competed for attention but ultimately knew their primary connection would always be to each other. (Unlike Alcott’s sisterly heroines, Streatfeild’s are orphans.) My own relationship with my sister was conflicted at the time: we shared a room, and I found her six-years-younger self too babyish for my taste. In a bizarre reworking of my early memory with my brother and a twisted version of hide-and-seek, I used to “play dead” for my sister, lying behind the couch, for example, where she would find me and pathetically try to “revive” me, promising, “I’ll be your best friend, I promise! Just don’t be dead!”
Ah, I was such a nice big sister. No wonder I wanted to read about ones who worked through their problems and made friends — as, of course, my sister and I have. Among other things, we’re godmothers to each other’s children, as well as serving as each other’s editors. I think she’s forgiven me for the nasty tricks I used to play on her, just as Jo and Amy forgave each other.
My own children, though, are nothing like Jo and Amy, or any other sisterly pair I can think of. When we told Mariah, months before he was born, that her much-anticipated sibling was a boy, she had one question. “Why?”
We couldn’t answer that question any better than the Satan one. Since then, though, I’ve found some books that may offer some useful models for us. In Rosemary Wells’ Max and Ruby books, Madeline L’Engle’s Time Trilogy, and E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, we get big sisters who provide lots of motherly care and cooperation for their little brothers. In Konigsburg’s classic novel, for example, Claudia and Jamie argue on occasion, but for the most part, the novel seems to me a fantasy of sibling cooperation. Claudia even gets her little brother to take a bath! (It helps that it’s in a fountain, so they can collect change during their ablutions.)
Like Hansel and Gretel, Claudia and Jamie are on their own in their adventures, and without parents to operate as a safety net, they must rely on each other. The Murry children in L’Engle’s Time Trilogy are similarly far from home, far from parental influence or intervention. Indeed, in A Wrinkle in Time, Meg and Charles Wallace must cooperate to save their father’s life. Conflict is really too dangerous, and they — for the most part — avoid it. Of course, this suggests that in order for my kids to get along better I need to step aside — either let them run away from home or simply run their own household. I always do worry about Max and Ruby’s parents, I have to confess. Like the mother in The Cat in the Hat, they seem to have taken off irresponsibly, leaving two small children — bunnies! — to fend for themselves. I’m not ready to step aside, but perhaps I should be, like these parents, slower to step in.
Of course, I know that I’m likely to get the most help mediating sibling conflict with self-help books like Faber and Mazlish’s Siblings Without Rivalry. (And yes, I did buy a copy when the kids were younger.) But my interest now is in how siblings form such a significant part of our psychology: they are, after all, the people who know us best, who will know us the longest, in our lives. Alice in Wonderland, carrying on imaginary conversations in her head, keeps her older sister in mind; she’s part of her audience, even part of her psyche. When Mariah asks me about Satan in her brother’s lineage, often the next question is about her own history: “Was I that awful?” One night she reached across the table to her dad, putting her hand over his: “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know I must have driven you crazy when I was his age.”
We won’t get into the way she’s still able to do so. The important thing is that, like her fictional counterparts, Mariah has far to go, but she’s not going alone. And that’s what the siblings in children’s literature remind me.