I was in a bookstore the other day and told my kids that they could each purchase a small book. My eight year-old son came back with a book containing a 1000-question quiz about J.R.R. Tolkien. My five year-old daughter came back with a book about sea creatures.
“It’s a non-fiction book, Mama,” she said proudly, “non-fiction” being a term recently incorporated into her vernacular.
“Great! Why did you choose it?” I asked.
“Because I want to learn lots of facts,” she answered. “So I can be like Isaac when I grow up.”
Her comment went through me like a knife. It was one more sign – like her cross-dressing – of just how much she idolizes her big brother. Whereas he could quite happily live without her.
My husband and I keep hoping that this will change as they grow older. We often tell our son how we both fought a lot with our siblings when we were young, but are now good friends with them. But inside I’m not so certain.
Much of the literature on sibling relationships seems to focus on childhood. Things like birth order get championed as crucial determinants of personality type, and there are loads of books and advice out there for managing sibling rivalry.
But what about sibling relationships in adulthood? Do those matter, too?
The evidence would suggest that they do. A recent study of Harvard grads found that being close to one’s siblings at college age was a crucial determinant of emotional well-being at 65.
Which isn’t surprising, of course. For many people, sibling relationships are the longest ones they’ll have over the course of a lifetime. And in America, at least, 96% of all people have at least one sibling.
Anecdotally, we all also know that sibling relationships continue to matter in adulthood. I was quite taken with this article by Emmet Rosenfeld in the Washington Post last month. It tells the story of twin brothers, one of whom (the author) is struggling to make ends meet as an educator (married to an educator) living outside Washington DC, while his brother (a lawyer married to a psychiatrist) lives a rather high-pressured, high-priced lifestyle in New York City.
It’s a very frank account of how the brothers – who grew up in the same family and had very similar undergraduate educations – diverged so markedly once they hit adulthood. And in it, you feel all that familiar mix of jealousy, competition, regret and admiration that so often characterizes adult sibling relationships. (Truth in advertising: I know the brothers in question, though only in passing).
Twins, of course, present a very special case of everything. I’ll never forget one twin friend – a successful businessman, whose brother was a doorman. When asked whether they ever competed as children he answered, “Of course.” Then he paused and added: “And I won.” Ouch.
But if these sentiments sound harsh, it’s because they’re also very real.
And so when I look at my daughter painstakingly copying down the names of all the sea creatures in her little book so that she can one day recite them from memory – as her brother now does with the characters who populate the Lord of the Rings trilogy – I do feel a pang. And I wonder if she, too, will one day feel the need to write a personal essay dissecting the early competitive/imitative dynamic with her brother and how it’s shaped her as a grown-up.
Undoubtedly, she will. I can only hope that they’ll be best friends by then.
If you’re interested in the whole head scarf/women’s rights debate in France, have a look at my piece in PoliticsDaily today.
Image: Sibling Rivalry by Ucumari via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.