Sibling rivalry

One of my friends has two sons.

One is almost 5, the other 2.

I remember when their mother was about 8 months pregnant with her youngest son. I had come over for dinner, and once we had finished eating, I kept her company as she went through the bedtime routine with her oldest son. After his bath, they snuggled in an armchair and read a picture book. As I watched my friend and her son in that chair — her belly was big enough by then that there was no room in her lap, and he had to sit next to her — I suddenly felt sorry for the little guy.

His life was about to change completely. In a month, he would no longer be the center of his parents’ life. There would be someone else vying for their attention, and because this someone was completely helpless, these parents, by default, would have to put this someone into the center.

How would this little boy take it? Would he be okay with it? Would he step up as a big brother? Or would he resent the new arrival forever?

Two and a half years on, things seem to be going well. This boy — I’ll call him Sam — is sweet to his baby brother (let’s call him John) for the most part. They play well together. His parents go out of their way to pay attention to both kids.

But there is one exception.

Sam is friends with another little boy in the neighborhood. Let’s call him Chad. Chad is a bit older than Sam, and a lot bigger. Chad is also a bully, and when he comes over to play, he beats up on John. This can be as subtle as covering John with sawdust or as brutal as pushing him down a hill.

Sam witnesses these abuses, but doesn’t stop them. My friend has talked to him about this, and it’s clear he doesn’t want to hurt his brother. But Sam can’t seem to stand up to Chad.

The bullying has gotten bad enough that my friend is considering banning Chad from the house if he ever hurts John again. “My youngest son should be safe in his own home,” she said.

I had my own front seat to this kiddie drama a month ago, when John had his 2nd birthday party. I watched as Chad subtly terrorized several smaller kids. He sprayed one in the face with a water gun. He dunked another under a waterfall.

Chad’s mother was completely oblivious. She spent the entire party on the other side of the yard, with her newborn daughter, Patsy, strapped to her chest in a Baby Bjorn.

Now, Chad’s family is dealing with turmoil. The difficult economy has not been kind, and both his parents are very tense.

Then, there’s Patsy. I caught Chad looking at his little sister, and there was no affection in his gaze. No — there was resentment and jealousy there, and the only reason he wasn’t spraying Patsy with water or dunking her under a waterfall was because she was strapped to her mom the whole time.

I wasn’t the only witness to Chad’s dark looks. Another friend — I’ll call her Kate — was sitting right next to me.

“God, I feel so sorry for that little girl,” Kate said, and she looked very sad.

A few drinks later, I got the whole story.

Kate has an older brother. I already knew this, and that he is married, has three children and lives far away. She rarely speaks of him, and I’ve always figured the two just weren’t close.

But it appears to be worse than that.

“I don’t think my brother ever forgave me for being born,” Kate told me.

I must admit I was skeptical, though that may have been an abundance of guacamole.

“No, really,” Kate insisted.

She went on to tell me about her brother — let’s call him Nick. He is five years older than Kate. Like Chad, Nick was always big for his age. Kate wasn’t.

“He never hurt me physically,” Kate said. “Because he knew that would get him into trouble. But he would tease me whenever he got an opportunity. He always said belittling things. And if I ever had something he wanted, or didn’t want but thought he should have, he would take it from me.”

Kate acknowledges that this is pretty standard stuff, sibling wise, but “it still wasn’t fun.”

Worse, Kate was diagnosed with diabetes at age 5. She continues to struggle with the illness, and has been through a lot. She has good and bad days, and her lifespan will likely be shorter than her friends’.

Her diagnosis meant nothing to Nick. If anything, Kate said, he seemed to begrudge her the extra attention it got from their mother. She recalled
being diagnosed as a small child:

“I didn’t quite get how bad things would be, and Nick, even being older, probably didn’t get it either. But he must have noticed how serious the adults were. Still, when we were going home later in the car, he started being mean to me. My granddad, who was a doctor, was in the car with us. He was obviously quite shaken. It was only after my granddad snapped at Nick that Nick shut up.”

Kate said she discovered how her brother really felt about her when she was 12 and he was 17. He had just graduated high school, and it was the last vacation with the family before Nick moved to a distant city to go to college.

“He was being impossible,” Kate said. “He made fun of every word I said, and refused to have a rational conversation. Finally, I was so frustrated that I asked him what on earth I had done to make him treat me this way. He smirked. ‘Well, you were born and you haven’t died yet.'”

“It was one of those epiphanies,” Kate said. “Though I am sure he would deny it today, or say he didn’t mean it, I know he did. It made complete sense. He resented my very existence, and he always had. I never quite saw him the same way again.”

Once Nick moved away, Kate began to blossom. Nick’s adolescence had been rather turbulent, and it was sheer luck that he hadn’t gotten into serious trouble. There was far less fighting between her parents over Nick crashing the car or coming home drunk now that he was gone.

Once Nick moved away, Kate said, the teasing and bullying of their childhood turned into a different kind of abuse.

“He would go out of his way to undermine me,” she said. “What I wore, what music I listened to, what shows I watched. If it was something he liked too, there was always that air of surprise, like there was no way I could possibly be that cool. At the same time, if I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about things he liked, he would get really upset. Everything he liked was just automatically the coolest, and I was a bitch if I didn’t agree.”

Kate was a good student, and had always liked to draw. When she became a teen, she started working toward being an artist. Nick had also dabbled in art, but not as seriously as she. By her mid-twenties, she was selling pieces on a regular basis.

“I showed him one of my paintings — I had already sold it, and it had gotten good reviews in a show — and he said it was fine, but there was no enthusiasm in his tone. Then he pointed out a scratch on the frame.”

She decided not to show him any work after that.

“It was clear to me any success I may have was a threat to him. He seemed unable to be happy for me.”

Nick dropped out of college after a semester, and took a series of menial jobs. He met his first wife while Kate was a junior in college.

“She was a really nice person, and we became friends. And because I was friends with her, Nick and I started getting along better than we ever had. I even had hopes that maybe he would outgrow his resentment and we could finally be friends too.”

But the marriage lasted less than a year. Nick’s second — and current — wife did not seem interested in befriending Kate, and the temporary alliance between the two siblings was over.

“Nick’s wife and I have barely talked in the 16 years they’ve been married. We just never had a connection. She’s been good for him in many ways, though. She got him settled down, and he got into a career in design.”

Nick and his second wife got married in a tiny ceremony. Only Nick’s sister-in-law was invited.

“That was fine with me. They lived far away, and it would have been a challenge to get there, between jobs and school. My parents weren’t as happy to not be invited, but I understood Nick’s logic.”

Nick and his second wife went on to have three children, and though Kate and the wife were not close, Kate made sure to send Christmas cards and gifts for the children.

“I never got a card back, and never a direct thank you. Nick would usually ask my mom to say thanks for him, though he was perfectly capable of e-mailing me on the spur of the moment when he wanted to.”

Nick’s second marriage was often troubled, however, and at one point, the fallout and stress led to an estrangement between Nick and his parents.

“I was appalled at how he was treating them. Well, actually, he was being no less abusive to them than he had ever been to me, but it was a big shock for them.”

Kate took her parents’ side, though she said nothing officially, preferring to keep out of it.

“Two years in, though, I got fed up. I sent him an e-mail telling him exactly how I felt, and reamed him out. I also told him not to bother writing back, because I was fed up and would not read any e-mails from him.”

The letter seemed to shock Nick. He immediately contacted his mother about Kate’s “vicious” letter.

“He complained to her that I wasn’t letting him answer the questions I had asked in my letter. Honestly, the only question I recall asking was ‘who the hell do you think you are, behaving this way?’ That was a rhetorical question!”

Later that year, Nick and his parents reconciled, though the relationship has yet to recover fully. As for Nick and Kate, things finally came to a head six years ago.

Kate had just gotten engaged to her boyfriend of five years.

“Within a few hours of my telling my parents, Nick e-mailed, congratulating us and asking for details. Frankly, after years of him belittling my decisions and undermining me, combined with his never, ever sharing his life with me, or thinking it was unnecessary to acknowledge gifts and cards, I wasn’t inclined to confide in him. So I just sent him a short e-mail thanking him for his good wishes and told him we were still planning.”

Kate and her future husband decided on the smallest wedding possible.

“Basically, we eloped with our parents. Neither of us wanted a big party, or lots of expenses. But we felt bad about not including at least our parents. We also threw my mom a bone and agreed to let her and my dad host a small party for us a week after the wedding. She asked whether Nick and his family were invited, and I said yes.”

Nick took not being invited to the actual wedding very personally, and let Kate know it a few months before the event, when he and his wife and children visited Kate’s city and stayed with her parents. Kate and her fiance went to meet everyone for dinner.

“The minute I arrived at my parents’ house, I knew he was spoiling for a fight. He made a toast to my upcoming marriage, but in the same breath complained that he knew nothing about it. I was floored by his gall. Pretty much all our lives, and certainly during the last 25 years, he has shown zero interest in me, except to belittle me or begrudge me any happiness I had. He never took me into his confidence about anything, or shared his life with me. Why on earth would he presume that I would suddenly act like we were best friends? And, by the way, my real best friend wasn’t coming to the wedding either!”

After that disastrous dinner, Nick complained to his mother that Kate refused to speak to him the whole night.

“That was not true,” Kate said. “I did speak to him. We all conversed as a group. I just didn’t engage him, because I didn’t want to get in a fight.”

Kate’s best friend happens to be Sam and John’s mom, and she and her husband were also at that fateful dinner.

“He was in a snit the whole time,” Sam and John’s mom reported. “He was like some big petulant teenager. As the evening went on, he got angrier and angrier, because Kate wasn’t responding to his jabs. He kept trying to put her down.”

Nick completely ignored Kate’s wedding, which was actually a relief to Kate.

“He called my parents the morning of the ceremony, but didn’t ask to speak to me. I’m glad, because I didn’t want to be undermined or start a fight — particularly long distance — on my wedding day.”

Nick also completely ignored a tragedy that had happened to Kate and her fiance just a month before the wedding.

“My father-in-law died. He hadn’t been in the greatest of health the past year, but it was still a shock. We thought for sure he would be at our wedding.”

Between those two events, and one final set of Christmas presents ignored by Nick and his wife, and Kate hit the wall.

“That was the last straw. I didn’t think there were any straws left, but that was truly it.”

Kate and Nick have not spoken since. There was one e-mail from Nick when Kate became a Canadian citizen, like her husband.

“Nick wrote ostensibly to congratulate me, but then started trying to pile on the guilt. ‘I know you’re not talking to me, but the kids miss you…’ Yes, I imagine they miss the nice gifts Aunt Kate used to send, but never needed to be thanked for.”

Kate knows she sounds bitter.

“I am, it’s true. But I am also just so tired of it all. I haven’t always been a great sister. I haven’t aspired to be a saint either. When he would abuse me verbally, I would give it back, and aim below the belt, because I knew how to demolish him.

“But why did it always have to be this way? I know this is going to sound immature, but he started it. As the older sibling, he set the tone of our relationship from the beginning. He was the one who begrudged me my very existence. And after decades of this bullshit, I really resent him.

“I will be very sad the day my parents are no longer with us, but at least, after funerals and estates have been settled, I will never have to hear of or speak to Nick again. So he will get his wish — he will not have a sister. Maybe then he can finally be happy.”

Shortly after Kate finished her story, Chad, his mom and Patsy — still in the Baby Bjorn — went home. Chad was still glaring at his little sister.

“I feel so bad for that little girl,” Kate said.

“But maybe it will be better,” I said. “Maybe someone will take Chad in hand and make sure he knows he is loved. And that Patsy can be his ally, not his competitor. His friend, not his enemy. There is still time. They’re both very young.”

“I hope so,” Kate said, checking her insulin pump to see if she could take a small bite of the tempting cupcake left on her paper plate.

I hope so too.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.

4 comments

  • this is a very powerful post…and it’s interesting that the older brother resented a younger sister–would this relationship be different if it was a younger brother?

    i’m in a family where it’s just me and my brother–i’m the oldest. we didn’t always get along when we were kids, but for the most part we could play together, and now as adults we both talk on the phone at least once a week, if not constantly texting one another. i am grateful that my only sibling and i have a good relationship, but these anecdotes are heartbreaking. i wish Kate and Patsy all the best…

  • Thanks so much for reading! I did ask Kate that night whether she thinks Nick might have been different to a brother. She didn’t know, but thought perhaps the abuse would have been physical as well as verbal. I kind of wonder if things would have been less tense had they been closer in age. When the older sibling can’t really remember the younger sibling usurping his territory, does that make it easier? Both Chad and Nick had five years as the household’s little emperor. That can leave a mark.

  • I don’t know about the whole “five years as the household’s little emperor” bit. My mother had five and a half years as a beloved only child before my uncle was born, and they get along fabulously, and according to my grandmother (when she was still alive), just about always did.

    I was kidding my uncle one time, after he’d told a story about some funny but mischievous thing he and my mom had done in their childhood, about how my grandmother made them out to be midget saints. He said she was remembering only the good stuff.🙂

    I can’t speak from personal experience on this topic, though. My brothers are so much older than I am that they’re almost more like uncles than brothers, and the worst thing any of them ever did to me was to throw me into a swimming pool.

  • Absolutely, Desert Rose. I am sure it also depends on the personality of the kids involved, how the parents handle the transition, and what else is going on in their lives. In the case of little Chad, his parents are in major crisis right now. That is bad enough, but combine this with their conviction that he is a genius and therefore needs very little guidance and discipline, and things are worse. Their parenting philosophy means that they leave him to his own devices most of the time, and constantly praise him when they do talk to him, but never ever correct him when he is mean or disobedient. In the meantime, Patsy gets mom’s constant attention.
    It’s just a bad deal all around.