TWISTED SISTERS: SIBLINGS in CONFLICT
I'm reading the morning paper, soaking up a heartwarming story about a woman who donated a kidney to her dying sister. And now, the both of them are doing fine.
It's a story of courage, generosity, and love Ė a story that makes you feel good about humankind. But the whole time I'm reading it, my two older daughters, who are supposed to be getting ready for school, are bickering. Sally, age 9, is wearing her big-sister's skirt. "Take it off right now!" 12-year-old Marie commands.
"But you never wear it!" says Sally. "It doesn't even fit you anymore."
"That doesn't matter. It's MY skirt. You can't just take clothes out of my closet without asking," says Marie.
Part of the problem goes back a few months to when people started mistaking Sally for a boy. This is particularly humiliating for Sally, because she has such a low opinion of boys. (She recently observed to my wife, "When you have a baby, you're taking a big chance... It MIGHT be a boy!")
So, Sally has been trying to femme herself up a bit; putting ribbons in her hair, dressing in pink, and wearing skirts and dresses to school. This morning, tired of her own collection, she has decided to augment her wardrobe with something borrowed.
Marie does not like sharing anything with her little sisters, whether it's clothes, a house, or parents. Besides, she likes it when Sally is mistaken for a boy. Sally has gotten a lot of mileage out of a brand of cuteness that Marie believes is phony and cheap. Now, the winsomeness appears to be wearing thin. "Sally," she sneers this morning, "Why even bother with my skirt? You'll just look like a boy who stole his sister's clothes!"
"I hate you!" says Sally, pulling Marie's hair. Marie pushes her over backwards to the floor and kneels on her arms. "Ow! That HURTS!" says Sally.
When I was a kid, I never understood why my father got so worked up when my brothers and I fought. I thought it was none of his business. But now I understand. When my kids quarrel, I feel as though the loving family I've dreamed of and worked for has turned out to be a squabbling band of creeps, full of jealousy and ill-will.
I look at the photo of the smiling ladies in the newspaper and steel myself to break up the fight. I've read that intervention will stunt the children's negotiating skills and cause unfinished business to accumulate between them. Tough.
I pull Marie off Sally and render my judgment: "Let Sally wear your skirt." The wearing of hand-me-downs is a cornerstone of our family finances and it must be protected. That protection supersedes Marie's constitutional property rights. Marie vs. The Skirt-Stealer is the case before the court this morning, but of course, Marie's skirt is not the issue. The issue is that during the first three-and-a-half years of Marie's life, she was the Belle of the Ball. Then, Sally crashed the party and Marie was no longer Scarlett O'Hara surrounded by admirers fetching champagne punch for her.
So, Marie is mean to Sally, and Sally is mean back. Sally is mean to HER little sister, Wendy, and Wendy is mean back. It's painful to witness all this meanness between people who are dear to me. I'm like Wilbur the pig in "Charlotte's Web." In order to love his new spider-friend, he must get past the repulsive fact that she makes her living by drinking the blood of flies. My daughters' bad treatment of each other makes it hard to love them as wholeheartedly as I do.
And, the girls have a similar problem with me and my divided allegiances. How can I love Sally AND her tormentor? How can I love Marie AND the usurper? It just doesn't add up.
"Who do you love more," Marie will ask, "me or Sally?" Luckily, a long time ago, I'd read a book called "Siblings Without Rivalry" by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. And, I remembered what to say: "I love YOU in a Marie way, and I love SALLY in a Sally way." This works like a charm, and I've figured out why. To Marie it means: "I love you for the intelligent, honest, and talented person you are, and I love Sally in the low-grade way that is the best you could do with a glib, shallow, tin-plated copycat like her."
This magic answer is open to happy misinterpretation by whichever child I say it to. It's wonderful. But I don't kid myself. It gets me off the hook, but it doesn't create household harmony. I need to find and reread that book.
In the meantime, I'm going to take the kidney-donor story as a hopeful sign of sisterly love to come. Even so, I'm making sure the girls drink plenty of cranberry juice to protect kidney function.