May 27, 2010

Sibling Loneliness or Parenting Against the Past

At times it's easy to forget there are ten years between Buckaroo and Sweet P. I'm thinking in particular about when they squabble over the TV, but there are good moments, too, the times when Buckaroo plays fireman and Sweet P runs around the house pretending to be on fire. It's a morbid little game, but they race with screaming giggles, which is a good sound to hear while I make dinner.

Right now we're all at the beach and Sweet P is floating in the water with our neighbor, Tap Girl. The girls intermittently break from their game of "Push Your Buddy Off the Floaty" long enough to tease Buckaroo with a skosh of play time. They pull him around on his pink dolphin boat or take turns pretending to let him save them from [insert violent doom of choice here].

But they are thirteen, and their interest in a preschooler wanes quickly. They're not trying to be mean, but soon they're kicking their rafts out to Blueberry Island, and Buckaroo is left on shore with his shovel and pail, wailing and kicking sand.

In our house it's not unusual to see Buckaroo chasing after his disappearing sister. Sometimes a friend will call Sweet P during the fireman game, and she miraculously recovers from the flames and disappears into the basement, whispering into the phone while Buckaroo, wearing only a red fireman's hat, bangs on the basement door, shouting, "I want to pway!" (He hasn't quite mastered his Ls.) I endeavor to distract him with puzzles, games, or cookie building, and he calms down eventually, but I know I'm not the playmate he wants in that moment.

The first time this happened, I was surprised by my reaction-- a strong ache in my throat-- but I have the same reaction every time, and eventually I realized that as hard as it is to see my son hurting, the ache I feel is for my younger self because watching the scene is a little bit like watching my own memories.

I don't have siblings in the traditional sense, but my Aunt Robin was six years older than me (still is, although I haven't seen her in years). She was the perfect playmate from the time I was three, sort of a weekend sister. Hide and Seek, Slip and Slide, Pick-Up Sticks, I don't remember ever tiring of her company. We could play all day, and when we were tired and hungry, she was tall enough to reach Grandma's hidden stash of Twinkies and Lucky Charms. Looking back I think, as the youngest of four sisters, she must have enjoyed the chance to be the oldest for a while. At night I slept in her bed, and we took turns tickling each other's backs until we fell asleep.

Then one day, after we'd played house for hours, Grandma and I dropped off Aunt Robin at her friend's house for a sleep over. I'm sure it wasn't the first time, but it was the first time I recognized that she was going off to do older kid things, that I wasn't welcome. Grandma and I watched from the car as Aunt Robin walked up her friend's driveway with her overnight bag, and I imagined that later I'd eat my Salisbury steak TV dinner with Grandma and watch Dallas while she rolled her hair in curlers, and I felt my first pangs of loneliness.

When I see Buckaroo chasing after Sweet P, I feel that lonely frustration all over again.

As we got older I became more of an annoyance than a playmate. I couldn't sleep in Aunt Robin's bed anymore because I woke her up too early; I was rude to her boyfriends; I couldn't keep a secret. I saw her less often. I was fourteen the day she was married. I was a bridesmaid, and as much as I wanted to be happy for her I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being left behind for good.

Tricia, 11 & Robin, 17

Strange that it should never occur to me that-- is there even a phrase for it? Sibling loneliness?-- would be one of the challenges of having children so many years apart, but my ignorance makes sense considering that I try not to think about Aunt Robin too much. She disappeared a long time ago, became a drug addict, abandoned her children. She lives somewhere in her own woods, I'm told. I locked away all of the feelings I associated with her, and they only floated to the surface in very bad dreams, until now. Buckaroo has become a little key, opening a door I had forgotten existed.

I am continually trying not to let my past influence the way I parent my children, but I'm sure every mindful parent knows the challenges there. I encourage Sweet P to play with Buckaroo, but I don't force her. (Ok, sometimes I include it as one of her chores if she seems game; digging sandcastles is more fun than washing dishes.) I remind her again and again --and again-- that before walking away from Buckaroo, she might try finding other solo interests for him. Give him a two minute warning, at least. Some days that works.

One day, about five years from now, Sweet P will go off to college, and I dread that day for myself, but also on Buckaroo's future eight-year-old behalf. Not too long ago a friend told me that she would never have children so many years apart because it was difficult for her to be the younger sister left behind. Another friend, though, loved visiting her older sister in college and remembers it as the best kind of vacation-- all the fun and none of the parents. I'm also trying to keep in mind that most children leave home eventually, and maybe it's not easy for any sibling, no matter the age difference.

I read somewhere-- I think it was O Magazine; don't judge me-- that reality is what it is, but we each have a movie playing in our heads made up of past experiences, and we view reality through the screen of that movie. These days I'm working to shut down the projector.

Our family is what it is, too, and while we have some of the same themes running through it, sibling frustrations being one of many, we have an opportunity to approach those themes in our own way. Still, R and I remind ourselves that we don't have to re-write the parenting book here, but maybe we can decorate it with our own illustrations.

And speaking of books, I went looking for children's books that address this topic, without much luck. I did find Forever Rose, but we may have to hit up our local librarian. Parenting would be a much bigger challenge without her.


evf said...

I can relate to this all too well, Tricia. My closest sister is 9 years older than me, my eldest sister is 20. It's funny that coming as the last in a line of 9 I should, in some ways, consider myself an only child. There are some benefits for the child too, they have a different relationship with their parents than siblings who share all through life--as my own girls fight for my attention.

Thinking of your aunt's departure--I've experienced this too, how sad it is to see someone you've admired so long in life grow into a shadow of that admiration, how your own maturity gives such a clear, bitter-sweet perception.

Suzanne said...

Oh my, Trish. What a lovely, lovely writer you are. With tears in my eyes I send a hug -- for the loss of a friend and for the foreverness that I feel in some moments of parenting that I am not sure are my proudest moments.

But I talked to my sweet baby sister today who is also pregnant now, and I love our relationship. I played old-timey and church with her until I was past the age when I would have been mortified if my friends knew I did it and comfortably into the age of knowing that it was perfectly fine to play, really play with my sister who is 9 years my junior. I learned a special love from my siblings and know Buckaroo and Sweet Pea and Obo are learning one, too.

Anonymous said...

so much pressure to do the unknown correctly is heavy on my heart these days too. thanks for sharing from that sacred place you so graciously let us into. you are sometimes my most intimate touchstone. love you, fmf

Patricia Caspers said...

evf, Rick and I joke that we have three only children (my step-son lived with us for a while but now lives in England) because our two oldest had so much time alone before we became a family, and our youngest will have so much time alone when they're out of the house. I know my daughter misses being the sole recipient of my attention, for sure.

And it is hard to grow up and see the people we love in a new, sometimes harsher, light. Whenever I write something difficult I'm always glad to hear from others who've been there. Thanks for reading and responding!
Thanks, Suzanne! I'm so happy for you and your sister! I really liked meeting her and your mom. You are so lucky to have such a wonderful family! And thanks for the reminder, too. I know Buckaroo is keeping Sweet P young and playful!

Love you, too. Looking forward to the days when your heart is lighter and sending big hugs down the hill until then.