I read my first book on sibling rivalry when my kids were three years and ten months old, respectively. Since my youngest was still new enough to be an enchanting marvel to her sister, none of the advice applied. How lucky I felt! My children were so angelic, so amiable (so perfectly raised) that we’d never have to resolve epic battles over who has more ice cream, more marbles, more love.
I was wrong.
At ages seven and four, my kids fight over everything. They argue in the morning about games, about who is the mom and who is the baby when they play house. They argue over toys, over the largest strawberry in the bowl, and the color of their juice cups. They push each other out of the way in a race to wash hands and shove each other into the parental path when it’s time to brush teeth. Howls ensue in battles over whose book I read first at bedtime.
They spin my head with their transformations, drawing blood one minute, cuddling inseparably the next. They avow undying love — BFF — just before they swear to never, ever speak again. They are best friends at noon and mortal enemies at twelve o’five. The vertigo of shifts is astounding.
My kids can wage war over all kinds of territory — the Legos, the doll house, my lap. Last week, they took contention to a whole new extreme. Just when I thought I had a handle on the limits of sibling rivalry, they added a new dimension, one that they can’t even see.
Two years ago, my youngest daughter invented Pink World. As we drive in the car, she finds missing Pink World creatures, from giraffes to kangaroos, and pops them back into their rightful place. It’s innocent entertainment with the bonus of keeping her awake so she can nap properly at home.
Eager to join the fun, her older sister created Rainbow World. At first, there was cooperation, even collaboration in their efforts to coral wayward pink or striped animals and plop them back into their ether homes. And then my youngest decided she wanted a Rainbow World too. Pink World was abandoned to its fate, leaving two, rival Rainbow Worlds to populate. It should have been easy, right? After all, the creatures, the worlds themselves are just imaginary. What are the stakes in that? What could possibly go wrong? The answer turns out to be a very simple “Everything”.
One multi-hued conversation in the car verged quickly into dispute and ended up something like this:
Mom: “Look! Two kangaroos!” (Thinking: two is an even number, one for each. I’m safe.)
Boo Monkey (age 4): “Oh, two lions!” (She takes them both for her own, co-opted version of Rainbow World, leaving none for her now lion-less sister.
Rainbow Girl (age 7): “She’s not sharing!”
Me, silently: “Seriously? Seriously!”
Rainbow Girl: “Three dogs!” (Which she keeps for herself).
Boo Monkey: “Eighteen kitty cats!” (Of course, she keeps the entire litter.)
The numbers, and stakes, continued to escalate, along with their feelings of betrayal and vengeance. George Lucas couldn’t hold a candle to this.
After awhile, the game petered out, with its attendant rivalry, and they went on to agree and then bicker about something else, all the animals left to their own devices, possibly unfed and probably making a mess.
I try to maintain an even keel in the storm, a sense of calm that can waft out and spread. I tell them, mantra-like: “You’re sisters and you love each other. You’ll have each other all your lives.” For me, it’s an incantation, a spell. I know they don’t love each other every minute. Boo Monkey is famous for saying, “I don’t like you right now, but I’ll like you again tomorrow.” I know. I get it. Still, there is comfort in the repetition of those words, in their complicated truths and fractures. They will hate each other some days. And love each other all the rest. They will tear at each other’s hearts, and be the first to mend them. They will push each other to the edge, and then stretch forth, hands extended to claim the falling.
As for me, I stand somewhere that approximates a center. I remember to remind them that I love them uniquely, that there is no count or measure for that. I tell them, when they place the strawberries side by side, that they will each get enough — enough strawberries and, what lies at the heart of it, enough love. Enough.
In that sense, I suppose fighting over imaginary zebras and chimpanzees is not really so different from fighting over Legos. It’s a way of stretching, of claiming, of working out the kinks between them. It’s a way of making sure there is enough to go around, to fill them up, to define who they are and who they aren’t. The tracery of lines between them is always under construction, ready to bend and shift, ready to bear the weight. I count myself lucky that there are more hugs than insults and that, when the stakes are most high — in dark highway tunnels or when mom is crankier than a hungry pink lion — they take each other’s hands and hold on tight.
And then, when all else fails, I pack my imaginary bags and take a vacation in Beach World. It’s always sunny and the coffee is plentiful and free.