Before my wife and I swapped roles and my wife went back to work, she wrote a weekly column about family life for one of Britain’s biggest selling women’s weekly magazines. Every Monday, I’m going to go through her archives and reproduce one of her ramblings on my blog.
This week’s the: Sibling rivalry
I’d put the children to bed, I’d read them a story and turned out their bedroom light. Now, I was ready for a bit of me time. But, just as I flopped on to the sofa, there was a flurry of footsteps on the stairs and from under the living room door a piece of paper appeared.
‘Oh no,’ I said to The Partner Who Is Not My Husband. ‘What now!’
I got up, picked up the paper and unfolded it.
On it, scrawled in the handwriting of someone in a mad temper, was a long list. I began to read:
Tom dose: (sic)
Blaming it on me
Trying to get atenchon (sic)
‘Oh heck,’ I said. ‘Here we go again.’
I went back upstairs to discover that in the space of five minutes, World War III had broken out in the kids’ bedroom with brother and sister trading insults across the room like trained snipers.
‘Meanie!’ fired the four-year-old.
‘Cry-baby!’ the seven-year-old shot back.
‘You’re being horrible!’
‘You’re being annoying!’
‘I don’t like you.’
‘Well, I really don’t like you!’
As I watched, I wondered: How had it come to this?
Not so long ago, the four-year-old had been the much adored baby brother, worshipped and protected by his big sister. She helped me bath him, she changed his nappies and she treated him like a china doll. My favourite photograph shows them watching television together, my daughter with a loving arm around her brother.
But now everything had changed.
Now, barely a day went by without one of them complaining about the other. They vied for my attention, they battled to be number one and each was convinced that the other was my favourite.
‘You love him more,’ the seven-year-old would say.
‘That’s not true,’ the four-year-old would add. ‘She always gets her own way.’
But which of them was right? Who was my favourite?
Well, if research is to be believed, mums favour their precious first-born children over all others.
A recent survey by parenting website Mumsnet revealed mothers will go to astonishing lengths for their first child, including rubbing shampoo into their own eyes to test it doesn’t sting, pulling prams backwards for miles to avoid direct sunlight and even sterilising the steriliser!
But subsequent children don’t fare quite so favourably.
As one mother so brilliantly put it: ‘First child: suckable items must be sterilised in Milton or steam after they’ve dropped on the floor. Second child: items must be wiped over with a clean damp cloth. Third child: give them to the dog to lick clean.’
No wonder second and third children feel hard done by!
As a second child, myself, I always felt second best. I grew up in my big sister’s shadow. She was bright and popular and good at games. And, with every word of praise heaped on her and not on me, I convinced myself she was my mum’s favourite.
And I vowed then that when I had children of my own I would never treat them differently from one another.
But then something happened. I gave birth to my daughter, followed by my two sons, and I realised something about a mother’s love. We don’t have favourites. We love our children in equal amounts – but in different ways.
What seems at first like favouritism is, in reality, nothing more than a first-time mum’s inexperience and desire to ‘get it right’. And what appears to be a less attentive attitude to younger children is simply the realisation that your little darlings won’t turn a nasty shade of green and keel over if they suck their comfort blanket after the dog’s had it, and that they won’t stop loving you – whatever they might say – if you say ‘no’ to them.
But try telling that to my tricky twosome!
I was at my wits’ end with their rivalry. And then, they had an idea.
‘We want to change bedrooms,’ the seven-year-old announced.
‘Are you both sure?’ I asked.
‘Absolutely,’ said the seven-year-old.
‘Completely,’ said the four-year-old.
It was a big move – and not just for them. First we took the seven-year-old’s bed to pieces. Next we dismantled the toddler’s cot bed in the room next door. Then we swapped them around and put them back together again.
After that, we moved books and toys and games and drawers full of clothes. It took a whole Saturday but, finally, my bickering children had their wish. My two boys would share one room and my girl would have the other. It made sense.
That evening, they went to bed in their new rooms.
‘Bet you’re glad you’re in here,’ I said to the seven-year-old as she settled down. ‘No more annoying brother getting on your nerves all the time.’
‘Yes,’ she replied.
‘No more fighting and bickering,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ she replied.
‘Just you, on your own,’ I said.
‘I suppose so,’ she said.
I tucked her in and then I went downstairs, flopped into the sofa and said to The Partner: ‘Right, then. Me time!’
But then I heard it. A flurry of footsteps on the stairs and underneath the door a slip of paper appeared.
‘Looks like you spoke too soon,’ said The Partner.
He picked up the paper, unfolded it and smiled. Then he handed it to me. On it was a picture of a little girl sitting on a bed. Her mouth was in the shape of an upside-down U and she was crying.
Beneath it, written in bold capitals, were the words:
I MISS TOM!!!!
I went upstairs to the seven-year-old’s new room. But she wasn’t there. Instead I heard a noise from the room next door.
I poked my head around the door.
There, sitting on her brother’s bed with an arm around his shoulder, was the seven-year-old. She was reading a story. Her brother was gazing at her in wonder.
As I watched them, I was reminded of another scene, one from almost 40 years ago: in a bedroom, two little girls with matching basin haircuts are sitting on a bed. The older one has an arm around the younger’s shoulder. The younger one is looking up at her.
‘Who’s that?’ the children’s father is asking the younger child.
And the girl is saying: ‘This is my best friend… and my sister.’
Now, all those years later, that older girl is still my best friend first and foremost. She is the one I can ask anything of, the one I turn to when the chips are down and the one I celebrate with when things are going well. We might have bickered and battled but, in the end, I’d be lost without her.
Next day, all the bedroom furniture went back to its original place, along with the books, the toys and the clothes.
Of course, this does not mean that the sibling rivalry is over. Far from it. And, one day, the seven-year-old will want a room of her own away from her brothers. But, for now, there’s just one place she wants to be – and one small boy she wants to be there with.