The roller skates had been in the top of my 7 year old daughter’s closet since we moved into this house 2 years ago. They had made 1 or 2 other moves with us. No one had ever used the skates and they were not a prized possession until the day my 7 year noticed them at the top of her closet as I was trying to get her to bed. She had the perfect vantage point from her bottom bunk bed to the top of her closet with the closet door open (who has time to close it?).
“What are those?” she said. “Roller skates” I said, anxious to finish reading to her so we could get her to bed and I could be off parent duty for the night. “Where are they from?”. “I don’t know- someone gave us them- maybe one of your cousins”. “Can I use them?” “Sure, let’s try them tomorrow.”
It seemed innocent enough. A found pair of roller skates that we didn’t even know were lost. Until my 9 year old found out about them and she wanted to use them. “I think they are mine”, she said, “I think one of my cousins gave them to me”. Those were fighting words. These dusty, faded, neglected hand me down roller skates were about to cause a war. The screeching, yelling, name calling kind.
A sibling war. To a parent, it’s the worst kind of war because we know it’s coming into our house, which should be our safe place, and many of us don’t know how to stop it. Knowing you are about to be in its path, like a hurricane, makes you want pull your eyelashes out instead of witnessing it. It’s like a scratch in an old record that you know is coming so you hold your breath in anticipation but you know you have to wait it out and get through it.
I am a mom of 3 and, sadly, sibling fighting is a common occurrence in our house. It’s mostly my two girls (ages 7 & 9) but that doesn’t mean that my 12 year son doesn’t engage it it, although usually he’d rather be playing Fortnight with his friends on video chat than hanging out with his sisters. Sometimes he starts something out of boredom just to rile them up and maybe also as a little backlash to us for the unspoken branding of being labeled “the easy one”. But it’s the girls who are the nonstop fighters.
I remember visiting my sister and her family years ago at Easter and my then 4 teenaged nephews took a Vine video of the girls just going at it (they were probably 2 and 4 at the time and I remember some hair pulling, kicking and scratching). We watched that short clip over and over again and laughed hysterically. It was the kind of thing you’d get obsessed about it if you saw it online- two tiny beings just going after each other. I was laughing too at the ridiculousness of it but, in truth, it was my daily reality.
I can’t tell you the number of times we have had to leave restaurants or other public places because our girls were fighting. We recently met our friend, Jenny, and her son for lunch in Oakland. We haven’t lived in Oakland in 5 years and she’s seen our kids roughly once a year since. I was excited to see an old friend and have a yummy burger and curly fries at Barney’s, one of our favorite Oakland lunch spots. Not surprisingly, the girls started fighting in the restaurant and I had to take them outside. We apologetically looked at Jenny and said, “see, nothing’s changed” and she just smiled sympathetically because, sadly, it was true and nothing had changed.
Here’s the thing about my daughters- they are frenemies. You’d think that they would just stay away from each other since they fight so much but they don’t. They are like magnets that cannot be pulled apart. They gravitate towards each other and then go after each other. And in the times that they are friends, they have this hyperactive, frenetic energy, which can be almost as irritating as the fighting. I recently read that siblings that fight when they are young become better friends as adults than siblings who don’t engage with each other when they are young.
I’m finding some comfort in the fact that hopefully they will become friends as they get older but it’s not helping in the short term of losing my hair and my mind. I think of my siblings. I am the youngest of 5 and we are all born within 6 years. A good Irish Catholic family. I avoided my oldest sister until I was about 20- my childhood memories of her were that she was wild, cool and a little bit mean. We were just in different orbits and we didn’t try that hard to connect- there were 3 other kids in between us. In my early 20s, she and I went to Europe together one summer and we became very close. Since that we have been there for each other during the good and the bad times. She’s now one of my best friends and I can’t imagine life without her.
I have another sister who is 2 years older than I am. We have always been really close (sometimes we were called twins) and we still talk multiple times a week. We have a great relationship because we can talk about the serious stuff of how we are both trying to survive so much–parenthood, trying not to keep up with the Joneses, full time work etc. or we just need someone to help us with the little decisions and one of us will call and say, “I’m in the Starbucks line, should I be crazy today and get the pumpkin spice latte or my regular decaf whole milk latte?” The only two times I remember us fighting is 1. When I turned her bath water scalding hot as her head was under the spigot (I have no memory as to why I did that evil deed but she probably does) and 2.
When I was in my late teens and I yelled something like, “I hate it that you treat me like your baby sister and introduce me that way to all of your friends. You need to start treating me like an adult and an equal”. I’m not sure that was really a fight but was a big deal to me at the time that I stood up for myself to my big sister.
Oh, I also have two older brothers. I really like them as adults (and they were both lucky that amazing women agreed to marry them so I now have awesome sister-in-laws) but I didn’t interact or think about them much as kids. They are a year apart, shared the same room, the same clothes and were both called by our last name “Hickey”. They were two different people but during my childhood they were just one entity I thought of as “the boys” although I knew if someone ever threatened or hurt me, they’d beat him/her up and always have my back.
All that said, I know all 5 of us fought sometimes, life was constantly chaotic in our house and I’m sure we were miserable to be around at times but I remember it more as fun chaos than relentless, continuous mind-numbing fighting…although I should probably ask my Mom and see what she says.
Now that I’m the grown up, I don’t know how to handle my kids when they fight. I not proud to admit it but I’ve tried yelling, bribing, blaming, ignoring and many other things. Nothing seems to work. I tell them that if one of them stops engaging, then the other one doesn’t have anyone to fight with. I tell my daughters that I hope they will be really close when they grow up, just like I am with my sisters. And then I add a little guilt by saying they will be sad when they get to be grown ups and they didn’t realize it sooner (I know I shouldn’t use guilt but it’s hard not to).
I recently took a dollar away from my daughter every time she didn’t listen when she was behaving badly on vacation. In about 10 minutes, I got up to $20 and refused to back down. My mother-in-law was there and I am sure she thought I was crazy for doing it. She didn’t say anything but I knew I was being stubborn and ridiculous and I had an audience witnessing it. I was so angry that I couldn’t control my daughter and her behavior and I was a real pill for the rest of the night.
The next day I realized that my anger got the best of me and I shouldn’t use money as a weapon so I talked to my daughter and we compromised. I did have her pay some of the money but I said that I wouldn’t use money again as a consequence (technology, yes) and she was genuinely sorry for her behavior.
I’m typing this now as I watch my girls doing rainbow loom together. My 7 year old just said, “Did I steal your loom?” and my 9 year old said, “yeah but it’s ok, I found another”. And I’m smiling because I’m an optimistic and believe there is hope for them to be friends at some point. So, even though I feel like sometimes I’m barely hanging on and I think I’m failing on the fighting front, I’m trying to remember that they will grow up and hopefully grow up to be the best of friends as I’m so lucky to be with both of my sisters. And if it they don’t, I’m not going to try not to blame myself but I will be a little sad that they never figured out that their best friend was right in front of them the whole time.