Tuesday, January 24, 2012

For Unschooling Blog Carnival February 2012- Sibling Rivalry; Sibling Love

Unschooling Blog Carnival logo - so pretty!

This post was written for the Unschooling Blog Carnival

Annalise gets a helping hand - or two-  from an invisible brother.

 Growing up, I loved my siblings - and  I hated them. The constant volatility and frequent parental outbursts of frustrated and furious energy nearly guaranteed that we would respond to each other in similarly reactive ways.  The fact that we would be punished, often violently, and nearly always reactively, for those incidents only complicated the issue, and guaranteed that our individual needs to assert ourselves or impose our will upon each other would continue and grow both more common and uglier in nature, as we grew.
New Year's Day 2010

Since there were four children, split  between genders, and three bedrooms in our home, no one had their own room.  That resulted in there being no physical place in our home or yard that was mine and inviolable.  As far as the shared spaces that made up our home - none of us children had the freedom to decide the details that defined those spaces - not even those we slept in.  For instance, my sister preferred purple, and I adore blue.  Our bedroom walls were pink, our curtains frilly and flowered.   There was white wooden furniture, bedding to match the curtains, and a red carpet that always distressed me (My aversion for red is long-standing and not something I really understand.  The color is simply off-putting, for me).

All of these things in our room were chosen, not by us, but by our mother -  to fit her image of what a girl's room should be.  Her reasons had to do with love, because she herself had never had a room filled with new and pretty things.  She intended to give us (and by extension, perhaps, the little love-starved girl she had been) her dream...but it wasn't my dream, in those colors, and so I always felt a little like a stranger there, borrowing the space from my mother's fantasy room.

The result was that there was no space that felt safe and embracing, except those which I could create through my own actions   These were almost exclusively interior spaces, held in my own mind, where I had some degree of control.

 When I was smaller, I discovered reading, and writing, and being in the tub as long as I could possibly mange, imagining and narrating stories in my head.  Alone in the tub, or lost in the pages of a book, or in my own mind, there was at least the illusion of distance and safety from the roiling emotions all around me.

When I got a little older, I discovered chores my siblings didn't want to do, and made it my habit to do some of these.  Sitting on the ground, pulling dandelions or weeding vegetables, raking, caring for our pets....I had these, and books, and the stories in my head.  I began to be allowed to do dishes alone, and I enjoyed that time, my back turned to the energy of the rest of the family, when I needed space -  looking out the kitchen window gave me, once again, a degree of space and safety.

In my teens, I discovered the joys of horseback riding, long walks, headphones and my Walkman, and the forbidden delights of exploring my burgeoning sexuality through writing and dreaming......I worked, and had after school activities my siblings didn't share, and, when I graduated, I chose a college two states away.....

Happy Siblings, January 2012
It seems that a tremendous amount of my energy, in childhood, was spent protecting my soul, my body, my ego, my possessions, and even the space around myself from invasion by outside forces - and looming large in the realm of threats were my three siblings.

I don't mean to say that it was intentional, on any of our parts, nor that I was never invading the invisible turf lines my siblings each held.  That much was inevitable, given the circumstances of our lives.

Hangin' out on the couch!
I mean to say that we lived far more often in a state of war, or at least, of potential battle, than we did in a state of harmony.  We all tended to keep our armor on and our weapons raised as we patrolled what we viewed as our personal territory.  Grudges might be held for days or months - our mother supplied excellent examples of how to hang on to perceived slights. We fought, often hand-to-hand and down-and-dirty, to defend what was ours: toys, games, space, attention, place in the heirarchy of family...

I remember a LOT of fighting.  In many cases, I remember what the fight was about.  I always remember how vital it was that I win, that I make my case, that I prove the other wrong, that I deflect and defeat any attacks.

I felt, then, like I had to fight to survive, and that feeling seemed to be backed up by the constant rivalries actively promoted by our parents.

I thought, growing up, that every family was like this.  Certainly, it seemed to be the way most siblings on TV  were portrayed, and it was the way most of the families I knew seemed to act, too.

Hirschornn Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC 2009 - ages 7and 4.

On the Washington, DC Metro train.  The car was empty; they could have sat anywhere.  This is where they chose.

For many years, I thought there was something wrong with me, for being so deeply troubled by it.  Certainly, if this was normal and right, and still, it tore me to shreds inside, I was far too sensitive....
Sibling comfort on a very hot day at the National Zoo.
I could not see, then, in my own desperate struggle to retain self and parental love, that my siblings were also hurting, also being damaged by this broken dynamic we all accepted as simply "they way things were."  I couldn't see how my parents, and their parents, and theirs, were all also broken by these types of poisonous love.

Now, many years further in my life's journey, I know things I did not know then about the damage abuse can cause, and how invisible and insidious that damage can be, seen from within a broken dynamic. I know how easily it passes from generation to generation, and the supreme effort required in coming from that place to a place of treating children with peace, kindness, and respect. I know why the fighting never felt normal or natural to me, now......

It didn't feel "right", because, in a healthy family dynamic, it wouldn't be.

Christmas morning love!
I know, too, why two of my three siblings and I are not on speaking terms.  It's because, for them, the rivalry hasn't ended - ever.  They are locked into it, and the pattern is so deep, they may not even see that the rivalry only exists, now, in their own perception of things.

Anything I say or do that they interpret to be a slur against them will be met with brutal retaliation.  They learned the lessons we lived by then well, but have not adapted to a world where those lessons are no longer useful.  Maybe, they have a worldview that tells them that trust and acceptance of others isn't useful.

Unfortunately, anything I say or do that they don't agree with falls in this category, and there is no point at all in attempting to explain that it isn't, in fact, about them, that my family and I are simply living our lives in a way that fulfills us deeply, and that this happens to be a way of life very different from theirs.

If our family dynamic had been healthy and supportive, during our childhoods, we all would have learned that each of us is different, and totally unique.  There would be no reason whatever to expect that four different people, with four different personalities, experiences, talents and weaknesses, would live congruent lives.

They might see, and understand, that I have always been more wild than tame, and that an unschooling life would be just the type of thing to speak to my unfettered and independent, intuitive and creative nature.

Jeremiah and Annalise making merry with Elijah's tree.
They might understand that this has nothing at all to do with their lives, and the choices they have made, which reflect who they are and what they value.

They might see that it is possible to disagree with someone - even passionately and to the core of one's being - and still respect the other's right to their own truth, and to give that truth a voice.

My older brother  played the assigned role of the family scapegoat, even before I was born 3.5 years later.  I remember some of the cruel things that were done to this fellow human as some of my earliest memories....but those are not my stories to tell, and so I won't say more.

Peaceful television time.  
We lead different lives.  We are unschoolers; his children have all attended public school, with varying results.  He has children ranging in age from 21 to not quite 6.  Miah and Lise, at 10 and 7.5,  are only 34 months apart, and Elijah was born between.

We live in different types of communities, and have different types of friends, and different pastimes.

Yet, we get along quite well...because we do not impose our judgement of what is valuable in life upon each other.  We learn things from each other, and enjoy spending time visiting, and accept that there will always be those areas upon which we cannot agree.

We called a truce on those, a long time ago, and we both honor that truce.  We may say difficult things to each other if either of us is compelled to, but, even then,. we understand that our words may not change things.

And we say what we feel we must with love and acceptance that we are not alike at the forefront.

Never have I assumed that he (or either of my other siblings), was living their life with the intention of disrespecting my choices.  That seems an inherently damaged attitude.... one that assumes that others live their lives with you at their center, that they choose how to raise their children, what to read, and what to say only based on whether that will make you angry or uncomfortable.  Or that they should tailor their lives, their opinions, and what they choose to share of their lives only in ways you approve of.

Horse skull discovery.  They spend a lot of time together, even with a whole meadow and forest to explore. Summer 2010,  York, PA, ages 8 and 5.

Sunggles and grins!

The reason I know, today, that the sibling experience I had is not the natural order of things, is Jeremiah and Annalise, and the lifetime I have spent living alongside and within their relationship with each other.

Do they fight?  Yes, they do.  On increasingly rare occasions they will still hit or hurt each other.  They are, after all, two young people growing and learning.  They are also two passionate and strong-willed people who do not always agree, and who are in the process of learning how to negotiate, see another's perspective,. and when to walk away because agreement is impossible.

Watermelon Fun!  Summer 2010

The difference is - they ARE  learning these things.  They WANT to.


Happy grape eaters!

A few reasons I can think of are:
  • They like themselves.
  • They like each other. 
  • They like their lives. 
  • They both get plenty of individual attention, and time to be together, and time with the family group.
  • They have as much or as little time alone as they choose each day.
  • They have their own spaces,  
  • They are in charge of those spaces.
  • They see their parents learning to negotiate.
  • They know their side of the story will be heard, if they wish to share it.
  • They know someone will help them to understand their sibling's viewpoint.
  • We have made ample spaces in our home for them to be alone or together.
  • We treat what is important to each of them as important, and help as needed with meeting their goals.
  • We see them and treat them as individuals, and value what is unique in each of them.
  • They spend a lot of time together.
  • Life is better when they are getting along - they are good friends, and being mad hurts.
Invented games on Annalise's bed, on Annalise's 5th birthday.
Growing up, we were ordered into resolving conflicts, and punished for having them.

We were not, however, given any conflict resolution tools.  Nor were techniques for negotiating peacefully a part of our lives.  When our parents fought, there would be screaming, and slamming doors, and days maybe of my mother hiding in her bedroom, not coming out.  That was scary...but not as scary as when they both decided that we had somehow caused it or made things worse.

Birthday fun at the mall...
Neither was there any consistent effort to get to the bottom of the disagreements. to help us to settle them.  It did not matter that my sister and I were incompatible on many levels from the time we were small.  It didn't matter that we kept asking to be allowed to divide the room with bookcases, a half-wall, or even a curtain.  I was cluttered and expansive, and she was neat and linear.  We tried to resolve the issue, with a divider, but my mother had the idea that sisters should share a room and get along (despite, or maybe because, she didn't get along well with her own sister...), and, again, her dream restricted our reality.

Together, in the middle of a long couch.

After the races......part of life in Saratoga County!

We were simply expected not to fight.  End of story.
When Jeremiah and Annalise argue, we stay near, and attentive.  More and more of the time, they don't need us to intervene.  When they do, they know that no one will be punished - and that they will get some insight into the other's position.  They also know they won't be forced to a resolution, that they have the freedom to walk away, and to consider, and to try again, until a resolution is found.  They also know that name-calling, blame, and nastiness don't help.

Lise helped Miah learn her Little Toot choreography.  

We remind them, or get between them, on the rare occasion things get too heated.  We strive to help without making it our issue,without unnecessary words or fuss and without demanding that they stop fighting.  We respect that they both have a truth, and neither perspective is less valid.

This isn't always easy, because we are still learning as we go along, and because children and the tensions within them and between them can change so suddenly.

We make the peace of our family more important than who is right or wrong.  Since we all share a conviction that peaceful living is better than living in conflict, they generally are willing to be helped.  When someone is not, that is nearly always a sign they need rest or a bit of solitude to recover.

Pillow fun - ages 6 and 3.

We do most of the talking about these things when life is calm.  They both take in information better when they don't feel that their turf is being threatened  in some way.  We talk about choices that help or hurt the peace of our home.

These children have always loved one another.  What we've done is let them focus on that love, and not on endless unresolved conflict.We give them the tools and support to have many, many more peaceful and happy moments with each other than dramatic or traumatic ones.

My mother used to dream that my sister and I would grow up and learn to see each other in a way that matched the sister-fantasy she kept in her mind.  But she didn't have the tools to give us; the tools that might have helped us to form a mutually respectful friendship, despite the differences in our natures, that could have grown with us into adulthood.
Miah, at 3, and Lise, not yet 1 - so little.  Such good friends.

Traffic Jam, ages just 2 and almost 5.

I see my children growing a bond that is stronger and deeper than I imagined a sibling bond could be - and I don't need to build a fantasy around a dream.  I get to live it, each and every day - and, as they get older, and learn new and deeper skills for relating with each other, it gets better and better.

And, with every day, I find deeper healing in being witness to this strengthening relationship, knowing that it is theirs, and not mine; and in doing all I can to support that connection, to not interfere too much in it, so that they can carry it with them throughout their lives, in a way that pleases them both.

It makes me happy to know that these same skills they are practicing with each other, now, can be carried forward throughout their lives, into other relationships that I will not witness so closely.  They will know, from evolving their sibling love, how to treat others, and how they themselves wish to be treated.

Goofy Christmas Portrait, ages 3 and 6.

What stands out to me, in all these photographs (I really had to narrow it down to these; there are hundreds more just as good!), is that Annalise and Jeremiah choose to spend much of their time together.  I remember my own desperate urge to escape my siblings, and how those bonds nearly strangled me, many, many times.  

With the freedom to go where they choose, with spaces of their own, and room to be away from one another, they are most often together.
Ages 2 and 5, in fancy duds sent by Gramma Jan in Oregon.

I find it endlessly amazing that something as delightful as the time they spend together is helping them to be capable of forming strong and fulfilling bonds throughout their lifetimes.

Lise recently  felt she needed to apologize to Miah .  This is how she chose to do it....close-ups below....



Sorry! (exclamation point not shown...)

Happy Valentine's Day, Jeremiah and Annalise.  I love you both!

Jeremiah fixed Marshmallow (Koko's baby) the gorilla for Annalise

Close up of eye transplant surgery.



Cap'n Franko said...

I love reading your thoughts!

Shan Jeniah Burton said...

From you, Frank, that is high praise!

I want to get back in here and edit.....the layout could use cleaning up. Maybe this weekend....

Shah Wharton said...

What an adorable post. You have such beautiful children and it is clear how happy they are and how much they love one another too.

My brother and I fought all the time and we never learned how to communicate. Its awful to accept that as he died so young and without us ever learning to. Our family isn't big on such things. We were taught that denial solves everything. If I'm ever lucky enough to conceive and be blessed with a kiddie, I'll be making sure he/she knows how to communicate above all else. It is one lesson once learned, which will always carry them in good stead. No matter where they go or what they do in life. Mental illness runs in my family and most of the stimuli/triggers are communication/interpretation issues.

Your children will clearly never have these worries, and you should feel chuffed with yourself for making their futures almost insured. :) X

Shan Jeniah Burton said...

Shah -
I just wrote you a lovely long reply, and deleted it - urgh!

I am sorry that your brother died before you could resolve your feelings about your relationship.

I found that I needed to release my sister and younger brother, as well as my parents. The dynamic there is the same as it was in my childhood. Rage is the way to express pain; rage directed at another, who will then be blamed for causing the rage. Ganging up on an assigned scapegoat. Ridicule, manipulation, and humiliation.

I noticed I wasn't as nice after interacting with these people. And with them, I was always waiting for the eventually inevitable explosions.....

It took a long time to realize that I can't keep a peace that is based on a dominant/submissive model, or with people who are not peaceful, who would much rather vent their rage by dredging up every real or imagined slight,then to work toward resolving the current issue in a way that benefits everyone involved as much as possible.

When Miah and Lise argue, it is about that moment. And, once resolved, they are immediately back to being friends, without the lingering ugliness that existed in my childhood home, the never-quite-settled feeling that filled me with worry at when the next explosion would come, as it always did.

SO I have, at long last, let go, and released them to their lives, hoping they will find their own path to peace, but suspecting that peace is not what they want.

I focus, these days, on the life and relationship within these walls. And that is very, very good. It turns out that being devoted to helping children to communicate well with each other is extremely good for spousal communication, too!

I feel you will be a thoughtful and loving mother, if you have children.

There aren't any guarantees for the future (one of my children will never grow up; his sister never even met Elijah, he came and went so quickly from our lives). I strive to give them as much of what they need to thrive in the world each day, and, like all parents, I hope it will be enough.

At the moment, it seems to be. There is far more laughter than tears, peace than dissension, joy than anger.

And we like it like this!

CC said...

Wow I just loved reading this!
I have two small children, and at times it's hard to stay on track with the lack of sleep and everything else that goes along with babies and toddlers. I will definitely be back to read this again for inspiration when the need arises!

Shan Jeniah Burton said...

TSN84 - Things settle out as they get a little older - or, they did, for us.

Shifting my own thinking from authoritarian and side-taking and punishing worked wonders, too.....more than anything else, maybe, it helps them to focus on the matter at hand and resolve it.

I think, when ezcaping punishment and retaining parental regard are hinged on being on "the right side" of an argument, the stakes go way beyond whatever the dissension of the moment is....and that can make it impossible to find common ground, because each is trying to lay claim to all they see....