Sibling Love

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Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

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53 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed this post, Rose. Thanks for writing it.Report

  2. Avatar Russ Young says:

    Thoughtfully and beautifully written, Rose.Report

  3. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    You make me a little bit sad, Rose. I’ve no siblings of my own with whom to have shared the mischief and friendship and love you write of here. All three of your sons get along and there is every reason to think that later in life they will have the same brotherly love you enjoy with your brother now. May it enrich them!Report

  4. My siblings are older than I. I have five total, making me #6. The youngest is 8 years older and the eldest is 15 years older. (Cue in obvious jokes about my family being Catholic and about the plannedness of me coming along when I did.) The age difference between me and the youngest is actually greater than it seems, because she left home very early, at about age 15. She was also the one who bullied me the most. The strange thing is, though, that beginning about 13 or 11 years ago, we started to reconnect, and I am probably closest to her compared with my other siblings.

    There is some drama and hard feelings among all the siblings. Two major factions have developed among them. Fortunately, I’ve been spared much of it. As the youngest, I haven’t been implicated in almost any of the things that have been said or done or the decisions that have been made. I haven’t had to make an outright decision of which faction I belong to, although I am closer and more in speaking terms with one of them. It’s all unfortunate, but because I won’t go into all the details, you’ll have to take my word that some of the reasons behind it are understandable and some are inscrutable even to me. And some of the understandable reasons are severe enough that if certain allegations are true, most people here wouldn’t blame some of the parties for not speaking to others.

    At the same time, there is love there. Certain relationships are disconnected, probably forever. But if something should happen to one, even one from the different faction, there would be much sincere grieving all around.

    Yes, sibling love is a strange thing. All I can say is that I am grateful for having siblings.Report

  5. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    Oh man this was a great post. So much of this rings true for me Rose. My siblings and I were very close growing up. There are three of us and there are only 41 months separating me, the oldest, from my brother, the youngest, and my sister is in the middle. My mother believed very strongly in the principle that if you are close to your siblings you don’t need anyone else. I don’t want to say that she discouraged outside friendships but she always believed your siblings should be your best friends. Thankfully this has continued into our adult years though as our personalities evolved things become more complicated and we drift apart in subtle ways but remain close in others. We are all still in Louisville and this very afternoon we will all be together, with our total of 9 kids, with my mom and aunt and uncle, to celebrate a couple of the kids’ birthdays. It will make my heart very happy, as it always does.

    All I can say about your children Rose is that it sounds like things are progressing well. My mom once told me she knew she had done well when she realized we were protecting each other when we were in trouble and even though we were allied against her, it was worth it to see her kids sticking up for each other. I used to coach my brother on what to say if he came home after curfew. He and I lived together for three years and our sister’s apartment was only 50 steps away. Again, my mother was thrilled. Today I think our love for one another has extended to our children. The cousins have learned from our example (I hope) and all seem to adore each other. It feels like we built a strong family foundation that will hopefully continue for years to come.Report

  6. Avatar ScarletNumbers says:

    A sibling is a person with whom you must compete for resources.

    This statement is 100 percent true. The reason why parents encourage their siblings to get along is that it makes life easier for the parents. In other words, its bullshit for the kids.

    As for William and George, they were dealt an off-suit 2-7. I feel MUCH more sympathy for the siblings of the disabled than the actual disabled, ignorance being bliss.

    James will likely be a burden on William and George for the rest of his life. My heart aches for William and George.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to ScarletNumbers says:

      James will likely be a burden on William and George for the rest of his life. My heart aches for William and George.

      This is what people who are not in families like ours always assume. It’s what I assumed initially. It’s partly true, but much more complicated than that. James is not a passive sucker of resources. He provides them with richness. People who are not very close with severely disabled people do not understand that. He is a burden, he is a blessing, he is a person.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        [James] provides [George and William] with richness

        I think you are bullshitting yourself here. I don’t blame you for trying to look at the situation through rose-colored glasses, but I just don’t see any richness here.

        Also, are those their real names? If so, I like them; they are quite regal.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        I know people think that, i.e., that I’m bullshitting myself. I mentioned that in a comment on Jason’s post. When I first got the diagnosis, I saw other parents saying how much they loved their kid. I thought they were deluded or religious nuts.

        It’s possible we are. But here’s the thing. I know what it’s like both to have a kid with disabilities and what it’s like not to have a kid with a disabilities. You do not. Tons of data show that we are really bad at predicting what will make us happy and satisfied. Which of us is more likely to be accurate about James’ effects on my life?

        Not their real names, although their real names tend to be regal.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        It’s another non-falsifiable claim. People assume parents and siblings of people with disabilities MUST be suffering. If they (the parents and siblings) claim otherwise, then they MUST be deluded. There is no evidence that can persuade you. Yet you actually do not, in fact, know what it is like.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        One last thing on the adaptive preference claim (that is, that my whole family only thinks it’s happy because the bleakness of our reality is too great to face, so we jump into our Matrix world which tells us the lie that James is a valuable person), which is something I’ve thought a lot about. The song, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands” struck me as interesting when my kids started singing it. Because it allows for the possibility that you might be happy and not know it.

        Here’s what I wonder: even if my preference is adaptive, why wouldn’t it be real? What kind of suffering is it really if you are unaware of it? Why would we take such suffering (if there can be such a thing) very seriously?Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Personally, I think the whole argument here hinges on happiness as being in relationship to some outside measure of perfection. Even freed slaves wrote and told stories of the good old days, when the were slaves and happier; there are tales of experiencing joy and happiness in concentration camps. And I know plenty of beautiful, wealthy people who are not generally happy; plenty of ugly and not-wealthy people who generally are happy.

        The metrics simply do not map, which leads me to feeling pity for someone who thinks they do. It must be such a handicap to go through life measuring your happiness by someone else’s yardstick.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to ScarletNumbers says:

      In other words, its bullshit for the kids. If that’s true, why do more than half of siblings stay in contact as adults?Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        I would say that more than half is a very low percentage.

        Furthermore, once the kids are adults, the competition for resources deminishes greatly, so that aspect of the rivalry goes away, unless one is apt to hold grudges.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Like I said, more than half is striking considering I would guess that not even that many childhood friends stay in that close contact. Yet unlike a friend, you never choose a sibling. They could all be brainwashed by their parents I suppose.

        I never consciously encouraged my children to show affection to each other, but they do. I encourage them to be polite and non-violent. They are allowed to say they hate each other, etc. They do (at least WIlliam and George say it to each other) and they say they love James. You can then say that I unconsciously encouraged them to show affection to each other. That’s the thing with those claims of unconscious behaviors. Not falsifiable, and all that.Report

      • I realize it’s an entirely different situation than the one ScarletNumbers is being unreasonable about – but as the product of a home that met most of the criteria for broken, and even though there were times when one or the other of us was furious with or deeply hurt by another one, I credit my siblings with at least 50 percent of the reason I survived – and this despite that fact that as we were growing up, the enormous amount of care they needed (and most especially the things they were *only* getting from me, the oldest) was a staggering burden. And they feel likewise, as adults, that our close bond is a major reason we are all doing mostly okay now. That mutual succor was a lot more important than the rivalry or the burden were (even though both were, absolutely, true, especially at times when resources were scarce).

        The blessing of loving and being loved by a persistent, intimate equal – even if that equal is also in some sense a rival, even if that equal is not always all THAT equal in terms of capability or competence or whatever you want to call it (my sister was really sick as a child, and spent 11 months of a year in the hospital, among other things, which isn’t all that much like James, but also marked her out as the one we had to take care of – and of course there are always age differences) – anyway, that ability, that commonality, is an incredibly powerful force for good. The confidence that George and William and James have in each other’s love is no less valuable, no less affirming, whether or not it has genetic underpinnings and whether or not one of them ends up materially supporting another.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to ScarletNumbers says:

      Perhaps Scarlet would be good enough to explain how it is he can possibly know more about this issue than Rose does?Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers in reply to James Hanley says:

        This is a logical fallacy known as Appeal to Authority.

        In behavioral economics, there is something known as the Endowment Effect which Rose is experiencing.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to James Hanley says:

        Um, Scarlet? Appeal to Authority is only a fallacy when it comes to knowledge derivable through reason. Not empirical knowledge. If we NEVER trusted people’s authority when they’ve actually experienced or learned something we have not, we would have no reason to believe the assertions of scientists. Or journalists. Or anybody. We could abolish schools and universities, since no one can teach anyone anything.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

        Objectivity. Rose, who lives with her children, has known them from the day they were born, and is among the most important people in their lives, is far too close to the situation for real perspective, and can’t hope to match the insight of a random blog commenter. Just like Scarlet’s family won’t tell him, but I will, that he needs to go change right now. That shirt does not go with those pants.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to James Hanley says:

        Or, I should add, a fallacy if we claim that the empirical knowledge of an authority is infallible. Which of course, I did not.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        In addition to Rose’s correction, although the endowment effect is real we do not have any basis for conclusively determining, as you seem to do here, that this is the case with Rose. One could suspect it, but one cannot state factually that it is the case.

        On the other hand, it’s just as plausible to suspect that parents–including of non-disabled kids–generally experience the endowment effect, so Rose is no different than, for example, me.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to James Hanley says:

        A couple of problems with generalizing the endowment effect to children. First of all, it presumes that there is an objective value that can easily be affixed to children that is easily determinable. I mean, you discover the endowment effect by comparing perceived value to real value. This is a wee bit more difficult in the case of children.

        Further, children, it seems, should be more valuable to their parents than they are to others. Parents are not misperceiving the value of the children, they really are more valuable to those parents than they are to other people. The loss of a given child is devastating to one person and not to someone else. That is the nature of the parent/child relationship. Many parents think our kids walk on water, and that’s part of good parenting. However, we don’t (or shouldn’t) expect others to treat or children with exactly the same value that we treat them. Indeed, if, say, my neighbor started caring for my children in exactly the way I do, I would think that was a little weird. So if parents rate their children as more valuable than others rate them, that seems pretty much what the relationship should be about. ANd thus not a misperception.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to James Hanley says:

        And @mike-schilling, as always, you actually make me literally laugh out loud.Report

    • @scarletnumbers “This statement is 100 percent true. The reason why parents encourage their siblings to get along is that it makes life easier for the parents. In other words, its bullshit for the kids.”

      This is similar to someone saying, “my wife does all the cleaning in my family and we’re happy, so every wife should have to do it in theirs or they won’t be happy” kind of comments. Which is to say I suspect you’re looking at your own life and family, and extrapolating your experience to everyone else.

      I’m sure that there are a lot of parents out there that encourage their kids to get along just because mommy hates it when there’s yelling, or whatever. But there are a lot of other parents out there that try (not always successfully) to teach their kids to love and look out for each other because it’s a bedrock part of their own moral foundation. My dad’s side of the family was a little like the former, but my mom’s (and subsequently my parents, and my wife’s and mine) are definitely the latter.

      I don’t know if you have kids, Scarlett, but I can tell you from experience that the process of taking very young children and teaching them these same values is not “easier.” Until kids reach a certain age (like, 16, or30), they’re little bundles of Id. Sending two boys to their individual rooms for the day, or always having a sitter so you can go out to dinner without the two of them, or letting them go their own separate ways without interacting on a daily basis is actually a fuck of a lot easier.

      “As for William and George, they were dealt an off-suit 2-7. I feel MUCH more sympathy for the siblings of the disabled than the actual disabled, ignorance being bliss.”

      I suspect you would feel different if you spent time with people with DDs, especially adults. People who haven’t have a false ABC-After-School-Special vision of people with DDs being dim and unaware of everything, but happy, happy, happy all the time. There’s no truth to this, sadly; it’s more a thing that society tells itself so it can feel good about putting them away in closed places so we can pretend they don’t exist.

      People with DDs are real people, in every good and bad sense of that word. They actually do know that they’re different, and they know that part of that means that the sings they want to do, have, eat, etc. at ay given moment is at the mercy of people who may not let them, or even understand what they are trying to communicate. This means that they’re actually more likely to spend the day dealing with anger, frustration, and sadness than I am.

      “James will likely be a burden on William and George for the rest of his life. My heart aches for William and George.”

      Again, every family is different — but while this is true, being a burden has a wide variance and is not always a bad thing. Technically speaking, my kids are a burden to me.* But the thought that this is a bad thing, or something I would change if I could is unthinkable to me. Burdens that carry sufficient amounts of love can actually be vehicles of joy. Were my sister to become disabled (unlikely) or my other in law getting to a point where she had to live with us (somewhat likely), they would be a burden — but that is very different from saying unwelcome.

      Frankly, my heart aches more for you than William or George, if this is how your own parents, siblings, wife and kids show up on your radar.

      *In fact, technically speaking, so is my wife… and my sister… and my neighbors… and my colleagues.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        +1 Todd.

        Letting someone who was mentally disabled speak for themselves. This is piece I wrote for the local paper, Megan McCardle published it as a Christmas offering when she was at The Atlantic.

        http://www.theatlantic.com/personal/archive/2010/12/the-legend-of-studie-cross/68463/Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I can tell you from experience that the process of taking very young children and teaching them these same values is not “easier.” Yes.

        People who haven’t have a false ABC-After-School-Special vision of people with DDs being dim and unaware of everything, but happy, happy, happy all the time. There’s no truth to this, sadly.

        Yes.

        they know that part of that means that the sings they want to do, have, eat, etc. at ay given moment is at the mercy of people who may not let them, or even understand what they are trying to communicate.

        Yes. And what leads to my fears of what happens after I am dead.

        while this is true, being a burden has a wide variance and is not always a bad thing.

        Yes. My life is the richer for all the burdens I have: my kids, my pets, my students. If I gave it all up, I’d have a lot more time to watch movies, I guess. There are some burdens that are purely burden, but so many times our implicit contracts to care for people and creatures are so much richer than that.Report

  7. Avatar zic says:

    Wonderful, Rose.

    I’m glad you included the paragraph about sibling dysfunction, because the potential of love also includes the potential for not-love; and for some, this is the story of siblings.

    You’ve done a great accounting of the potential burdens William and George will face, but I think some thought to the gifts and benefits they receive from James are in order.They are learning compassion for people who don’t fit our norms. This gift will serve them well throughout their lives. From this and other writing, it’s obvious they receive unconditional love form James. From you and your husband, they learn a way of caring, of being attentive to someone’s needs — reflected in how the report dangers to you.

    Rose, you freely admit to your deep love and reward; your children who are ‘normal’ have the gift of a similar relationship with James despite the difficulties they’ll experience. Each may never push James in a race, but they’ll each, in their own way, show the world the depth of the gifts they get from him.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to zic says:

      @zic zic, I know that sibling relationships can be awful. All the more awful because of that mysterious love that so many do have.

      What you say about the benefits is absolutely true, and something I didn’t understand when we first received the diagnosis (and what ScarletNumbers does not understand). When I talk to adult siblings of people with disabilities, most (not all) feel that they have become more compassionate, kinder, more understanding of human difference. I know that James has done that for me. I am a far better for person for knowing him. It has made me have an entirely different understanding of what one loves about another person, and what makes life worth living.

      And James does adore them, and they adore him. He will always adore them.

      Interestingly, William, even at 6 years old, says this. That is, that he likes knowing more about people whose brains work differently. It’s not only kindness that he learns more about, and unconditional love. He has a far more sophisticated understanding of cognition than most kids his age, because he sees the operation of an atypical cognition. For example, the fact that James understand far more language than he can say allows William to understand the difference between cognition and behavior/function. He also has a more nuanced understanding of the human body, brains, and genetics.

      One other advantage George and William have that other siblings don’t. My parents’ love for me felt conditional on achievement (and probably was conditional on achievement, actually). In seeing that we love James, in seeing that we’re pleased as punch when he learns something as simple as throwing a ball, they have proof positive that they will be loved no matter what they can do, and that we will be happy with them as long as they achieve what they can achieve.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Exactly. And this:
        Interestingly, William, even at 6 years old, says this. That is, that he likes knowing more about people whose brains work differently. It’s not only kindness that he learns more about, and unconditional love. He has a far more sophisticated understanding of cognition than most kids his age, because he sees the operation of an atypical cognition. For example, the fact that James understand far more language than he can say allows William to understand the difference between cognition and behavior/function. He also has a more nuanced understanding of the human body, brains, and genetics.

        I hope you’ll write a about it in more detail. This may be odd to say, but growing up on a farm with different sorts of animals that I got to know well, I learned much of this too (and I do not mean to be comparing your children to animals; but some, dogs for instance, learn many human words, cats a few, cows none. You begin to understand and see how different brains function, and understand that there’s some of that difference in people, as well.) For all people, it matters because it allows us to expand our spectrum of what the human condition includes, instead of presuming the norm is the full spectrum.

        It’s key to developing tolerance.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        @zic , what you say about animal brains makes total sense. I research animal brains a lot for my job, and knowing what they can and can’t do has definitely made me understand the minds of typical people and atypical people far better.

        I will write on that one day.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        zic,
        and yet, cats are innately, intrinsically smarter than dogs (who are more extrinsically smart, more social creatures).Report

  8. Avatar Stillwater says:

    I’d like to say something deeply compelling about how competition and rivalry are largely social constructs and how culturally determined patterns of reinforcement increase the likelihood that those biologically determined predispositions will be viewed as definitive of sibling relationships. And further, I’d like to say something about how an analysis which reduces sibling relationships, especially during the developmental years when the kids are young, to those manifest predispositions has a hard time accounting for why some kids seem to like each other and get along quite well and exhibit real care for one another. And that it in fact can’t really do so. So sibling affection and care are a mysterious anomaly existing outside of our explanatory powers.

    When I traveled in Mexico, perhaps the most glaring difference between Mexican culture and my own was how the kids treated each other. Seemed like in every family I encountered, the oldsters exhibited behaviors that I could only describe as exhibiting real care – non-rivalrous, non-competitive care and concern – for their sibs.

    I’d like to be able to back that up with some real evidence, but I don’t know of any. Our whole approach to these sorts of topics – reductive analysis – would likely reject that evidence as overdetermining theory in any event.

    But just the fact that you have to *hope* that George or William overcome their personal self-interest to care for James seems like part of the problem with how we – everyone in our society – views these types of things.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Stillwater says:

      Stillwater, my mother-in-law comes from a subculture in which it is automatically assumed that siblings take care of other siblings with special needs. She lives with her sister who has special needs, and experiences it as a burden. This is partly due to her personality (she’s kind of a martyr type), but I feel partly due to the fact that she felt she had no choice. But when I speak to those adult siblings who do not experience it as a burden (which, again, is the majority) it seems as if there is something of a common thread that their parents did not specifically pressure them into taking on the responsibility. That they chose to do it.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        I’m not saying people should be pressured into making that choice. I’m saying that the analysis of sibs and individual behavior our culture reflexively presupposes imposes a burden of its own: that a decision to care for a special needs sib requires a decision calculus which starts from a conception of self-interest limited to competition and rivalry and scarcity and so on. It seems to me that reducing behaviors to those basic properties misses out on more than half of what motivates people to act and behave as they do. Or in other words, it’s descriptively inaccurate. Additionally, viewing behavior thru that lens acts to reinforce the analysis by encouraging people to view their decisions (and other’s) thru that limited filter and prioritze those properties in their own decision-calculuses.

        I think the analysis is wrong. Because it’s incomplete.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        @stillwater, yes, that makes sense to me. So I guess I say, given our particular cultural expectations, my expectation rather than my hope that James’s sibs will take care of them might be experienced as pressure. Which is, as you say, sad.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        And if you want a specific example of the type of thought process I’m talking about: ScarletNumber’s comments on this thread.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        @stillwater , yes – that assumes that self-interest is the only natural interest, and other-directed interest is something that one avoids if one is to live the best life.Report

  9. Avatar Patrick says:

    I’m one of four. Kitty is an only child. She’s a year older than I am, and her parents had her later than my parents started having kids.

    So my mother was born in 1948… and her mother was born in 1936. She’ll be 78 this year.

    One of the topics that comes up quite a bit now that we’re in our 40s is what happens to parents. What happens if Grandpa dies first, or Grandma, or if someone requires extended care, etc. For obvious reasons, this comes up a lot more often regarding her parents than mine. My Dad dies, Mom will have an emotional struggle but she’s still fully capable of running a household. Kitty’s Dad dies, her mother isn’t an invalid, but she’s in poor health. Some serious logistics will be required.

    When you have siblings, you have a lot of extra teampower in the wings. Mom dies, Dad dies, Mom needs to live with someone, Dad needs to go in hospice care, somebody has Alzheimer’s, you’ve got someone to share the workload, and you have someone who knows those people the way you know them.

    When you don’t have siblings, that’s pretty much all on you. And nobody else knows your stories about the time Mom did that screwy thing or Dad lost his temper or they came and rescued you from some situation or any of it. The stories are between you and them. When you lose them, you lose part of the story.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to Patrick says:

      My husband’s father was an only child, also born later in his mom’s life. After his father died, she was physically healthy, but had dementia.

      My mother-in-law had to deal with it. And it was the hardest trial in her life; she was really bitter about it for a long, long time. But a lot of this has to do with the nature of dementia — the demented person can be very angry. Having enough family members to spread that anger over; having others on the receiving end of it, can perhaps make it more bearable.Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to zic says:

        But a lot of this has to do with the nature of dementia — the demented person can be very angry.

        Having seen dementia progress… yeah.

        There’s really only one death that terrifies me, and it’s that one.Report

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