Sibling Development

...Siblings are born to be rivals, fighting to get their fair share, or more. Children do this, he says, by specializing in different things: if one niche in the family is filled, the next child must find some other way of winning parental attention and approval...

Frank Sulloway, Born to Rebel, paraphrased by Judith Rich Harris in The Nurture Assumption

In my family, sibling rivalry probably played a significant role in all our lives. We were all basically 'nice' people, and on the surface appeared to get along well with each other, but I think each of us felt a considerable amount of pressure. We were never close as siblings until our mother's death - during the next few years afterward we forged a bond which could have been one of necessity regarding survival.

The children in one family do not all experience the same childhood. They experience different events at different stages of development, and their different personalities will react differently to the same events.

It is in a child's best interest to 'cheat' amongst its siblings, in an evolutionary sense, but aside from that, I think we were always in competition with one another for our parents' attention and love. Each child chose a niche that depended on the choices of the previous children.

It seems incredibly difficult to be a parent. You may have the best intentions, you may do everything you can think of to address problems, but because you never know for sure what combination of features and traits you will be presented with when you shake the genetic dice, you don't know for sure how each child will interpret and react to what you teach him/her. You don't know for sure how the events of life will interact with all of the genetic data.

Favouritism is difficult to avoid, and even if you do your best to hide it, unconsciously many actions may over time underscore that favouritism.

In a family that was highly competitive, and in which both parents were themselves 'favourites' in their families of origin, it was difficult for me to be no one's favourite. As a compensation, it is possible that I tried harder than the others, so it's particularly difficult to end up being the one everyone thinks 'gave up'.

I was a shy child, but that could be because the pressure was intense. I had to go first, we moved a lot and I was always facing new schools/kids, and I had ichthyosis. I did not back away from challenges, I was a responsible child, and it does not make sense that as an adult I would be the least successful. I was not always 'a little off' - shy is not the same as 'off', especially when in spite of shyness I did not back away from challenges.

When later in life I was the only one who could not pass for normal, it may have removed some of the pressure from the others - as there was one less sibling to compete with.

When I teased my sister as a sprog, it was usually with plays on her first and second names. I think this is significant, because it probably represents a big part of what threatened me: she was the youngest child, she was cute, and her middle name was actually, legally, Bambi. Choosing that name was partly related to my mother's efforts to get my father to stop hunting - and when my sister was born, he did give it up. My father loved horses, and it seems in a way natural that my sister would become the child drawn to an animal-related niche, but it may have been related to attitudes of both parents at the time of her conception or naming.

All my life, I had a sense of wanting another name - and it was probably related to a feeling of (unconscious) jealousy, realizing that everyone found my sister considerably cuter/more interesting than me. I could only be the bookworm, the goody-goody browner of the family, and I did receive attention this way, but I think I understood that what both parents valued more did not relate to qualities I possessed. (Father: a natural with animals. Mother: a photogenic child.)

When our mother died and our father was left in charge, we did not receive the amount of investment in our futures we otherwise may have. I think it's likely that each of us could have attained a higher level of conventional success if more had been invested in our educations and the development of interests.

Our father had a Grade 10 education, and did not have the experience which would help him to advise us regarding education, but aside from that, at times he himself might have felt threatened by the idea of any of us surpassing his level of education. On the one hand, he may have been proud of children who went further, but on the other, he had no intention of helping us to do so, and at times might have displayed a kind of prejudice against education, thinking that 'street smarts' were more important. We understood that we were on our own in that regard - and many people do face and overcome worse obstacles.

My sister's long-term partner is an only child, and the child that they have together is an only child - by their conscious choice. I think this says something about the pressure that my sister felt growing up in our family and that she didn't want to inflict that on a child. It may also relate to the influence of a woman she worked for during summers. The woman lived on a farm and employed my sister to help out. She had no children of her own. She let my sister's dog stay with her until my sister lived in a place where he could live with her, and she also let my sister and her boyfriend stay in her brother's house after his death. She offered to let them buy it for considerably less than it was worth, and allowed their rent payments to count toward this. They still live there today.

All of us were capable of attaining university educations, but only one did - and he was my mother's favourite male child. He was also the most responsible male child of the family. Third-born, he had some time to observe what had befallen the eldest two, and to perhaps learn from our mistakes. He spent all his high school years at one school, which may have provided some sense of stability. When I asked him how he ended up in university studying what he was studying, he said that he had seen a guidance counsellor who had looked at his grades and made suggestions. Also, some of the friends he had made in high school were pursuing similar studies. He had some problems attaining a loan - our father made an amount of money which required a signed statement by him that he disowned my brother in order for my brother to be eligible for a loan.

It's not that my father had tons of disposable income or any assets, and in fact he was feeling incredibly stressed because in spite of how much money he was making, he didn't have a lot to show for it. He had supported my brother and sister during their last years of high school because he didn't want to uproot them when he moved to Winnipeg for his new job, and in addition for a while he and our stepmother supported her son and his wife in their move to the prairies, my older brother for a few months, and me for longer than anyone else.

At the age of 19, my sister was managing the clothing store of a designer, in a prestigious area of the city. (Our father also had pronounced managerial skills.) She experienced a high level of stress, and she frequently phoned me to help her cope with stress. It was not uncommon for these calls to last an hour at a time while she was at work. I think she also called other people. I never resented helping her with this stress, I thought it was important to try, and I was worried about her. Basically, our relationship had been based upon me trying to help her deal with stress, to build up her self-esteem, with I suppose the (unconscious) idea that I myself was not important. Later on, when she tried to reach out to me, I admit that I was the one to walk away. The issue was that if someone tells you they 'love' you, but also has a value system which includes the idea that your situation in life is the result of weakness or giving up, and that 'who' a person is is about what they 'do', it may be difficult to accept that love. It was for me.

The name Xesce is not a Down-To-Earth name. It does not fit in my family of origin, and I expect that when it is pronounced, if it is pronounced, that there is at least a hint of derision in the pronunciation. However, I stand by the name. I have created a new niche for myself. I am taking a stand against the down-to-earth values of a 'family' which I can't see as a true family. I am challenging the family get-togethers, I am challenging all the years in which I was seen as the one who was always a bit off, the one who gave up, the one not as strong as the others, the failure.

I did not try less hard than the others. My degree of difficulty was more intense. (See: Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. The only one with a comparable stress score would have been my father, and one important issue is that when things blew over a bit, he went back to what he knew, the kind of work he hated, but could do. Before the events of 1982, I had not yet had a chance to build the connections or develop the skills that would allow me to have a chance to fit into the framework of life.) The differences were that I had to go first, I was perhaps more consciously aware of the damage our father unconsciously inflicted, and that I was the least photogenic of the four. I think these differences were significant considering the combined familial values with the experiences we encountered. I experienced a greater amount of upheaval than any of the others, although I do not consider what any of my siblings went through to be minor. I think we were all incredibly strong to begin with, withstood a lot of shocks, and that my siblings' relative normality is a testament to an exceptionally strong constitution, but I don't think that I started out with a constitution any less strong.

...Sometimes a gene has one effect in the presence of a particular other gene, and a completely different effect in the presence of another set of companion genes. The whole set of genes in a body constitutes a kind of genetic climate or background, modifying and influencing the effects of any particular gene...

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Siblings do not have the exact same combination of genes, unless they are identical twins. And in that case, it may be that differences are accounted for by things like birth order and niche picking. Siblings share 50% of their genes, which leaves room for quite a variety of combinations of effects of genes.

If you combine that idea with the idea that no child in a family has exactly the same upbringing, because each child experiences events at different stages in their development; that each child has experiences outside as well as inside the home; and that each member of the family system impacts the lives of all the other members, how a child turns out is not a simple computation.

My original niche is very far from where I've ended up: I was a high-achieving and very responsible child. I could be counted on to do what was expected of me. My later niche was to be the 'failure' who was responsible for nothing and no one, including herself, who could be counted on for nothing, and who perhaps took the pressure off the others to achieve too highly, and who could be dismissed as being out of touch with reality and therefore not taken seriously. I was originally a responsible bookworm who seemed likely to continue to do well in school. Eventually, I was the one at family gatherings who would show up with an unnatural hair colour as her only 'accomplishment'.

Oldest brother, without Ichthyosis Vulgaris: B1967

Younger brother, with Ichthyosis Vulgaris: B1969

Sister, with Ichthyosis Vulgaris: S

Me: 12-14 schools. I didn't technically attend correspondence schools, but I did sometimes have to go in for an initial interview, to choose subjects, and then to write exams.

B1967: perhaps 9-10 schools (including post-secondary). He not only did not have ichthyosis vulgaris, but fit cultural ideals: tall, dark, handsome, smart, athletic. He is the one known for participating in team sports throughout his life, and the most social.

B1969: about 6 schools (including post-secondary), and all high school years at one school. He did have ichthyosis vulgaris, but had a very proportional and athletic body build, and jaw structure proportional to his body. He was thought of as good-looking as well. Average or slightly above average in height; very intelligent. Facial features and skin not as conventionally or photogenically attractive as B1967.

S: about 6 schools. All high school years at one school. She had ichthyosis vulgaris, but people generally responded well to her appearance. She was known as the cute one, and was called Bambi. Our parents might have treated us equally, but everyone else I think remarked upon her cuteness, or the combination of her name and her cuteness. She was seen as having 'spirit'. Her jaw width is proportional to her body, she has perfect teeth and her facial skin was less prone to acne than mine - it was always smoother, with smaller pores. She photographed well.

When we were children, our mother took us to a fashion show as prospective models for children's clothing. B1967 and S were chosen. S was given modelling classes.

Her body frame is a bit larger than mine, which makes it carry weight more naturally - she does not have to weigh as little as I do to look fit. Her thighs are slimmer, more proportional to her body.

Out of all of us, it seems that I was the only one to attract or seek out a few abusive relationships. All were affected by our parents' marriage and all the stepfamily situations, as well as all the upheavals, but they have all managed to have long-term relationships. My sister has been with the same person since high school. B1969 has been married I think for 13 years. B1967 might have been the most affected by the past: he only recently married for the first time (late 2008). S and B1969 have children. I would not have married GK if it had not been necessary for a visa, and I don't see myself ever marrying.

When it came to my mother and how difficult it was to visit her once my eating habits were no longer 'normal', I think that there is some similar principle in effect with all of those I have lived with once and then move away from.

While I live with someone, they cannot help but be aware that not only my habits with food, but that my ways of interacting with the world are abnormal. It becomes a kind of shame to be hidden, there is an unspoken rule that this is the sort of thing it is best not to talk about or let others know about.

With siblings, it has now been so long since I lived with any of them that there is no way they could have a frame of reference for my unusual habits.

Once I had lived away from my mother, I could not imagine going back to the same lifestyle. It was not just about food, it was about daily life, religion, the tension her boyfriend created, and probably about her irrationality and her values and ideas. With my siblings, I think it is about 'appropriateness' and keeping communication within acceptable boundaries.

When my mother died, I was 16 and my sister was 11. One unfortunate result is that I probably ended up to some extent getting to be blamed in my sister's eyes while the dead mother was deified. Our relationship was probably better than most mother-daughter relationships in adolescence, though. By her 16th birthday, I had a kind of epiphany, and recognized some of the baggage that had been inflicted on her through the years, and I put in a lot of conscious effort to address it.

There is no way I could have been a good role model in my eating habits, attitudes about my body or in not going outside, having a life, etc. But there are a couple of things which might have made a difference. One was that I didn't look at her the way our mother had looked at me.

When she was 16, she told me that she wanted to lose weight. I told her that I thought she already looked very good and that I didn't think she needed to. She really wanted to, and so I said that if she was determined to try, I would rather try to help her - I created a 1200 calorie a day diet, and I cooked our dinners, and we ate together. Our communication was good enough that she was able to tell me when she started to feel sick/nauseous. I told her that I didn't think that 1200 calories was enough considering her age, fitness and activity level, and she herself decided to abandon the idea of dieting. Throughout her life, she has accepted a weight for herself that is less strict/low than I tend to for myself. It's tricky, because her body frame is different, and I think she actually does look better than I would at a higher weight. So, it may be a combination of social approval and commonsense on her part - it is difficult to know for sure.

When I was 16, and pregnant, I felt alone, but I didn't think I deserved anything. I think I did learn from the situation at least enough that when my sister had her first boyfriend, I took her myself to a clinic to arrange birth control. I had already talked to her about sex, but it seemed necessary to me, it seemed to me that she needed someone to go with her - that she was not likely to go on her own, no matter how reasonable she seemed. She did not become pregnant until in her 20s, when she had already been with the same partner for many years.

I had no female role models who took an interest in my life. My sister during the summers worked for a woman who may have been a positive, stable influence, a woman who had no children of her own and might have seen her as a kind of substitute - and who also kept my sister's dog until my sister was able to claim him. To this day, my sister and her boyfriend live in a house which had belonged to this woman's brother. It is a house worth a considerable amount of money which she first let them live in, and later let them buy for a very low sum.

I didn't know how to be a role model. I had no examples. My father's family had not become involved in our lives when our mother died. My mother's mother was dead, my mother's sister acted erratically toward me, first criticizing me for showing no emotion, then criticizing me for being too much like my mother when I didn't want my abusive ex-boyfriend to attend my father's birthday party. Come to think of it, my mother's abusive boyfriend had been introduced to her by my aunt and uncle - he was one of my uncle's best friends. My father's girlfriends did not become involved in my life.

My siblings did not have it easy, but all have been able to work and to interact socially. Some of their friends have been in their lives since high school.

When B1969 graduated from university, I didn't attend. That is something that bothers me - it bothered me at the time. He was only allowed to invite a few people to the ceremony, but the rest of the family went out to the school anyway. I am not sure if it was an agoraphobic response, or if it was partly an unconscious jealousy. Consciously, I felt extremely proud of him.

However, I had offered my forging skills when my father initially refused to sign the papers which would have allowed him to get a student loan, and I did go with him when he was looking for a place to stay while attending university.

B1967 has a career as a cameraman, and has made several independent films, some of which have won awards. I was with him when he went looking for his first videocamera.

Each of my siblings has found a niche, and success within it.

See also: chronology, socioeconomic/cultural factors, and peer influence.















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