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Sibling Strife

Siblings have generated enough drama through the centuries to provide countless plot lines from the Biblical Cain and Abel to TV shows like  “Brothers & Sisters.” The sibling relationship waxes and wanes with the seasons of our lives, from the growing up years, to single and starting careers, to married with children, to caring for elderly parents, to aging ourselves. It’s usually the longest relationship of our lives, yet often the most contentious. We all know siblings, perhaps  in our own families, who have cut off contact for months or years and even decades, and others who remain in touch but at a safe distance.

While many people  justify their own alienation from siblings, it’s agonizing to watch that happen with your adult children.  Broken is the bond built over all those years of living under the same roof and sharing daily routines and family traditions from pizza nights, to birthday bashes, to holidays, to vacations.  All that emotional glue dissolves over some contentious issue.  What is a parent to do? Serve as a mediator, take sides, issue ultimatums, walk away?

Novelist Jessica Barksdale Inclan confronted that question in a blog post in late October. She wrote about her two sons: Alex, 26, an anarchist, and Nicolas 23, a military history major.  The two brothers, who had  attended  the same liberal arts college, had a falling out over ideological differences.  Alex took Nicolas’ decision to become a police officer as a unacceptable challenge to his ideology.   In writing about the split, Ms. Iclan noted,

Siblings know each other in ways no one else can, and to see my boys approach an end to this connection is more than I can bear.

Her  post generated more than 350 comments and a half a million hits.  Obviously she had struck a nerve.  Many of the commentors shared how distraught they were over their own strained and severed relationships with their siblings.

Last week, we chatted with Ms. Inclan from her home in Oakland,  CA.  Family relationships are among the emotional issues she has parsed in the 12 novels she has published since 2001.   But it’s one thing to write fiction and another to put your family out there on the firing line.  We talked about her reaction to the blog going viral and her thoughts on sibling relationships.

 Were you surprised that the blog generated so much response?

It’s clear to me that this adult child/sibling relationship is really a source of great pain for so many.  I mean, I knew–but I didn’t know. So many people responded to me, some in long emails, with the point that either “I’m lucky my sister is my best friend or I’m miserable that haven’t spoken to my brother in 25 years.”

Why do you think sibling relationships carry so much emotional weight?

It’s amazing when it works and when it doesn’t it breaks your heart. Siblings can give what you crave the most: family and love.  

Your own relationship with a younger sister was troubled and it was only after she started her own family that she resumed contact.

I didn’t speak to my sister for years.  I am really still not sure the exact cause for our split, and now that we are talking, I’ve decided not to care anymore.  But at the time, my heart was broken, and now, watching my sons go through a hard time, I feel the same way.

 Your sons grew up very close.  What precipitated the split?

Alex was getting more and more entrenched in his political views and Nicolas was coming out of his brother’s shadow and becoming his own person. It came to a head last holiday season when they made the long drive home together with fighting that lasted through the holidays.

 Now they have reached a truce of sorts.  How that did happen?

We kept urging them to remember how important their relationship is.  No one let it drop; we never gave up. It’s taken almost a year but they’ve realized if they want this relationship it involves not talking about the issues that divide them.

 You struggled yourself with how to react as a mother  to  Alex’s social and political philosophy. 

Alex truly is an anarchist. He won’t drive or get a license and it took me a good year to learn that I have to step away.  I realized that I need to come up with my boundaries. It’s wonderful for our adult children to know that we have their backs and that we will help them in times in trouble.  But we don’t have to pick up every piece of broken glass.  It’s about my growth more than his. My challenge is to realize he’s grown up so I need to back away and let him lead his own life. And me mine! 

 What was Nicolas’ reaction to the blog?

He has encouraged me to keep writing about the sibling relationship, the one that is hurting him and hurting so many other people in the world.  He wants the mystery solved of why it causes so much pain and how to move beyond that.

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