National Siblings Day (UK) – April 10th 2018

Sister? Brother? Or sibling free?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

I have never been siblingless (is that a word?). As the youngest of two girls, my life as I know it has always included a sister, 2 years and 1 month my senior. Growing up I have fond memories of playing with my sister; making dens behind the sofa at our grandparents house, picnics in the garden, hanging out at school roller discos, riding our bikes around the village, recording the top 40 singles chart on our cassette players on a Sunday evening and picking out our favourite songs to make up dances to. I also have memories of our teenage years when we weren’t particularly close as we liked such different things; at best we ignored each other, at worst there would be a scuffle as we passed each other on the stairs.

It seems funny now, but at the time it felt pretty horrible. I always wanted my sisters approval above others and I’m not sure if she always/ever knew that. We have since become much closer – marrying brothers (yeah, I know…it doesn’t qualify as incest – I checked!), sharing our journeys into motherhood (we have 5 girls between us) and recently, as many of you will know, working together.

Someone once told me that investing in your relationships with your siblings is so important as they are likely to be the longest relationship you will ever have – a strange thought but probably a true one. A bond is shared with a sibling that is impenetrable by others. An co-existence if you will. I do however realise that not all siblings live a harmonious life and assuming that because someone is your brother/sister that you will instantly be ‘BFFs 4eva’  is naive…but coming from the same gene pool and sharing such similar life experiences must enrich and increase the likelihood of a close and positive bond, don’t you think? My mum is an only child – she has consistently told me that she yearned for a sibling and even now in her 70s her opinion remains. Don’t get me wrong, I know a number of people who are only children and are glad of it, as are their parents. Being an only one can often (not always) lead to having more time and attention showered upon you by your parents who may also have more financial resources to focus upon that one child, enabling greater life opportunities – perhaps. I am not an only child, so I can only assume.

When I was in middle school a good friend of mine passed away. To this day, some 30 years later, I still think of her brother…

I recently read some interesting information about siblings from Swedish researcher Therese Wallin. Wallin claims that her research found positive correlations between having siblings and a resistance to allergies, as well as a decreased likelihood of becoming obese or experiencing depression. These are controversial statements and of course do not mean that every ‘only’ child out there will be obese, depressed and allergic, or that everyone with siblings will be immune to these things. But, it does make some sense that children with siblings are likely to play with each other (particularly those close in age) and therefore more likely to run around and stay fit (it could also be argued that ‘only’ children may have more access to clubs/activities to enable better socialisation and fitness).

It also makes sense that perhaps in adulthood, having a sibling to share a crisis with can reduce the negative impact that said crisis might and in turn may reduce the likelihood of the individual experiencing stress, anxiety or depression as a result. When my grandparents died (in 2011 and 2014) as an ‘only’ child, my mum was left to deal with both the emotional impact and the practicalities of dealing with her parents death on her own. As much as I or my sister may have offered help and support, I know that such support was not comparable to that which she may have got from a sibling. Siblings shares the exact same relationship with their parents (albeit some may be more positive than others), but that seems to be something that no other relationship can attempt to emulate.

When I was in middle school a good friend of mine passed away. To this day, some 30 years later, I still think of her brother, who was affectionately referred to as ‘Toad’. He was 8 at the time. I recently heard from a mutual friend that he had got married and had a little girl of his own – he continued to live in his childhood family home. I felt a surge of relief and happiness for him. As children we didn’t deal with the death of our friend very well – these were the days before they bothered with school councellors or bereavement sessions. One thing I do remember though, is ‘Toad’ – if I felt so much heartache at the loss of my friend, how on earth did a sibling cope which such a loss and at such a vulnerable age? I would imagine it feels like losing a part of your very own existence. I can’t pretend to truly understand. I know there will be people reading this who have lost siblings and for some in the most tragic of circumstances and I hope I don’t come across as patronising when I offer my heartfelt condolences for your loss. I also know that for others, losing a brother or sister or not having them in their lives will be a relief – such is the complexity of sibling relationships.

As a mother of 3 girls, I am all to aware of the advantages and disadvantages of having siblings. Practical issues such as who will get the bigger bedroom can lead to heated debate for example, but how relieved I was when they were able to discuss this issue and conclude that the eldest gets the biggest room and when she moves out the next eldest gets it and so on – seems fair and gives them a chance to hone their skills of negotiation and acceptance. Hearing them bicker over who spends the most time in the bath (or “hogging the bathroom”) still makes me smile and although I’m sure they wouldn’t agree, I can see that their willingness to be patient is improving.

Being an ‘only’ child is on the rise. A quarter of all children born in the UK (this has risen from 1/5) are sibling-free

Five years ago my youngest daughter had quite a nasty bike accident in France culminating in a broken jaw, missing teeth, numerous stitches and a week spent in a French Hospital. It was pretty traumatic but seeing how her older sisters cared for her, rallied around, worked together and were as helpful and brilliant as they could possibly be to their sister, myself and my husband, will forever make me feel proud (and make me cry!). I think I’m probably just greedy as I always knew I wanted more than one child and when I see them growing up side by side, I know it was absolutely the right decision. Many wouldn’t agree, I get that. Some might even say I was selfish.

Being an ‘only’ child is on the rise. A quarter of all children born in the UK (this has risen from 1/5) are sibling-free. Obviously this is the prerogative of the parents (and maybe out of the parents control if they are unable to conceive for a second time) and as we are amidst an over-population crisis, perhaps this is a good thing?

Intimidating acronyms are used by ‘those in the know’ (such as COTS – Cost Of The Sibling), who suggest that we can kiss goodbye to a staggering £250,000 if we decide to have more than one child. But I cannot help wondering what happens as those ‘only’ children get older –  dealing with elderly parents is easier when shared amongst siblings – and how will this impact on individual behavioural traits which are so often determined by birth order within a family.

According to Clive Brazier, author of ‘Sticking up for Siblings’, ‘Birth order theory shows that certain traits apply to eldest, middle and youngest children. A middle child has a better chance of staying married, for instance, or securing a job in a ‘creative’ industry. That is because children with senior siblings often cannot coerce older offspring into submission. So they learn to be natural diplomats, communicators or comics. Without the iron fist, they rely on the silver tongue.’

Many people will disagree with the notion that behaviour is determined by birth order, but whatever you believe, having or not having siblings certainly has an impact on the experiences that we have and the people that we become.

Having siblings is a highly subjective experience, as is being an ‘only’ child. I know one sibling-free friend who continues to be resentful of her parents for only having one child, she says her childhood was lonely and stressful and her parents focus on her academic success was overwhelming. Another individual I know who grew up without brothers or sisters says the opposite – that she cannot imagine having to have shared her time and experiences with a sibling and that she had/has a great relationship with her parents and had lots of wonderful opportunities as the result of her parents having more disposable income due to only having one child. So, what works for one may not work for another.

Today however, is National Sibling Day (UK) – for some a time of reflection and for others perhaps a reminder to pick up the phone or pop round for a brew. To my sibling I say ‘Shanks Ma Shis’!  She knows 😉 (ps – Love you!)

Me (on the right) and my sister, Christmas 2016

Main picture at top – 4 of the 5 daughters my sister and I have between us – the middle 2 are sisters, as are the outer 2. Picture taken last Summer by my sister, Annabel

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  • Your story completely resonates with me, I wouldn’t be without my big sister. There are 2 years between us (at 37 she still likes to pretend its 2.5 years, but it isn’t!). Being so close in age, we grew up together (wendy houses, barbies, digging, climbing trees) and grew apart in teenage years, and then back again as we got older – we’ve holidayed together for years (I wouldn’t holiday with anyone else now, except of course my husband!) and my husband goes crazy because we are always texting or calling each other! My sister is my best friend and you are right that in sharing the illness or death of a parent, having a sibling does make it easier if you are close. I don’t have any kids (yet) but my sister has just had her first daughter and I love that I’ve been able to be involved in the pregnancy and become an aunt. Something else is that I always feel sad for people who don’t get on with their siblings, it must be very lonely – When my mom died, my maternal aunt didn’t just lose one sister but 2, as her other sister became increasingly insular and stopped engaging with her – even today, they still don’t speak which I find so very sad.

    • Hey Elizabeth,

      How lovely that you have such a strong bond with your sister. Although younger than my sis, I had a daughter first and Annabel was so thrilled to become an auntie (my daughter will be 18 in a few weeks!) and I know she holds a special place for my first born in her heart.

      Sibling relationships can be very complex and it does seem like such a waste when brothers and sisters don’t get on or hold a grudge and don’t speak for years and years – life is too short I say!


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