I wept as I read Mona Simpson’s eulogy for her brother, Steve Jobs, in The Times on Monday, and not just because the Willy Wonka of technology was taken from us too young. What really struck home with me was the rare public declaration by a sister of love for her brother.
Psychologists have always stressed the formative influence of parents, but siblings have been studied less. That never squared with me: I’m the youngest of three, the only girl, and I’m sure that I am who I am as much because of my big brothers as because of my folks. My brothers were the ones who taught me my first words. They introduced me to Tom Sawyer, “Peanuts,” Mad magazine, the Who. They walked me to my first day of kindergarten. My parents may have explained the birds and the bees to me, but it was my brothers who let me know that it was O.K. to pollinate before marriage. One drove me to my first formal dance; I went to the same college as the other. After graduation, both ran interference with my dubious parents when I announced that rather than going to law school, I planned to leave Minneapolis for New York and become a writer.
We so often hear stories — positive or negative — about the bonds between sisters or those among brothers. But rarely does anyone talk about the relationship between opposite-sex siblings. I remember that watching the film “You Can Count on Me” felt like a revelation (though my brothers, I should hasten to say, are nothing like the Mark Ruffalo character).
Not that much of this has to do with Ms. Simpson and Mr. Jobs (though, man, someone ought to look into their gene pool). They didn’t actually grow up together. Their meet-cute story is truly stranger than fiction: Mr. Jobs, who was adopted, tracked down Ms. Simpson, who grew up with a single mother, in 1985. Just think about that for a moment: discovering your long-lost brother is Steve Jobs!
I wonder sometimes how my daughter will feel about not having siblings. I gave birth late in life after six hard years of trying. Occasionally, when she was in preschool, she’d ask about having a sister, but it turned out that was because she thought two children would have twice as many toys. Once I cleared up that misconception, she never mentioned it again.
The research is pretty clear that only children suffer no psychological or social deficit. And cognitively, like firstborns, they tend to be more advanced, with stronger vocabularies, a more sophisticated sense of humor and a better grasp on current events.
And all of that is comforting, but it doesn’t ease the sadness of knowing that she’ll never know the unique love (and exasperation) that comes with a brother or sister. It saddens me that as the child of older parents, she’ll be, in a certain way, alone in the world too young, that she’ll have to deal with whatever our aging brings by herself. Knowing that not all siblings are as close as my brothers and me does not change that.
But what can I say? This is the way it went for us. We hope those bonds we’ve fostered with cousins and friends will be enough. We push self-sufficiency as well as the ability to entertain herself for long periods, the joy of solitude. I also find (and have heard this from a lot of grown-up onlies) that there is a special, intangible depth to the relationship between an a single child and her parents. It’s hard to describe to parents of multiple kids, but we are more like the Three Musketeers than “us versus them.”
I just took a break, and asked her whether she’d ever wanted a sister or brother. She shook her head. “Not really,” she said. “I have a dog.”
I’d love to hear about your experience as a sibling, as the parent of siblings, as an only child or as the parent of one. Are you close to your siblings? Are you competitive? Did you like being an only? Do you get sick of people asking you, long after it’s biologically impossible, when you plan to have another?
By the time you read this, my elder brother, Jeff, will have arrived on his annual visit from his home in New Orleans. I am looking forward to it immensely. (I have a younger brother, Jack, of whom I am equally fond, but he lives only a few streets away from me, so the novelty value is not so high.)
I have always got on well with Jack but, to be frank, I used to detest my big brother. My resentment lay rooted in my feelings of rejection from him when I was growing up, as a rather insecure, nerdy kid. Like most big brothers, he wasn’t too keen on his whiny little appendage, only 20 months younger, and didn’t bother hiding the fact.
As a teenager Jeff was (secretly) my hero – cool, good-looking and charming, which is why his indifference to me cut so deep. Tension between us continued up until the year my mother died, in 1988, when we were in our 30s. After that, we began to get closer, until eventually we became firm friends. I now can’t imagine life without him, even though he lives 4,500 miles away.
Why am I telling this story? Because it is not an unusual one – or at least the first part isn’t. Sibling rivalry is a profound part of growing up. Many developmental psychologists now believe that whereas once the father, then the mother, was seen as key to a child’s growth as a personality, it is actually the sibling – your first “peer group” as it were – who determines most strongly the character traits you are going to develop.
Most often this happens in a sort of inversion. Siblings – at least when there are only two of you, close together (Jack came 13 years after me) – influence each other most often by defining themselves as not being the other.
This explains why when two people who share 50% of their genes, and more or less identical family environments, so often end up with radically different personalities.
When I was writing my novel about brothers, Under the Same Stars, I did a great deal of research about siblings, and was surprised to find that hatred – of the kind that I felt as a child – was extremely common among brothers and sisters. That dynamic could continue for a lifetime.
Although the hatred is long gone, the importance of my relationship with Jeff is underlined by the fact that a lifetime after I had shared a house with him, I was writing a book which, in essence, was a coded and fictionalised examination of our own relationship.
The book ends with a cataclysmic revelation about the two brothers’ childhood, followed by reconciliation between the two. That theme of reconciliation is the reason I am writing this column.
Because siblings are simply too precious to waste. They are your longest lifelong memory bank, your shared history, the person who may know you better than anyone else (one of the reasons they are so good at getting under your skin). They are so deeply part of your identity that they cannot be erased, even by their absence.
Many siblings grow apart and stop seeing one another altogether. I think that is a terrible pity, and if anyone out there reading this is estranged from a brother or a sister, I would urge them to make efforts to change that situation before it is too late. If Jeff and I can become so close, after half a lifetime of resentment and harsh words, you can do it. Yes, it may end in failure – some rifts are too deep to heal. But if you can find a way, you will never regret it. Siblings are simply too precious to throw away – because, even more so than your parents, they helped to make you who you are.