Sweetie, Please Don’t Kill Your Brother

Although scientifically it makes sense that you want to…

Posted Apr 28, 2020

Fratricide, or the desire to kill your own brother, has ancient roots. There was the Old Testament tale of Cain and Abel, and the Roman Myth of Romulus and Remus, who were forced into fratricide by the desire to rule the kingdom.

Those ancient days are long past, but this quarantine is doing nothing to foster positive family relations.

“My parents keep saying I’m worthless. I swear, they think I’m not as important as my sister. It’s like nothing I say even matters!”

“My brother is an intern at a testing clinic. He said the masks he brought home were only for my parents. He said he doesn’t care if something happens to me.”

“While I was taking a shower, my sister let my dog out of the house! She told me that I was a horrible pet owner, and that she hoped he found a better family. He could have been hit by a car!”

In 2016, a study by the Pew Research Center found that 15% of adult children between the ages of 25 to 35 were still living with their parents. This estimate has no doubt skyrocketed as college closures have forced students to return home and many of the 26 million newly-unemployed may also have no other option. In addition to those who are forced to move out of financial necessity, there are also many who have voluntarily chosen to quarantine with their parents, out of fear or guilt or love.

Home-cooked meals, games of Scrabble and Gin Rummy, and finally getting the opportunity to beat your older brother at Mario Kart – these are the moments that we should remember long after the quarantine has lifted, long after the present fear has become a past memory. I would like to remember the special moments: the bike rides with my children, the family bake-offs of cakes so sweet that I feel physically ill at the mere thought, and the books of my childhood that I force my children to read during Mommy-mandated book nook time.

My children are 9 and 11, and my nuclear family is functioning exactly as the animal kingdom intended – assuming we ignore the frightening increase in fashionable masks, the fact that Lysol is more valuable than diamonds, and the constantly climbing death toll.

But, what about the adult siblings who are riding out the apocalypse with your parents? The tight-lipped spouses who suddenly find themselves housing elderly parents, a twenty-something child or two, and possibly an aunt or uncle, alone or in-firmed, who you welcomed into your home forty-something days ago.

This closely-knit, rarely-separated, entirely interdependent clan or tribe in which you now reside goes against the laws of nature of the animal kingdom. And let’s face it, we, too, are animals. The course of human development, and the flow and movement and evolution of our ecosystem, has been severely disrupted.

Great Apes give birth once every six or seven years. When a new baby is born, the older child leaves home. Orangutan moms are known to physically chase off the older sibling immediately following the birth of the next child.

Harp Seals give birth to one adorable fluffy white offspring and spend 12 days the doting Mama sacrifices her own meals, warmth, and safety for that of her newborn. And on day thirteen, Mama Seal bails. The pup is helpless and stranded for the next 6 weeks, until he is old enough to swim and hunt on his own. Let’s just say…not all these baby seals survive to reach adulthood.

Black Eagles have no time for sibling rivalry, and are perfectly content to watch their offspring battle to the death – and for those of you social distancing with your siblings, I’m sure there have been times when that Black Eagle option seems quite tempting.

If you look at the 1.2 million species of animals, it becomes quite clear that the separation-individuation process is a purposeful part of human growth and development.

Psychoanalyst Margaret Mahler believed that within the first two to three months of the child’s life, an emotionally-healthy baby should recognize that his own needs are separate than that of the mother. I exist. Mom exists. We exist together but are not the same. We grow together at first, and then later we grow apart.

And then there is John Bowlby’s attachment theory, the hammer that manages to fit every nail for every first-year graduate student. Bowlby believed that infants will securely latch on to caregivers who are sensitive, constant, and consistent. At some point in the course of normal development, the children begin to use the dependable adult as a “base,” much like children do when they play the game of tag. This “base” is a safe zone that allows them to explore the world and yet safely return to a trusted adult. The “security” of this relationship (sensitive, constant, and consistent) is later used as a subconscious blueprint for future interpersonal relationships.

Non-shrink translation: it is perfectly healthy for your little girl to learn to braid her own hair, follow the god-awful fashion advice of her slightly questionable middle-school friends, and return to your loving arms when a boy breaks her heart in high school. Part of the job of a parent is to prepare your child for independent adulthood while leaving her with the knowledge and security that you will be there if she needs you.

Ultimately, in order for the child to establish that Mama Bird is sensitive, constant, and consistent, the baby bird must leave the nest, to establish an existence of his own and to develop a sense of self-esteem that isn’t based solely on the reflections of others.

This attachment theory also extends to sibling relationships.

A 2012 study by Fraley and Tancredy determined that twins siblings were closer than non-twin siblings, and identical siblings were closer than fraternal siblings. However, as these siblings aged, they were less likely to use their siblings as an “attachment figure.” Also, married people are less likely to use their siblings as an attachment figure than those who are not married.

How can we understand the change in sibling relations?

If we look at the family unit with the same lens we would use to examine a corporation, having a sibling or two increases your chance of success in a numbers game. Us versus Them not only gives you an advantage when the family is trying to decide whether we make salmon or chicken fingers for dinner, but it is also an emotional bonding experience, much like rooting for your team to make it to the Superbowl. And really, no matter how many stories you tell, or emotions you reveal, there will never be anyone else in your life who understands your childhood like your siblings.

But, as we age and develop our own interests and personalities, and as we make our own friends outside of the family, the role of the sibling as a support group and teacher devolves and detaches during the adolescent years.

In our late twenties/early thirties, a further evolution of sibling relationships occurs: there is either a re-connection, often based on the shared experiences of marriage and childbirth, or an ambivalence, of sorts, as adult siblings determine that they don’t have all that much in common anymore, and lack the interest or desire to put effort into the relationship.

And yet here we are, stuck with our adult siblings or extended family members in this tense, forced, isolated, socially distancing, socially damaging, unnatural setting.

We grew up with the understanding that one day the struggles and awkward moments of our childhood would be left behind. We grew up with the intent to become someone different, and somewhere along the way, we learned that the home of our youth was filled with not only love, but also with mistakes and misunderstandings of our parents, and their parents before. We learned lessons not only from school teachers and the bad kids that sat at the back of the bus but also those that came from a sort of watered-down neurosis that our caregivers inadvertently imparted onto us.

We grew older and stronger and learned to justify our missteps as mistakes we had made along the way to figuring out who we are, what we want, and how to grow past our imperfect upbringing.

And then…this pandemic arrives to painfully recreate the combative childhood fights over who will use the bathroom first. The demeaning debates over Mom’s favorite child. The quarters of your quarantined location seem to grow smaller every day, as those walls whisper your deepest fears – that you are still the same needy child, with the same needs unable to be met. The television is always on, with a channel you wouldn’t have chosen, and the volume is always a bit too loud, as each day’s death stats are screamed across the dinner table.

And, yet, you are surprised by how very, very much you hate your brother. You are appalled at what a brat your sister is. You are horrified by the tone that comes out of your mother’s mouth.

But, being cooped up with our adult siblings is against the natural order. We are living a life in which we were not meant to flourish. Children were meant to grow up, families were meant to grow apart, and then we were all meant to reconnect in times and places marked by special occasions. Special, clearly defined, finite occasions.

And yet, here we are.

How will we all survive this surreal servitude where siblings transform into jealous children, and parents return to the punitive roles that they were forced to play when their offspring were young, predators could be visible or viral, and fear was all we knew?

And what about our siblings, these former allies, who now, reunited, seem to have grown into near-strangers, or hostile enemies?

If there is a so-called enemy to be found, it is the ability of each of us to return to a past where family was imperfect, sibling rivalry depended on who snagged the last chicken wing, and the preference of one parent was enough to ensure your mental and physical safety.

But, that’s not happening today.

Today is the time to overlook the annoyances and irritations. To appreciate the days when the sun is shining and the rare moment when your sister offers you $80 because she knows that you have lost your job. Today is the day to help your mom cook her horrible chicken recipe (and to pretend that you like it) and to ask Dad if he needs help carrying in the groceries.

This is today.