Sibling Rivalry

Did I ever tell you about the time M saw the guy almost drive away with his coffee cup on the roof of his car?

I was thinking about this story when I wrote the Planting Seeds in Pretend Play post. Especially if your child is always with a member of the family, you can go years in which every single interest that your child exhibits can be traced to a known source. She’s talking about weddings because Aunt C is getting married, or tigers because we read that book at the library, or something an older sibling is doing, because anything that they’re doing must be super-cool.

"I know I've only been 'out' for a day, but I can already tell that she's The Coolest Thing Ever."

The coffee cup story is an example of how my then-toddler adopted a narrative and made it her own.

To my chagrin.

Cute W and I were in a parking lot with M and teensy-baby J when we noticed that a young man was about to drive away with his paper cup full of coffee still sitting on the roof of his car. One of us flagged him down to tell him and he thanked us and retrieved it. M asked why we had hurried to stop the man, and what would have happened if we hadn’t stopped him. We explained that the coffee would have fallen off the car and spilled and gotten run over, and then it would be all gone, which was why the man thanked us. For some reason, it made a big impression on M, and she asked about the Coffee Cup Incident frequently over the next few days.

A week or two later, I was getting the girls into the car. M was sitting in her car seat already, door open, awaiting help with her straps. I walked out carrying the infant carrier and set it down next to me while I secured M. “Mommy,” M said, “I wish that you would put J’s car seat on the roof of the car and just forget about it and drive away.” I paused long enough to feel my stomach drop, then slammed the car door. I stayed outside of the car taking deep breaths before putting J into the car and talking about that. Honestly, I can’t remember what I said. The entire day has been overtaken by my vivid memory of the moments before, my slow comprehension followed by the SLAM that was a borderline-acceptable response given my urge to shake her, hard.

"Hmmm, how can I get her on the roof?"

The single most difficult part of J’s arrival was M’s reaction to it. She was not one of those “Little Mommy” big sisters. Far from it.  I think that part of the problem was that she was a good speaker for a two-and-a-quarter-year-old, so she could articulate things that I’d just as soon never have heard from her. Like, ever.

It was so bad that we were actually considering getting counseling for M, and we definitely didn’t leave the two of them alone for a minute, fearing violence.

Luckily, photos like this make it look like they were crazy about each other.

And then it got better. J worshiped M from the beginning, but for M it was an almost imperceptible, glacial shift from mortal enemy to dear playmate.  The Siblings Without Rivalry book helped, although it was clearly geared toward older children. M starting school and doing her own activities helped. The biggest factor was when J became capable of speaking and playing. Sweet, worshipful little J would pretty much go along with any idea of M’s, and that sort of groveling and fawning couldn’t help but win M’s grudging affection.

Today they are friends, allies, co-conspirators. This evening, M was grouchy, so J gave her a massage, then M read J a book, and they arrived at the dinner table quite cheerful.

Of course, not every day goes smoothly.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

Recently I heard M storm off angrily after unspecified drama. I asked her about it.

“Well, I sat down and started eating next to J, and she was so rude! She asked me to stop chewing so loudly! She is so obnoxious!” I nodded sympathetically and succeeded in not chuckling out loud. This is the sort of thing M does to J all the time, so I know just where J learned this. In fact, we’ve placed a moratorium on all sister-to-sister etiquette commentary unless something is so egregious that it becomes impossible to refrain from politely requesting an end to the loud chewing/tuneless singing/foot tapping.

“And then,” M continued,  “A minute later, she got up and moved.” Again I nodded, but I was thinking that this was excellent progress, really. I’ve told each of them to just leave rather than engage in, you know, fisticuffs. So, yay for J.

“So then, I was lonely, and I followed her.” Here I can no longer preserve my neutral sounding-board persona. “You were lonely. . . ?” I repeated, eyebrows raised.

“Okay, and also I wanted to antagonize her!” M confessed. Can we take a moment, please, to appreciate her use of what is probably an SAT word? Her self-awareness? Behold! There is much cause for pride.

From there it gets boring: sympathetic murmurs, reminders that name-calling is unacceptable, and more motherly blah-blah-blah.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

Also over the weekend, the girls were waiting in the car for me as we were getting ready to go somewhere (which, incidentally, could be against the law now--please don’t turn me in!).  As I walked around the car to ride shotgun, J blatantly smacked M on the head. I opened the door and gave J a Scary Mommy look as the two girls burst out simultaneously:

Ow! Did you see that? She just hit me!” M roared, outraged.

“But we were playing a game!” J half-yelped, half-pleaded.

Cute W joined us as M replied,”I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Her face was innocent and composed, yet both parents found her completely unconvincing. A see-who-can-hit-the-other-one-first-after-Mommy-grabs-the-door-handle is exactly the sort of wily activity my elder daughter would employ to trick J. M can be an evil genius, I tell you. And J makes it too easy for her.

I closed the topic with a curt “I don’t want to hear it. Hitting, planning hitting games, or playing hitting games are all completely unacceptable,” while Cute W struggled to maintain Stern Daddy Composure.

When we piled out of the car, Cute W whispered to me, “You should have seen J’s face. It was like she couldn’t decide which was worse, that M’s that full of s%&t or that she fell for that game.”

Sisterly love sprouting, finally

Perfection it’s not, but I no longer feel like I have to keep M strapped down, so that’s progress.


  1. Claire

    Wow, she was really verbal for a 2.25 year old! Someday you’ll probably look back on that and laugh, although I realize it must have been horrifying at the time.

  2. @Claire, well,in fairness, by that time she was more like 2 and a half, but she was crazy-verbal. No doubt b/c her mother was constantly blathering on. When I found that old photo with her finger to her lips like she was scheming like that Mike Meyers villain, it was the first time I could laugh about the whole episode.

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