Sibling Rivalry Squared: When Grandchildren Appear
Jane Isay is your go-to author when it comes to understanding the complexities of adult relationships, up and down the generational ladder. In Walking on Eggshells, she explores parents and their grown children, and in her recent book, Mom Still Likes You Best: The Unfinished Business Between Siblings, she looks at how brothers and sisters bond and battle. When grandchildren enter the picture, she tells us in this piece (written especially for MotherU) the saga continues.
A friend of mine just showed my new book, Mom Still Likes You Best, to her two daughters. Two gift boxes are on the cover, a large one next to a small one–suggesting the inequity that many children feel.
“I’m the small box,” one of them said, “No, it’s me,” replied the other. They got into enough of a tussle that my friend took the book out of the room.
How old are the daughters? One is 45 and the other, 50.
As parents, we all know about sibling rivalry—from experiences with our own brothers and sisters—and through the intense competition between our children. We know that many grown kids still have little computers in their heads, keeping track of every dollar and every minute we spend on, and with, each of them.
Sibling rivalry eventually extends down the generations, too, when the kids start having kids. And while every grandchild is welcomed with fanfare, if we really peer down into our heart of hearts, we usually admit that the first grandchild has a special place. That child is the one who introduces us to the infinite joy of loving a baby, who teaches us to be grandparents, and who is our pilgrim to a future we will not see.
Accordingly, no matter what each of our adult children has accomplished or offered us, the one who produces this cherished first grandchild usually wins the Mom-loves-me-better sweepstakes. But it doesn’t always happen that way.
One mother I interviewed–we’ll call her Valerie–was thrilled when her son and his wife were expecting. Everyone was in synch: anticipation was high, and relations were relaxed and fun. But when the baby was born, the parents and the new grandmother locked horns over feeding issues, bedtime, and how they dressed him. Tensions mounted and never let up. Valerie’s visits diminished, but it broke her heart. She was never allowed to see the baby alone. Her son and daughter-in-law acted as if she didn’t know how to change a diaper or work a stroller. It was terrible. Valerie loved the boy, but he could have been any cute baby, not her first grandchild. She could never spend enough time with him to develop that special closeness.
Then her daughter had a baby. Finally,Valerie got what she had always dreamed of: The parents let her babysit. She’d pick up the baby up early in the morning and take care of her so that her daughter and son-in-law could sleep in. It was heaven.
Did Valerie’s son and his wife notice her relationship with grandchild #2? Were they jealous of the time she spent with the new baby? Valerie hoped so, because she wanted her son and his wife to vie for her attention, thereby giving her more access to her grandson.
It didn’t quite work out that way, but it did work out. The first grandchild – the one whose diapers Valerie had never changed, who had never had a relaxed stroll with her, nor was never left alone in her care – grew up. And as it turned out, he fell in love with his “Nonna.” Eventually, he, too, claimed his place in his paternal grandma’s heart. Today, he loves being with her. He still doesn’t see her that often, but when he does, he jumps into her arms.
Grandkids have great power to heal a family. They don’t know the tensions; they are ignorant of the history. And they can sense a loving heart a mile away.