Someone to Poke

siblings 1

I’ve been thinking a lot about siblings this week because of an important anniversary in our family. ‘What do you like about having siblings?’ I asked Molly the other day. ‘Having someone to tease,’ she said. ‘And when I was little there was always someone to poke on car journeys.’

Over the years there’s been a lot of research into parent-child relationships but sibling relationships have only attracted serious interest more recently. And yet they’re clearly very important. Psychologist Daniel Shaw put it well:
“Parents serve the same big-picture role as doctors on grand rounds. Siblings are like the nurses on the ward. They’re there every day.”

siblings 3

There are benefits to being stuck with siblings. Constant arguments make for choppy family life so you have to negotiate. A Canadian study found that on average, siblings aged two to four years, have some kind of conflict at least once every ten minutes. As they get older the conflicts usually get less frequent—but things don’t always work out well.  Noel and Liam Gallagher are famously distanced brothers. When asked about an Oasis reunion, Noel said that “It won’t ever happen unless they do it without me,” adding modesty, “but without me it would be rubbish.”

My four children squabbled a great deal when they were little but I’m relieved to find that they get on well as adults. Past offences are mostly forgiven, though they’re not all forgotten. Molly is the youngest and once said wistfully, ‘All the accidents I had when I was little were Henry’s fault.’ She then reeled off a list of episodes that I’d pushed conveniently to the back of my mind. Suddenly they all came rushing back. The ‘being up a tree incident’ didn’t end well nor did the time he pulled her out of a bunk bed on a barge. And there was the occasion when he told her to ride ‘no hands’ on her bike as she whizzed down a hill for the very first time.

Siblings plus partners at graduation

In amongst all the falling out and making up, siblings are in a unique position to provide support when there’s family trauma. They can often appreciate what their brothers and sisters are going through in a way that no-one else is able to do. But not everyone has a sibling. Average family size is gradually shrinking and in the UK it’s increasingly common for parents to have just one child. As with all human activity people are quick to try to argue about which situation is best. But this seems pointless. Not everyone has a choice about the number of children they have and those parents who actively choose to have one child do so for their own particular pragmatic or economic reasons. And there are advantages to being an only child like getting undivided parental attention and more exposure to adults. You also learn from an early age how to be happy in your own company.

I feel as though I have a foot in both camps as my upbringing was similar to that of an only child but with some sibling benefits. My sister is twelve and a half years older than me so I didn’t get the experience of squabbling, sharing secrets, or swapping make-up. Instead she was like a second mother and had more formative influences on me than anyone else.

siblings 4

There’s been a lot of speculation about the effects of birth order ever since Adler linked this to personality in 1928. Oldest children are popularly believed to be assertive and conformist while youngest ones are rebellious and adventurous. But this is not substantiated by research findings. It’s possible that what are interpreted by parents as personality traits, are in fact an effect of age rather than of birth order. At any point in time, the older child has simply had more experience of life and so will be seen as different from their younger sibling. It’s hard to view them equally. It seems logical that birth order affects each individual within their particular family situation, but at the moment there’s no evidence to suggest that you can extrapolate this more broadly and call it a personality trait rather than a behaviour pattern.

These sibling behaviour patterns are deeply rooted. I know a family where the brother never married and the three sisters all outlived their husbands. In their seventies when they were all single once more, the four siblings went on holiday together. I was amused to hear one of their daughters recount with exasperation how they reverted to the same kinds of squabbles that they’d had as children.

sibling 2

Throughout life it’s easy to slip into old familiar roles within your family group even though you might behave quite differently in the outside world. Emma’s flatmate went to visit her younger sister who had just spent her first term at Cambridge. This younger sister was a successful student and managed her life perfectly well. But as they walked and walked and walked, the visiting older sibling eventually asked where they were going as she’d never been to Cambridge before. Her younger sister looked astonished and said, ‘I’ve no idea, I was following you.’ I can relate to that. For as long as I can remember, a defining role for me has been as a younger sister and I slot into that easily. I’ve turned to Bonnie when life has been difficult and feel fortunate that she’s always been there.

I started this post by mentioning an important family anniversary. Happy Special Birthday to Bonnie. I may be quite grown-up most of the time but just for you, I’m happy to be a little sister.


It Will Never Come Again


This week I was in the car with Molly. It’s always a good chance to spend some time with her and we started chatting about elderly friends and relatives. She was obviously wondering from the bounciness of youth what it’s like to be old and she asked me what initially seemed like a simple question. ‘Mum,’ she said curiously, ‘Do you feel like you’ve lived a long time?’

This was surprisingly hard to answer. My first reaction was to say, ‘No,’ but that seemed silly as I evidently have lived for quite a long time. Then I realised that this kneejerk feeling comes from the fact that for much of the time, I don’t feel properly grown-up. In my head I’m still waiting to get to that elusive state.


I clearly have a problem as I read recently that a life insurance provider asked 2,000 people to say what they thought marked the transition into adulthood. The most common answers were buying a first home, becoming a parent and getting married. Other signs of being grown up were paying into a pension, becoming house proud, taking out life insurance, looking forward to a night in, doing DIY, hosting dinner parties, and having a joint bank account. I’m 56 and I’ve done all of these things (with varying degrees of enthusiasm)—but I still keep expecting to be outed as a pretend grown up.

I think that much of my grownupness deficit comes from being a younger sibling. My beloved sister is twelve and a half years older than me, and when, aged twenty-eight and four years married, I told her that I was pregnant, she was noticeably shocked. ‘Do you feel grown up?’ I asked her once. ‘Of course I do,’ she said, briskly.

pramAs time passes, I suppose the reality is that I do get more practice at being grown up, like when Molly was seriously ill, earlier this year. I felt pretty adult then. This, and other snapshot moments force me to adjust my internal age-barometer. But it’s a jolty kind of process rather than a continuous smooth one. A recent blow was discovering that the actor George Cole was 90, when he died, this year. ‘He can’t have been,’ I thought. However, if he was a great deal older than when he played Arthur Daley in ‘Minder’, then the inescapable truth is that I’ve got a great deal older, too.

pink gingham

Some of the most poignant age-related jolts come from reflecting on missed opportunities. I feel sad when I recall things I planned to do with the children but didn’t get around to: I never took them to see a ballet; I got stressed if they made a mess cooking so this didn’t happen as much as it could have done, and the two metres of pink gingham I bought twenty years ago will never be transformed into a cute pinafore dress for my elder daughter, Emma. The poet, Emily Dickinson observed, ‘That it will never come again is what makes life sweet.’

Another jolt is the realisation that there are definitely places that I will never visit again—people I won’t see again—books I’ll never read again, and films that I’ve seen for the last time. Even much-loved ones. When I was young I felt that life would go on forever. But having a husband with a life-threatening illness forced me to accept that life runs out. This is one of the many reasons that my treats list has been so important to me in recent years. If there are things I long to do then I want to get on with them. Now. Somebody once told me that being grown up is when you stop taking things for granted. Maybe I’m more grown up than I thought I was.

I took all these things into account when I finally replied to Molly’s question: do I feel like I’ve lived a long time. I said that I think I’m getting close to feeling that. And I was able to give her a practical demonstration of my grownupness recently after she was given a very smart record player. She, like so many young people, appreciates the charm of vinyl and is building up a record collection, not dissimilar to the one I had at her age. For a while she appeared to enjoy using her new turntable. All seemed to be going well but eventually she emerged from her room, looking very downcast. ‘Everything sounds so fast,’ she said, unhappily. From the benefit of my relatively long life I enlightened her about the all-important difference between 45rpm and 33rpm.

record player

My final word is on someone who is only in her mid-twenties but has already packed a huge amount into her life. Recently I did the second in my chain interview series.  You can read more here.