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letting the mental guard dog of sibling disputes off its chain

2018 July 31
by Rachel Turiel

The thought comes to me like a thunderbolt; from someplace beyond my mind’s usual mundane chatter. Col is in Washington DC with his grandma. Rose is inside reading Harry Potter. And I am plucking cabbage worms off brassica plants, contemplating how peaceful it’s been since the all-day meal special of sibling bickering has fallen off the menu. And then the thought that stills me is this: I am not responsible for my children’s relationship.

Col in Congressman Tipton’s DC office requesting that Tipton join the bi-partisan climate solutions caucus, specifically because of pikas and skiing.

Of course I want my children to be best friends. In my fantasies the two of them are allies, bolstered by a two-lane flow of support, compassion, collaboration and cooperation. When the world is confusing and painful I want them, as fellow participants in the genetic and social experiment of our family, to turn to each other. Though really, I’d settle for them just being able to squeeze onto the same couch without anyone throwing elbows.

Partially I long for this because it would bestow harmony upon our home, but also I’ve been shackled to a story about what’s good, right and best. Siblings should protect each other! They should be confidantes! If Dan and I model kindness, it should trickle down! (Small clue: believing in what follows a “should” is the short path to suffering). And truthfully, when I am attached to one particular outcome, then I lose choice in how to respond because I become the proverbial hammer searching desperately for a nail, missing the truth of what is.

Sibling relationships are a wild and mysterious thing. Something deep and old and unknowable is working itself out while it looks like Col and Rose are simply arguing over who gets the first shower after camping. My squirrely mind wants to control, fix and steer. It wants to wave my red flag when I hear Col charging Rose $3 to claim her own lost earrings that he found (true story). But who am I to engineer their path? They get to snap the pieces of their relationship puzzle together. If the pieces don’t fit, they can rotate or reconfigure them, sand them down, trade them out.

As a leader in this family I have the responsibility to model compassionate expression, to offer support, and to care for everyone’s needs without directing the outcome. It’s liberating to drop this task—the job of making sure my kids are friends—from the long list of what’s required to run a household.

Miramonte Reservoir, a bit south of Norwood, Co. Dan: “Didn’t the Rolling Stones play here? Oh wait, that was Altamont.”

Col returns from DC and I try out this new stance, repeating it frequently to counteract the worn neural pathways of my mind that suggest we’re all doomed because Col and Rose aren’t magnetized to each other.

And yet, strangely, they are. Their elbow game on the couch is a source of breathless laughter. Col wants to play soccer in the street, but only if his sister joins. Somehow our house does seem more peaceful, but not because my wanting it made it so, it’s that my mind is more peaceful because there’s less wanting. The despair I’ve felt about the kids not relating as I’d wish leads me to try to control external circumstances, rather than learn to tolerate that which I can’t control.

Also, because I’ve let my mental guard dog of sibling disputes off its chain, I’m less likely to micro-analyze Col and Rose’s interactions, looking for who left fingerprints of guilt on the surface of their last conflict. This means I get to see them more clearly. Miki Kashtan, founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication suggests that we turn the channel from the “boring movie of our mind,” the one that predictably features the repetitive script of our fears and biases. “It’s much more interesting to see the reality of what’s actually going on,” Kashtan says.

The reality is this: Col wins three consecutive games of chess then offers strategic advice to Rose, which she declines. They jump on the neighbor’s trampoline. They return for snacks. Rose makes Col toast and suggests he say ‘thank you.’ He doesn’t show gratitude to her satisfaction. She sighs, sings a few bars from the musical Grease and requests that Col sing Danny’s part while she takes Sandy’s. I observe it all without commentary, without making evaluations on my friendship-o-meter, nor do I grasp to this moment, sweet as their giggly singing is. Surely there is a sibling throw-down in their future. And just as likely there will be the inexplicable magic of a brother and sister crooning along to a 70s musical in a relationship of their making, the ending not yet written.

9 Responses leave one →
  1. July 31, 2018

    No sibling for our guy, but I love the way you’ve written this to step back. This feels relatable to me even with one kid, and how he goes out into the world with his friends and “cousin.”

  2. Anonymous permalink
    July 31, 2018

    “Also, because I’ve let my mental guard dog of sibling disputes off its chain, I’m less likely to micro-analyze Col and Rose’s interactions, looking for who left fingerprints of guilt on the surface of their last conflict.”

    This seems like a crux move. Seeing people more clearly as they are. As Mother Theresa said, (paraphrasing) “When we’re judging people then we’re less available to love them.”

  3. July 31, 2018

    Bless you, Rachel Turiel.

  4. Drew Thayer permalink
    August 1, 2018

    So true! The way siblings weave their delicate web of relating, resentment, and trust is unique and likely un-readable from the outside.

    I love the anecdote of $3 ‘finders fee’. Reminds me of how my mom told me recently she was very disappointed years ago when she discovered I’d charged my younger brother $10 (all the money he had, at age 6-ish?) for a radio I found in a dumpster. Rather than jump in as police right there she let it play out, and we both ended up listening to it a lot in his room, singing to the oldies station. Funny how things work out.

  5. Anonymous permalink
    August 3, 2018

    This is so beautiful. Sitting down to read your writing is a little gift I give myself. I love your perspective, it’s where I want to be some day. I’ll get there in time. I am in the beginnings of these unravelings, I see you might be in the middle.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      August 3, 2018

      “Wherever you are is the entry point”

  6. Susan S permalink
    August 3, 2018

    My siblings and I fight like cats and dogs, always have, but let one of us actually be threatened, and the other two will be the ones to stand between the vulnerable one and the flames. We can throw stones at each other, but nobody else can. I think that’s common in sibling relationships. We did start to get along much better the older we got and we each had more freedom. When we didn’t live together anymore, we could choose to spend time together and then go back to our respective territories. It was really hard to have our own space and identities without that distance, which made us aggressive, I think. After that independence came to our lives, my brother and I took a couple of two-week-long road trips together, and now that he’s passed, the memories of the road trips are what I keep and cherish, not the squabbles.

    As always, Rachel, you and your family are absolutely beautiful.

  7. Erica permalink
    August 9, 2018

    Great insights! I’m going to work on rewiring in my own mind on this topic. It’s hard for me when I perceive one is manipulating the other and I want to step in and fix it. My favorite line I read several times and wrote down for myself:. “believing in what follows the “should” is the short path to suffering.” That needs to be my mantra.

  8. August 13, 2018

    Oh, Rachel. This whole text is pure grace. True, beautiful, golden words.

    And beautiful Col and Rose. <3

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