My daughters are three years apart and they look identical. In photos, I sometimes can’t tell them apart—especially because they are never in a picture together, and their height is their only differential. They used to take pictures together. They used to do everything together, fulfilling my dream of the perfect sibling duo. In fact, I used to ignorantly tell my friends who were hesitant about having a second child that rather than it being more difficult, the addition of my youngest made my life so much easier. She was a built-in playmate. The kids did everything together, from playing with their dolls to ganging up on me. For years, they were everything to each other, total BFFs with no sibling rivalry in sight.
I envisioned it would be even better when they got older. They could share secrets with each other. They could rent their first apartment together. They could chat on the phone every day, and plan yearly vacations. They would have the closest bond, better than friends.
I can’t say that there’s an exact date when this all started to go downhill. But for the past few years, ever since they were around five and eight years old, they’ve been enemies. It happened so subtly that I didn’t even notice their bond being torn apart, one string at a time.
At this point, they can’t be in the same room together. They can’t even take a vacation together. Literally. Right now, I’m sitting poolside on a holiday in Alaska with one child. In November, I’ll be taking the other to New York. I’m devastated when I see other family photos on social media, families holding hands and smiling.
This isn’t typical sibling fighting. I have siblings. I know that my reality isn’t how it’s supposed to work.
When they’re apart, my daughters are delicious. They’re intelligent, they’re kind, they’re empathetic and they are so much fun. But from the hours of 3 to 8 p.m. every day, when they don’t have after-school activities and are stuck together, they’re miserable. It starts as soon as they enter the car post-school.
“Don’t get in on my side,” one will inevitably yell. There will be kicking, complaining to me about tongues sticking out, body parts that are overflowing on the wrong side of the car, snacks that appear to be unfairly dealt.
And then we get home. One child will start singing, to the horror of the other (the person doing the singing will change daily); or maybe one will talk too loudly, will practice the piano badly, will leave a door open that should be shut… There’s literally no end to the complaints about each other.
But it doesn’t end with complaints—that would be too easy. It always, always, escalates into hitting and spitting, door slamming and yelling and crying.
One therapist I spoke with suggested I only intervene when I thought they’d get hurt. That failed.
Another therapist said to keep them apart. I tried, but still they fought because they thought I was spending too much time with the other.
At couples counseling (yep, you can get couples counseling for any two people), my daughters unleashed their fury, and this unleashing continued well beyond their sessions. It hasn’t stopped or ebbed.
I’ve read every sibling rivalry book. I even wrote an article about how to end sibling rivalry, taking the opportunity to interview every expert on the topic I could find. I tried their suggestions to no avail.
Why is this happening? Is it my fault? Did I pay too much attention to one of them, as one of their therapists suggested? Is it because my oldest has an anxious personality, as another therapist suggested? Is it because I travel too frequently for work? (Would they have said this if I were a man?)
Regardless, I’m not ready to give up on my children. I understand that sometimes, people simply don’t like each other. But I stubbornly refuse to believe that this is the case with my daughters, although appearances say otherwise.
Right now, I’m trying to ride this wave. I’m encouraged by the number of people who have told me that they fought with their siblings when they were younger, but are now besties. So that’s the new plan. Let them fight. The best is yet to come.
This article was originally published online in August 2019.