My Family and other Hormones: Laura Craik Writes About Sister Love
I grew up in the smallest family there is, a family of two, a micro-family that was devoid of the noise, mess and sprawl that characterised the larger families of my friends, relatives and neighbours. There was always enough room on the sofa, the bathroom was always vacant and there was always enough ice cream in the fridge.
If something annoying happened – a broken glass, a bathroom door that should have been opened to let the condensation from the shower escape, some errant hair dye on a favourite towel – it was always my fault, on the basis that it could never have been my mother’s and there was no one else to blame, not even a dog. I grew up careful and resentful in equal measure, because sometimes the thing hadn’t been my fault at all. The concept of “blame” loomed large in my childhood, and still does, much to the irritation of my family. Sometimes, the things that happen aren’t anyone’s fault. Sometimes, you can’t trace the origin of a mistake to the culprit, because mistakes, like life, aren’t binary.
Fourteen years down the line, it is still a surprise to me that I exist within a family of four, a nuclear family (as they were called in the 1940s) of the sort that I hankered after and fetishised as a Lonely Child. “It’s ‘only child’, not ‘lonely child’,” my mother would correct my five-year-old self whenever I would announce this with solemnity after being asked by some adult how many brothers and sisters I had. Still, I felt like a Lonely Child.
My pandas were my friends: while other children played board games with their siblings, I would host elaborate tea parties with my Sindy dolls, or stage fashion shows where all the dresses were made out of peach Andrex. But I was happy, which is to say I don’t remember feeling sad. The life stage that I missed having siblings the most wasn’t school, it was many years after, when I left my tiny family unit behind. It seemed to me that siblings really came into their own when you were an adult, adrift from the family you had been born into and in the process of making a new, chosen family out of your friends. Because however wonderful these friends would turn out to be, they weren’t your blood. Only your siblings could understand exactly where you came from, and how the past had shaped the present. They were anchors to your old life that provided permanency and re-assurance in your new one.
At least, that was my theory. It was also what I hoped for my own two daughters: that they would be anchors for each other throughout their adult lives, united by blood and shared experience, good friends who comforted each other long after their parents had shrugged off this mortal coil. It’s a lovely notion, but it overlooks one tiny detail: they hate each other.
Actually, they don’t hate each other. Hate would be better, because it would imply love. More accurately, they just don’t really like each other. They are indifferent. They don’t want to spend time together, and only do so on family holidays, when there is no alternative. The rest of the time, they lead separate lives, keep- ing within their own bedrooms, even though they shared a bedroom for 12 years. Or maybe because they shared a bedroom for 12 years.
I wonder where I went wrong. When they were little, we did all sorts of things together. I have umpteen pictures of them smiling, arm in arm. After a particularly vicious argument, I found myself scrolling through my iPhone to remind me that this smiling camaraderie actually existed once. I trace the rot back to when the elder one turned 13, and got it into her head that we favouritised the younger one. Feeling un- lovable in the way that teenagers can, was she projecting? Or did she actually believe it? “I had to go to running club. Mum made me. So suck it up,” she’d say to her sister. Man. Did I really “make” her go to running club? I thought she wanted to go.
My friends with siblings tell me my daughters’ cruelty towards each other is normal. “But she told her she would turn into a fat pig who would develop diabetes and die,” I’ve wailed. “Normal,” they replied. “But she accused her of being a sad loser with serious issues who doesn’t have any real friends and will die alone in a hole,” I persisted. “Totally normal,” they breezed.
Really? It didn’t seem normal to me. Not for the first time, I felt glad of the insult-free childhood I’d enjoyed. OK, I might have felt lonely sometimes, but at least my pandas didn’t tell me I was lazy/stupid/mental. My girls are the most open-minded, tolerant, politically correct girls in north London, who abhor racism, misogyny, body fascism and transphobia, yet will quite happily call each other “big fat privileged autistic lesbians” with relish. And when I tell them that hate speech has no place in society, and that this includes the home, what do they do? They roll their eyes.
My husband, one of three (siblings, not husbands), is less worried about their antipathy than I am. He reminds me that, as children growing up on a farm in Yorkshire, he and his brother used to put their sister in a duvet, swing it around and drag it down the stairs. To the only child, this physical rough-housing, though not ideal, seems far easier to handle than the mental scars derived from a lifetime of insults and put-downs. Whenever her younger sister has a panic attack, the elder one accuses her of faking it. When she can’t sleep, she is told to “man up”. I truly believe that if she were to fall down the very hole her sister so fervently wishes her to, and break a leg, she’d be winched up only to be told to “walk on the other one”. But when I accuse the elder one of being unnecessarily unkind to her little sister, she lights up in fury. “She’s sooooooo mean to me, Mum. She literally hates me. And I literally don’t care.”
If the elder one is Great Expectations’ Estella, sophisticated and aloof, the younger plays the Pip role to a tee. During lockdown, when there was nobody else on the planet, bar your immediate family, that it was legal to see, the elder did, on occasion, consent to having a sleepover with her little sister. This made me happier than words can say. “What did you both get up to?” I’d eagerly ask the younger one the following morning. “Oh, nothing,” she’d say. “Watched Supernanny.”
Sometimes, I put their lack of closeness down to the four-year age gap. It never used to feel so big, but at 14 and 10, it’s cavernous. The 10-year-old is too old for cartoons and too young for Skins/Riverdale/Sex Education, so watching a “family film” with her involves much wincing and covering of eyes. That is, on the rare occasions where we come to an agreement on what to watch at all. No matter that the combined expertise of 20th Century Studios, DreamWorks, Columbia, Warner, Searchlight, Disney, Sky, Netflix, Amazon and HBO seems to satiate most people’s viewing tastes, the only thing to which all four of us will acquiesce to watch without violent argument is Gavin & Stacey. Which is possibly why we’ve watched it 398,261 times. Tidy.
Lockdown has been shitty for all of us in different ways. Has it brought us closer? Did we all bake banana bread together? Nah. The younger would want pancakes; the elder, a fruit-aholic, would have eaten all the bananas before we got the chance to bake them. And anyway, I hate baking. No fragrant banana-breaded idyll in our kitchen.
Still, we survived. Nobody got divorced. Nobody ran away from home. Nobody was found passed out under the sofa after one too many G&Ts, though it was close some- times. When 2020 draws to an end under the dim light of a scaled-down, parsimonious Christmas, maybe that’s all any family, whatever its size, no matter its occupants, can reasonably hope for. Survival. We made it through. Sometimes it was ugly, sometimes it was sad, always it was frustrating, but at the end of the day, when all is said and done, if truth be told, the love that binds us is stronger than the antipathy that divides.
Images courtesy of Laura Craik. Taken from Issue 65 of 10 Magazine – FAMILY, FOREVER, LOVE – available to purchase here.
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