Since becoming a parent and witnessing the intense rivalry between my three children, I am always surprised — and a bit envious — when other parents gush about how delighted their firstborn is to have a younger sibling.
My 7-year-old twins have still not forgiven me for bearing their younger sister, now 4. They already had each other to compete with. And so, from the beginning, Georgia and Griffin viewed Jane’s birth as the gravest offense I could have committed against their well-being.
Jane, for her part, takes full advantage of being the youngest child and fiercely guards her place of honor in the family. When I recently kissed her goodnight and told her I loved her, Jane demanded, “Do you love me more than Georgia and Griffin?”
And although my three children frequently engage each other in boisterous games, sometimes playing together for the better part of an afternoon, just as often it seems they are fighting. They constantly vie for attention, air their jealousies and weigh the inequities they feel surround them.
I have learned the hard way that when Georgia and Griffin return from elementary school, I should portray the days I spend out and about with Jane in only the most tepid tones.
“Where did those books come from?” Georgia, fresh off the bus, will demand. “You took Jane to the library without me?!”
Not to be outdone, Griffin, too, sees injustice lurking around every corner.
When he realized in September that his younger sister’s preschool began more than a week after his school he cried foul.
“No fair!” Griffin said. “We’ve already been going for a week!”
I pointed out that when Georgia and Griffin were Jane’s age, they attended a different preschool, which had a 15-minute shorter schedule than hers. All those 15-minute increments probably added up to more than a week, I reasoned, though this explanation barely dented the burden of Griffin’s perceived injuries.
So, at dinner that night, Griffin reminded Jane, “You know you have school tomorrow.”
“I know,” she said. “I like school!”
“Well, you’re going to do hard work,” he retorted.
“We don’t do work!”
“That’s not fair!” Griffin exclaimed.
My children cling to the belief that they are somehow being shortchanged, constantly sparring over who has the most or the best or the biggest. Their incessant bickering has become an unpleasant white noise whirring in the background of our days.
Georgia, Griffin and Jane fight over who is first in line for sunblock. They argue about whether to watch “Peter Rabbit” or “The Berenstain Bears” until I switch off the TV. I even had to confiscate the throw blanket and pillows from our couch because my kids kept shoving each other out of the “cozy corner.”
When I recently complained to my friend, Tippi Aronson, about my children’s spats, she told me that her 4-year-old daughter learned to count early on, just to make sure her 7-year-old sister wasn’t getting more jelly beans than she was.
Another friend, Megan Cahill, said her 4-year-old daughter insists these days on wearing garish princess costumes everywhere so that she will be “prettier” than her 7-year-old sister.
So I try to console myself that I’m not alone. But now even Jane, who used to putter around, oblivious to the palpable anger of her older siblings, has gone to battle.
Jane used to accept Georgia’s hand-me-downs, delighted to wear the cast-offs her big sister once wore. And if Jane occasionally complained that I never bought her new clothes, I painted her acquiescence in heroic terms. “You’re recycling,” I’d say. “You’re saving the earth.”
But since she turned 4, Jane no longer succumbs to these tricks.
“I only have one pair of sneakers,” Jane whined the other day, staring down at Georgia’s scuffed-up old shoes.
“You only need one pair.”
“Well,” Jane said, “they’re not very pretty!”
And when Jane’s brother and sister’s soccer jerseys — a present from my husband who got caught up in the World Cup frenzy — arrived in the mail before hers, Jane sniffed a conspiracy.
“Georgia and Griffin’s stuff always comes before mine!”
“I don’t think ‘always’ is quite accurate.”
“Well, it’s not fair!”
“Life’s not fair,” I find myself repeating on a loop with little effect.
But the other day, I suddenly realized that salvation might actually arise from the cinders of my children’s strife, when Jane, on the way to her first morning of pre-kindergarten, asked, “Can you just drop me at the front door, and I’ll walk in like Georgia and Griffin do?”
Though heartbroken that my “baby” no longer felt she needed me, even if just in this small way, I experienced a simultaneous thrill of liberation. I understood that Jane’s wanting to have exactly what her older siblings had — her desire to emulate their growing independence — might very well soon set us all free.