April 10 is National Siblings Day—one of the many new holidays that are now celebrated.
Some people scoff at these holidays—and some also scoff at the more traditionally celebrated holidays, like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. They complain that these are consumerist holidays forced on us by marketers.
For my part, I think it’s helpful to have a reminder to think about the important people in my life, and to recognize everything they’ve done for me, and to send a token of my appreciation and love. One of my aphorisms is “Something that can be done at any time is often done at no time,” and that’s certainly true of telling someone, “Hey, thanks, I love you.”
With everything that’s happening with COVID-19, we’re living in extraordinarily challenging and uncertain times. This situation has made me—and most other people, too, I expect—value relationships more than ever. I’m making a huge effort to connect with the people I love. I’ve probably spent more time on the phone with friends and family in the last month than I did in the last two years.
I’m happy that Siblings Day is becoming recognized, because my relationship with my sister Elizabeth is one of the most important relationships in my life. We’re five years apart (I’m older), so when we were young, we often didn’t have much in common, though we always got along pretty well. Once we reached our twenties, our bond deepened in a new way.
She lives in Los Angeles and I live in New York City, so we often go for months without seeing each other in person. But we text, talk on the phone, email, plan and record our weekly Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, and lately, we’ve been doing Instagram Live “Coping with COVID-19 Conversations” at 4 pm E.T. every weekday. Whatever the technology that permits it, I get happier every time I talk to her. One of my aphorisms for relationships is that Frequency of contact is more important than duration, and these frequent short touch-points help me feel connected to her.
People sometimes ask, “What did your parents do, when you were growing up, to foster your relationship?” They did several smart things, which I took for granted at the time, but that I now realize were important.
- Once I started college, and for about the next ten years, our parents would pay for us to visit each other. At a time when both of us were counting every dollar, the fact that we could afford to travel to see each other made us much more likely to do it.
- They never compared us or said “Gretchen/Elizabeth does this, why can’t you?” This was probably easier because we were five years apart, but nevertheless, it’s a very easy trap to fall into as a parent.
- Some families have long, critical conversations together about whatever family member isn’t present. Our parents don’t do that!
I’ve long wished that researchers would undertake more examination of the sibling relationship. After all, for most of us, it’s the most enduring relationship we experience in our lives. How do those early ties play out in later life? What are the patterns in who stays close and who drifts apart? What are the sources of conflict or connection? What are best practices for keeping the bond alive? I know that many siblings struggle to say connected if the parents are no longer there to maintain traditions or act as a center.
If you’re interested in reading about siblings, I recommend:
- Dalton Conley’s The Pecking Order: A Bold New Look at How Family and Society Determine Who We Become
- Abigail Pogrebin’s reported memoir One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone Struggle to Be Singular
- Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too
Each is very thought-provoking in a different way.
I’ve noticed that recently, many of my favorite TV shows feature complicated and intense sibling relationships: Game of Thrones; Transparent; Succession. How I love each of those shows. And of course many of my favorite novels feature sisters and brothers, such as Pride and Prejudice, Housekeeping, Anna Karenina, A River Runs Through It, and also Little Women, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Ballet Shoes, and the Little House books. (If you want a great list of novels about siblings, Book Riot has a great list.)
My spiritual master is St. Therese of Lisieux, and in her memoir Story of a Soul, her account of her relationships with her sisters is one of the fascinating aspects of her life.
Do you have any books or TV shows about siblings to recommend?
I know many people who have no siblings, and they report that there are many advantages and strengths to that family configuration, as well.
Thoughtful explorations of that family circumstances include Lauren Sandler’s reported memoir One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One and the essay collection Only Child: Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing Up Solo.
I’m writing from my own experience, of course.
One thing that has dramatically changed in my relationship with Elizabeth is that now we work on the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast together. This has been fantastic for us. It means that we talk regularly, all the time. We have sisterly adventures, like doing our recent live tour or going to podcast conferences together. Now, just as we share a family and a history, we also share a creative project. Working together gives us a new way to relate.
When I was first approach about the idea of doing a podcast, I was asked, “Is there anyone you’d like to co-host with you?” and I instantly answered, “Elizabeth.” I call her “my sister the sage” because she’s always saying such insightful things. We’d always wanted to do something like this together.
As the podcast idea evolved, a friend told me, “You have to have conflict on the podcast, because people are so interested in conflict.” And I answered, “Well, that’s a problem, because I have less conflict with Elizabeth than with any other person in my life.” But we realized that while we don’t have conflict, we do have differences—and we talk about that.
In fact, when Elizabeth and I began creating the podcast together, the model that we found most useful was…Car Talk! Featuring “Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers”—a/k/a the brothers Tom Magliozzi and Ray Magliozzi.
Of course, not everyone would want to be in business with a sibling. I realize how lucky we are that this works so well for us.
My sister the sage
You make everything more fun
Onward and upward!
Gold star sister Gretch
Gentle bully, easy laugh—
Five years happier.
Elizabeth’s haiku includes an inside joke: our mother hates it when she calls me “Gretch.”
No one else in the world could understand my love of Fort Cody in North Platte, Nebraska. Elizabeth and I share something that no one else could ever share.
In these dire times, I’m so grateful for the technology that allows us to be in such close contact, even when we’re so far apart from each other.
Are you close to your siblings? Are they a source of comfort, or conflict, or both?