By Bunmi Sofola
I think it’s fair to say that my sister Kate—eight years my senior—hated me from the moment I was born” sighed 39-year-old Adesuwa, a mother of three and an educationist. “She bullied me relentlessly throughout our childhood, and she won’t dispute either of these facts. Cruel, frequently violent and resentful of my very existence, her bullying left me damaged to the point that it will forever impinge on my happiness.
“She has her own scars too and, like me, she still struggles with feelings of inadequacy caused by the chasm that opened up when I was born, and terrible rivalry that was actively encouraged by our parents.” Adesuwa’s mum was pregnant with her first child when she was still training to be a teacher. Aged 19, abortion never even came into the picture and she had to get married to her 22-year-old lover shortly before Kate was born to give their child the semblance of legitimacy. “Understandingly, my mother wasn’t ready for parenthood,” continued Adesuwa.
“She was 28 when she had me and I think she saw this second pregnancy as her chance to do things properly. I was breast-fed on demand and was never off her back and hip. I don’t need to imagine how this made my sister feel. She told me many times how wounded, jealous and angry she was. As we grew older, my parents set up a modest nursery school and the business consumed them, but rather than employ a housemaid, they relied on my sister to care for me. Only now, with the hindsight of an adult and the mother of three children, can I see how unfair this was on Kate. From the age of ten, she was expected to make my breakfast, prepare supper and look after me.
This continued throughout her teens, and when I started school, she had to take me there and pick me up later too. No wonder she saw me as a burden. What 14-year-old wants her six-year-old little sister dragging around after her all the time? “Both our parents were harsh disciplinarians and considered the whip the only answer to any misdemeanor—a style my sister copied with zeal. I remember cowering in terror whenever we were alone and I ‘misbehaved’. Although I was scared of her, all I wanted, like most little sisters, was to be like her—but this took the form of taking her toys.
Neither of us will forget when, as a three-year-old, I picked up a precious doll our grandmother gave her, and twisted off its limbs so they could never be repaired. She will never forget either how she was told off for threatening to beat me up. I was constant thorn on her side. When she started experimenting with make-up, I would break into the cosmetics box and smear the stuffs all over the dressing table. Again she was forced to forgive me as the baby of the family. On her 12th birthday, I discovered her present of a box of chocolates and ate them all”
When children’s natural selfish competitive natures are unchecked and even encouraged, sibling rivalry easily spills over into something far nastier—bullying. Most parents work hard to try to ease the relationships between their offsprings. “Sadly mine didn’t”, continued Kate. “They used each of our shortcomings as a stick to beat the other with. If my sister was good at something, they asked why I wasn’t and vice versa. Perhaps in some warped way they thought the competition would inspire us. They’d openly take sides in our fights, and discuss who was their favourite child and why. From early in life, we were labelled. My sister was the ‘wild child’. First, she failed at school—no surprise as she had no time for homework. Then, after she left home, she’d come back heart-broken, jobless or homeless, thanks to her numerous crisis.
“I was the goody-goody one destined to make up for Kate’s mistakes. When she didn’t get a place at the university after failing JAMB, my mother piled pressure on me to excel in exams. When Kate was 28 and married our parents upgraded their car and promised her their old Honda. Then I got a place at the university and I needed a car to get me there. They promptly gave me the Honda instead. To outsiders, these incidents might seem petty—the self-pitying laments of an over-privileged woman. But only when you are trapped in bouting match presided over by your parents, can you understand how damaging such a situation can be.
“I’m sure my parents’ open disappointment at my sister’s failures in her romantic relationships is what drove me to marry my childhood sweet-heart at just 25. I was terrified of scorn if things were to go wrong. They pushed me hard into the arms of this aspiring young lawyer, never mind if he was right for me—he was the catch they dreamed of. Not surprisingly, the marriage came unstuck pretty quickly, and we separated when I was 28. By then my sister was happily settled with a long-term boyfriend, and suddenly became their favourite child. It was horrible being a let-down, and I began to see how my sister must have felt all those years. Yet the old rivalry remained.”
For years, Adesuwa said she thought their situation was unique, but having talked to counsellors and researched the subject, it seems it’s not unusual for parents to be complicit in competitive wranglings between their children. According to Suzie Hayman a renowned relationship expert: “If the children aren’t in alliance, you have total power because they can’t join forces against you. Parents can deliberately stoke the fire of sibling rivalry, and if this happens, it can be profoundly disabling. Continued Adesua:
“Our parents, as grandparents, quickly reverted to type and resumed their practice of measuring one child against the other. Kate’s son was messy and mine was clean. My son was clever, Kate’s was slower on the uptake. This brought our own rivalries back and when I accused Kate of being late for an appointment we had, she hit the roof, accusing me of being a control freak. We had an almighty row—a row that was building underneath due to our pent-up resentments and didn’t speak to each other for close to two years. Our parents seemed to revel in the divide—reminding me how angry Kate still was, constantly putting me off approaching her.
Then mum discovered dad had been having a long-term affair and their own rows started. They wanted me to take sides and I refused. Reluctantly, I reached out to Kate and it was as if we’d never been apart. We both realised that if it hadn’t been for our parents’ constant meddling…we would have made up a long time ago….We rebuilt our relationship as adults and now have a stronger alliance. We live a few minutes apart and our children see each other regularly. But we no longer get along with our parents.
We’ve left them to their devise and let’s see how strong they are without us. We realised the only way to protect ourselves from our painful past is to build our relationship alone. Now it’s our parents who have been left out in the cold. We have both finally realised how precious it is to have a sibling, and we’re determined that our children will enjoy a bond as cousins that we were denied as sisters growing up.”