How I Learned to Handle Sibling Rivalry as a Solo Mom
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Reduce those hurt feelings
“Mom, I want to spend more time with you.” The words came out in a near whisper, and my daughter didn’t meet my eyes.
She’s the middle daughter, wedged between independent teenagers and the five-year-olds I still call my babies. Her twin sister has autism, and our afternoons are a blur of therapies and appointments. I’ve talked to my daughter about her sister’s autism and why I can’t be home in the afternoons but that’s a lot for an eight-year-old to understand. To her, my time away from her after school isn’t about autism; it’s about me spending more time with her twin.
It’s always difficult to balance the needs of multiple children—even when you have a partner around to help out. As a Solo Mom, meeting every child’s needs is even more difficult. My kids need just as much attention and love as they would if they had two parents to provide it, but I’m the only one there to take care of them. It’s nearly impossible to not feel guilty for my inability to meet everyone’s needs sometimes.
Sibling rivalry comes out in many different ways in my household. There’s my middle daughter with her quiet words, but her older sister is more aggressive in her methods; she’s endlessly competitive and determined to be better than her siblings at everything, including being my “favorite.” My daughter with autism sometimes resorts to screaming when she wants my attention. The littler ones attach themselves to me like little koalas to make sure their needs are met, and my teenage sons speak over everyone around them to make sure they are heard. Some days, it feels like I am mothering seven bottomless pits of need.
My internal triage system has become robust and relentless. I’ve learned to prioritize whoever needs my time the most and to let the others take a backseat. But no matter how hard I try, there’s always someone who feels left out, overlooked, or ignored in favor of another sibling. Those hurt feelings come out in different ways depending on the child, but all have their moments. As my kids get older, many of their dark moments have more to do with things at school or problems with their friends than anything going on in our household, but that extra need for love still manifests at home. No matter how you slice it, being a Solo Mom of multiple kids is a tricky job.
For the first couple of years on my own, I tried to be everything my kids needed. I was convinced that if I just spent more time with my kids or tried a little bit harder, they would eventually get everything they needed from me as a mother. Somewhere along the way, I realized that kids always need something from their mothers, Solo Moms or not. Even bottomless love and affection isn’t enough for kids, and losing sight of who I was in my quest to be a better mother wasn’t good for me or them. Kids need their parents, but they need to learn to regulate their emotions on their own, too.
Somewhere out there, I’m sure there are siblings who have never once felt even an ounce of sibling rivalry, but I’ve yet to meet them. All the adults I know with siblings talk about resenting them for everything from the color of their hair or eyes to how well they played sports and the amount of attention they got from their parents. They talk about resentment, anger, frustration, and downright bitterness. Sibling rivalry seems to be a normal part of growing up.
Although none of us can eliminate sibling rivalry entirely, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to reduce it. The most effective method I’ve found is by making room for child-led one-on-one alone time every day. Before you panic, this doesn’t mean that you need to carve out tons of time in your already busy day! Even five minutes of focused attention per child per day can help kids feel more heard and supported. The key is to make sure the one-on-one time is led entirely by the child; don’t ask leading questions or try to direct the course of the conversation or play. Let your child know that time belongs to him or her and that he or she gets to choose how to spend it. It doesn’t cost a dime, but it goes a long way toward making kids feel more connected to their parents.
Another great way to reduce sibling rivalry is to not contribute to it. It’s easy to find yourself making offhand remarks about your kids to their siblings, but that type of behavior fans the flames of sibling rivalry. Don’t talk to your kids about their siblings unless they come to you with questions or concerns. Let them guide and shape discussions about their siblings rather than informing their perceptions. This includes how you talk about your kids in general; try not to praise kids excessively in front of their siblings. It’s great to be excited about one child’s straight As or perfect soccer goal, but keep in mind that an imbalance of praise can leave other kids feeling resentful and left out. There’s always something good to find in every child if you look hard enough.
As Solo Moms, it’s tempting to pile on the internal guilt, but there’s no such thing as a household that eliminates sibling rivalry. No matter how hard any parent tries to meet his or her kids’ needs, siblings are going to compete with one another. Learning to be gentle with ourselves and recognizing that we simply can’t be everything to everyone go a long way toward reducing that guilt. Guilt has never made anyone a better parent—but finding ways to be present with your kids, in and among all the craziness of a Solo Mom household, does.
Jody Allard is a writer and mother living in Seattle. Her work has been featured in the Washington Post, Time, and Good Housekeeping, and on Vice, among others. When she isn’t writing, she can be found binge-watching HGTV and embarrassing her teenagers.
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