THE SIBLING PANDEMIC
I remember being 5 years old and my mother telling me that I was going to be a big sister. As the world that I knew suddenly began expanding into the unknown as my mother’s belly grew, I became fixated on one thing. I vividly remember informing my mom, under no condition, was she allowed to give birth to a baby girl. I would accept this change, and be the best big sister, as long as I could remain the only girl. Deal? Obviously my mother could not make this deal. But luckily for all of us, a baby boy was born, and I held onto my title, my identity, and my sense of self as the only girl in my family.
What can siblings teach us about the pandemic?
So what does my early childhood sibling story reveal about the word ‘pandemic’? Besides sharing a very adorable picture of myself becoming a big sister with all of you, what can siblings teach us about the pandemic? My sibling story and your sibling stories and the many sibling stories that have been shared with me in my psychotherapy consulting room and while conducting my research can teach us a few things about how to live through the changes that are being thrust upon us during this time.
The collective human experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed the old world, heralding a new era of mask wearing, social distancing, and online relating. The universal nature of this pandemic means that the impact is felt by all of us, even if we experience and process the impact in different ways. The same is true of siblings. Siblings are a universal experience. “But Claire, wait, no, you are wrong.” You may argue, “What about only children? Not everyone has a sibling.” Actually, leading sibling researcher, Juliet Mitchell, has shown that “siblings are there in our minds” for all of us, only children included. From as young as six months old, sibling relationships matter as clinical case studies and infant observational studies have shown. Whether these siblings are real, imagined or substituted by others, siblings and their lateral successors are a biological and cultural necessity for our development. Siblings, in their absence or in their presence, change our families and change us. The lessons we learn and the relationships we form with our siblings are not exclusively significant in childhood as we are required to adjust to the arrival of sibling-like figures throughout our lives in many different contexts, such as cousins, friends, foes, peers, co-workers, wives or husbands, and sibling in-laws. Siblings are universal, necessary, and unavoidable. They change our worlds when they arrive. That sounds like a pandemic to me.
Exploring sibling stories…
As a psychoanalytic researcher and psychotherapist, I am interested in what is below the surface: unconscious fantasies, predominant defenses, intrapsychic dynamics and interpersonal relationships. In order to access and understand this, I used two different qualitative research methods: the psychotherapy case study and the psychoanalytic research interview. In this post, I will focus on the eighteen psychoanalytic research interviews I conducted, in which the subjective experiences of individuals from a range of sibling and family constellations were explored. Outside of the psychotherapeutic context, I sat with my research participants on three different occasions, over a month period, for an hour each time, and allowed them to share anything and everything they wanted to about their siblings. I followed their sibling stories, being as non-directive and open as possible, in order to allow the depth that is under their surfaces to emerge. I paid attention to and analysed feeling states, speech patterns and non-verbal interactions, in addition to the spoken content that was shared with me. This research method allowed open and detailed expression to explore the subjective quality and texture of my participants’ sibling experiences.
While various other sibling narratives were identified in the data, material relating to the emotional responses evoked by the arrival of a sibling in childhood was analysed in greater depth to form the focus of this post. My research participants seemed to walk two paths when their siblings arrived and changed their worlds: the fantasy path and the reality path. These responses seem to mirror what many of us initially experienced in response to this pandemic. By taking a closer look at these two paths and how they unfolded for my participants can help us understand the responses to this current pandemic. My psychoanalytic sibling research, then, may offer us some insight into how we cope when the fabric that holds our societies, families and psyches together is suddenly required to change.
Signifiant, unexpected changes
Do you remember what you felt at the beginning of this pandemic? Do you remember when you thought the whole thing would be over in a matter of weeks and we would all go back to how things were before? Little did we know? Or were we just trying really hard to deny this reality? We had heard about Wuhan. We had watched Italy. How could we not prepare for the long haul? Perhaps when our world is suddenly threatened by an uncontrollable, external force, our ability to think, process, and plan is temporarily lost. I remember something similar happening to me and to many people I interviewed about the arrival of their siblings.
Before my baby brother arrived, I tried really hard to minimise and deny the reality that my world was going to change. Everybody told me my world was going to change. I was an ever-observant child and I had watched siblings being born to my cousins and friends, seeing how families changed and attention shifted. That is why I wanted to remain the only girl. I wanted something to stay the same. The overwhelming anxiety I felt as my brother’s arrival drew nearer was expressed in different ways. I repeatedly drew my mother pregnant with a baby in many drawings during this time – just look how unhappy everyone looks!
I pretended that I had the power to determine the sex of the baby growing in my mother’s belly. I feared my precious place as the only girl would be overthrown by another. While I breathed a sigh of relief when a baby boy was born, my place as the baby of the family was still overthrown. Similar to how the arrival of a sibling represented a relational and existential loss for many of my participants as they lost their known place in the family and world, the pandemic has brought loss: loss of jobs, relationships, freedom of movement, sense of safety, dependence on our healthcare system, and trust in our leaders. In the face of these devasting losses, we feel under attack. We feel overwhelmed. We feel the injustices that before we may have been able to ignore. The fantasy is ripped away. Reality hits us in the face and no mask can really protect us. We have two choices: regress back into the fantasy world or face up to the hard reality that life is never going to be the same again.
The fantasy path…
Let’s walk down the fantasy path. My Dad picked me up from pre-school and informed me my baby brother had been born. My heart pounds just remembering this day. My recollections of this time are all-consuming love for my baby brother. The existence of another child confirmed my fantasy that ‘my parents love me so much that they have created another me’. My participants’ recollections also suggested that their new sibling was loved with the resolve of their own narcissism. Participants described their siblings as “my favourite person in the whole word”, “the only person that I need” and “my soul mate”. Others I interviewed recalled all-consuming hate towards the sibling: “My brother and I fought like cat and dog”. “Go. You’re annoying. You’re stupid. Just go away.” Many vacillated between love and hate. One participant said about her sister: “I know you. I see your best and your worst. 24 hours a day.” Another confessed: “I think my brother is an incredible human being, and I think he sucks in many ways too”. Mitchell describes this as “the ecstasy of loving one who is like oneself experienced at the same time as the trauma of being annihilated by one who stands in one’s place”.
Significant change, like the arrival of a sibling or a global pandemic, often evokes contradictory emotional responses that we vacillate between. I experienced both ecstasy and trauma as the pandemic began to set it. The rollercoaster of loving lockdown and then hating it flung me around daily. When the hate consumed me, I felt personally attacked, even though every person was experiencing the same pandemic. I purchased excessive amounts of tinned beans, forgetting or not even caring who else needed to eat. I questioned whether the virus was real or constructed to manipulate us. When the love consumed me, I felt like I lived in a magical world where swans and dolphins had returned to the canals of Venice and the skies were finally clear of air pollution. In this fantasy world, it is easier to absorb fake news and conspiracy theories as if they are truth.
The problem with the fantasy path is this: it requires the defense mechanisms of idealisation and devaluation to keep the fantasy alive. When we start to split the world into all-good or all-bad, we do not see things for all the complexities they are. We dissociate from the contradictions inside and outside of us. We reduce others to just one thing – my friend or my enemy. The creation of us–them dichotomies means we become polarised as we take sides. We want to destroy that which we hate or we resist change as we rigidly hold onto something that was once good. Yes, we may momentarily feel “less vulnerable in an uncertain world”, but the uncertainties and the problems in the world remain. As humans, we tend to repeat but we do not repair. This means we have to invest and reinvest in the fantasy path in order to keep ourselves and our world together.
The reality path…
I know the fantasy path helps us to avoid the most painful feelings, but the reality is that significant change will come and it often requires that we change too. In order to do so, we must surrender our idealisations. It can be hard to give up the defense of idealisation. As one participant mused “Sometimes I wonder, do I have my rose-tinted glasses on? Maybe I do put [my brother] on a pedestal.” By taking off the rose-tinted glasses, we can begin to integrate the good and the bad, the love and the hate, and the ecstasy and trauma, that all change inevitably brings. Whether that change is the birth of a sibling or the unexpected arrival of a global pandemic, it is not just happening to me. I am ordinary in that it is happening to everyone but I am also exceptional as my response to it will be deeply personal and unique. For me, this pandemic and the conflict it has evoked has made me look outside of myself, after spending a lot of time only thinking about myself.
The arrival of my baby brother did the same to me, and did the same for many of my research participants. We had to mourn the idea that the world revolved around us. We had to feel the traumatic loss of this fantasy. We had to find a new way of being in the world, as well as a new identity. We had to learn to think about another person’s needs and create spaces for them. We had to share in a world where there are so many differences and tensions and oppositions. In doing so, we gained healthy narcissism, empathy for others, and the ability to negotiate change in a way that considers others. Thank you, siblings. Thank you, pandemic.
Where to next?
The global pandemic has changed our collective world. While the lockdown may ease, borders may open, vaccines will be developed, it is here to stay. All that we can do is adapt, make changes, and be changed. But how do we do that? It starts with staring in the face of our personal and collective trauma. Then, we can weave together new societal, family and psychic structures that extend beyond only thinking about our own countries, our own race, our own family and our own selves. We need sibling trauma to move from pre-social infancy into healthy social functioning. If we look around as we take a pause due to this pandemic, we will see that our current social functioning is too often characterised by narcissism, polarisation, and a ruthless fight for survival. Our global social dynamics show us a divided and conflicted group of brothers and sisters, even as we all face the same pandemic. Can we walk the reality path together? I really hope so. It starts with you and me. It starts with us as brothers and sisters.