Sauces, Siblings and a Mental Health Challenge

corn pudding on thanksgiving


Sitting on the couch in our family room, with my left ankle (my Fabulous Fractured Fibula is healing nicely, thank you) propped up an ottoman, I listened to the talk coming from our kitchen.

It was early on Thanksgiving afternoon and our two young adult children, who both love to cook, were busily using up every bowl, pan and utensil we own to prepare their own side-dish contributions. They were squabbling in a friendly way; comparing the merits of mashed potatoes with or without roasted garlic, disagreeing as to how much salt to add to the stuffing (kale and carmelized onions) and debating the merits of gravy versus a demi-glace.

My left ankle was aching. I had spent too much time on my feet the day before the holiday – making corn pudding from a recipe passed down by my late mother (the grandmother my two kids never had a chance to meet), a spinach gratin (where I substituted Gruyère instead of swiss cheese but my husband hated it anyway) and a sweet potato casserole (yes, too sweet, with marshmallows, which our two-year old grandson – a/k/a “He Who Can Do No Wrong” pronounced “yummy”).  I had also set the table and now mid-day on Thanksgiving was gladly leaving the cooking to my family, while I rested my aching ankle.

It isn’t often that I get to hear our adult children talking and laughing together, at ease in each other’s company.

One of our kids, struggling with mental health issues, seems to be doing better, in a place just now of some stability and we are all benefiting from it. His relationship with his sister has had many ups and downs. When he is difficult to be around, she retreats.  So to hear them engaged in a good-spirited discussion over the merits of whose mashed potatoes will taste the best, is rare music to my ears.

Many of my friends seem to take for granted, as I guess they should, the good relationships between their adult children. My friends’ adult children like to spend time together, they stay in touch, get coffee, go to baseball games together.  Sure there is the standard friction that comes with being siblings, but for the most part – Alex and Emily, Rachel and Drew, Daniel, Sara and Josh get along with each other. I a bit jealous of their easily amicable relationships.

That isn’t what happens in many families where one of the adult kids has a mental health challenge and the other does not.

From my years of facilitating a support group for parents of struggling young adults, I know too much about sibling relationships gone awry.  A history of disputes, expected hurts, rude misunderstandings, too often the difficult behavior does not allow for a normal (whatever that is) give and take relationship between siblings. Sure the neurotypical (not fond of that word but it seems appropriate here) sibling cares about his brother or sister who is struggling with her mental health, but caring alone doesn’t create stability between them.

I worry about my kids’ on and off relationship.

NPR had a recent story on how important good sibling relationships are as adults grow older.

 “During middle age and old age, indicators of well-being – mood, health, morale and stress, depression, loneliness, life satisfaction – are tied to how you feel about your brothers and sisters.”

True enough for me, as my sister and I have grown closer as the years pass. We have very different personalities; she’s always on the go, very high energy while I happily sit, reading or writing, for hours (I know, bad for you). But we have similar senses of humor, a proclivity for conversation and an attachment to family. She lives 10 minutes from our 92-year-old Dad while I am six hours away. I count on her for frequent bulletins on his health and happiness. Lucky her, that she gets to see him as often as she does.

My husband is similarly close to his two brothers, one lives close to their 87-year-old mother. They bond by texting, updates on sports scores and frequent “how’s mom doing?” phone calls.

As I write this, our adult children get along – but their ties are tenuous.  My husband and I are their cement. What happens when we are no longer around to serve as the family glue, bringing them together and urging them to make peace with each other as needed? Mental health struggles can challenge the bonds of even the closest of families.

I know, I know, be content with what I have now and don’t do any anticipatory worrying (my specialty)  – especially since I have little control over what the years will bring as to their sibling relationship. As they get older, will they still happily squabble over sauces or will mental health struggles push them apart? I wish I knew.




Filed under 1st Grandchild, Adult Kids, Aging, Baby Boomers, Empty Nest, Family, Holidays, Husbands, Mental Health, Mental Illness, Midlife, Moms, Parenting, Relationships, Women, Young Adult Mental Health

24 responses to “Sauces, Siblings and a Mental Health Challenge

  1. kayrash

    I have two siblings with mental health challenges. One lives with me and I help the other as she needs it. We are 51, 55, and 59. My parents felt guilt and worry about various aspects of my sisters. As a sibling, you do what you can. Especially if you were all brought up in a close, loving family. No family is perfect.

    Sent from my iPad



  2. I saw that NPR story and I don’t buy it. If you dislike your sibling because they are a bad person, or manipulative just because they have the same gene pool doesn’t mean having a relationship with them will help in your wellness in your old age.
    The up side in your family is the mental illness is recognized and accepted. Too often I have seen the excuses, the elephant in the room, when really the person has untreated mental illness.


  3. Karen

    I can so relate to this! I have three adult children, only a year apart, with one struggling with mental health issues since he was little. The other two have had to tiptoe on eggshells their whole lives, withstand countless outbursts and breakdowns, and sometimes even physical violence/attacks. Regardless, they love each other dearly and pray PRAY pray that they’ll have each other’s backs after their dad and I are long gone. BUT, its a burden as well, and for that, I have endless guilt. Thank you Nancy for this blog. It helps to know I’m not alone.


  4. Anastasia McNabb

    Thank you so much for writing and sharing this. (That’s all — and that’s a lot!!)


  5. Kindred spirit in Newtown

    You have a choice. Either you can drive yourself crazy with worry over your kids’ uncertain future and, with all due respect, your inability to control it, or you can ‘BOTO’, which is the unofficial moto of the most amazing therapeutic school ever. It means ‘be open to outcome’, stop trying to control the future, especially your kids, and just let it unfold. Once you stop worrying, you can actually enjoy the ride with them, gifting them more quality time with a happy-relaxed parent. As a fellow prematurely retired atty and type A mom, i know how hard this is to do, it’s a process. But letting go of the stress and the constant worrying, even in minuscule increments (lol) is quite freeing (not to mention healthier for you.).

    Additionally, build that home team for your kids, so that when you’re not around one day, there’s a cousin or close family friend in the mix to referee the mashed potato debate and to support your daughter during her brother’s rough patches.


  6. Kathleen

    There must have been something in the air this Thanksgiving- my bipolar daughter (who has yet to come to terms with, let alone take on management of her disorder) was stable, and she and her younger brother got along well. My kids are 18 and 16, and our last three years have been fraught, from all sides, with my daughter’s disorder, my son’s ADHD and the death of both my husband’s parents. My husband and his siblings, all middle-aged, are dealing with what happens to relationships when the center is no longer there– people used to having parents as the primary coordinators or motivators of a family relationship don’t always have the muscles developed to pick up the roles their parents no longer fill.
    And, when there is mental illness in the picture, everything gets harder. For us, it is my very/too close family of origin who are derailed by my daughter’s mood cycles and immaturity. Their horror at what’s “happened to her”, and the resulting blaming of us and attempts to “fix” her have driven wedges into the foundations of our family structure. For the first time ever, I spent Thanksgiving with only my spouse and kids, as far away from extended family as we could get. There was no huge meal, but also much less stress, and the family time was positive and healing.
    If my daughter had been unstable, would it have been? Probably not. I am to the point where I have no choice but to take the good that I can find, and be grateful for when it works, even if that is only on the most simple level. Will my kids hold the remnants of our family together when we don’t anymore? I don’t have any idea, and I guess, truly, it’s not my issue, but theirs. But it sure isn’t what I thought it would be…


  7. GottliebGang

    Thank you again for touching on a subject near and dear to me.



  8. Would love to know more about your support group. I read a lot of YA and there are some good reads (finally) with teens dealing with mental illness. Always looking for suggestions if you have any book recs (doesn’t need to be YA). We had a good time in Bellingham with the Wolfs!


  9. julie

    Hearing my children conversing like that would be music to my ears. We have the same situation with one child with mental health challenges. The good news is they do speak to each other now so the awkward silence is gone. But an actual conversation showing there was some feeling between them would be heavenly!


  10. Greg

    I don’t have any earth-shattering revelations. I had Thanksgiving with 2 of my favorite nuts- Austin and Judith. Love to Jim


  11. As someone who would love to reconcile with two siblings who refuse to participate, ain’t much I can do. It’s possible that having a difficult relationship with your sibs will make life more difficult in the future, but it’s hardly the only determining factor. And I refuse to let two people who are behaving badly determine how happy I will be.


  12. Joanne Milobsky

    I wish my daughter still had her sibling to spar with…or whatever. Your children and you are fortunate that they will have each other down the road. It is a long one to traverse alone. Joanne Milobsky


  13. Julie Jo Severson

    This really resonated with me. My relationships with my siblings (nine kids ranging in age from 45 to 57) are really up and down, and particularly hard now that we’re all trying to make decisions about my aging parents with difficult health situations. NPR nailed it in stressing the importance of those relationships and it can impact our well-being as we get older. It’s amazing how emotionally tied we are to our roots, even when we try to put a little space there.


    • Julie, luckily I just have one sister and she and I are on the same page as to our aging Dad – though he isn’t on the same page as we are! Always a conflict. Thanks for writing! Nancy


  14. This post resonated with me as well. My one sibling, an older brother, has Asperger’s Syndrome… he is in his mid-60s now, so of course, it was never diagnosed and never treated as a child. He is incredibly bright but due to his lack of social awareness, kept getting fired from job after job after job. I look back and am sure my father also suffered from this. Both of my parents passed long ago. My brother and I are now at the point where he can email me, and we are on Facebook together. However, he cannot call me and of course, can’t see me. He completely and utterly sucks ALL of the energy out of me. He doesn’t understand it, and probably never will, but he took away a lot of my childhood. The last time I spent significant time with him was at my wedding 10 plus years ago. He came up to the altar area, unasked, and started weeping, standing there throughout most of the ceremony. I completely get the retreating aspect of your daughter.


  15. merri

    Hah, finally read this. We wouldn’t know that other families have trials and tribulations unless they have the courage and permission to reveal important, but personal, aspects of their stories. I truly appreciate your openness and honesty about your family members whom you obviously love so much. Thank you, Nancy. ♡


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