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.