Getting Beyond 'Mom Still Likes You Best'

Many of us with brothers and sisters remember those knock-down, drag-out fights that can sometimes happen between siblings. As adults, scars from those battles — both physical and emotional — may still linger. Host Michel Martin talks with author Jane Isay about the dozens of siblings she interviewed for her new book, Mom Still Likes You Best, and the ways they overcame childhood resentments to forge lasting grown-up relationships. Mother — and sister — Jolene Ivey also joins the conversation.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

Whether your brother's a star football player or your sister always got to sit in the front seat, everyone who has a sibling understands the drama of sibling rivalry. Siblings enrich our lives in so many ways but they can also get under our skin like no one else can.

Writer Jane Isay has investigated what makes these relationships work and why they sometimes blow up in your face. The result is her new book "Mom Still Likes You Best."

Recently, Isay joined Michel Martin and regular TELL ME MORE parenting panelist and mother of five Jolene Ivey, to talk about the book and Isay explained why her book is subtitled "The Unfinished Business Between Siblings."

Ms. JANE ISAY (Author, "Mom Still Likes You Best: The Unfinished Business Between Siblings"): Because I've come to understand, after interviewing almost 100 people, that adult brothers and sisters often have issues with each other that keep them from feeling good about themselves or about their relationship. I think most people that I spoke with do have unfinished business, and the business that's unfinished is what happened in their childhood.

MARTIN: What role do you think parents play in this scenario?

Ms. ISAY: Parents play a tremendous role. They can't legislate how kids feel about each other, but they can work hard to keep the playing field level so that the kids dont feel that there's a favorite or that things unfair are happening all the time. And Jolene, I dont have to tell you this, when you get a group of children in a room unsupervised, there's a lot going on there that grownups dont do.

MARTIN: That speaks to one of the points that you make in the book about one of the best things siblings so this is often where people really learn how to relate to other people. It's really not so much the adult relationships, it's the peer relationships, it's how they get along with their brothers and sisters that really matters.

Ms. ISAY: Well, its absolutely true and I think that's the great gift of siblings. Parents are the authority figures; that's vertical. But learning how to react when somebody takes something from you or when somebody's unfair. All of the peer relationships that happen in school in college and at work, if you had the experience dealing with your own ambivalence and keeping the relationship going with your siblings youre much better off in the world.

MARTIN: Jolene, have you noticed this?

Ms. JOLENE IVY (Delegate, Maryland State Legislature; Co-founder, Moca Moms): Well, one thing I do with my boys, if I notice that one of them is favoring a friend outside the family and being a little bit mean to his brother, I'll have to take him inside and say you know what? Your brother's always going to be your brother. This friend, you might be friends with him today, but 20 years from now you might not remember this kid's name. But your brothers are the people who are going to remember what you were like when you were - when they grow up, they're going to look back and say you were mean when you were a kid and you dont want that.

MARTIN: Jolene, tell me a little bit more about this whole phenomenon of kids sometimes preferring people outside of their own family. That's assuming the family's functional.

Ms. IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: Because, you know what, sometimes there are good reasons to prefer people outside of your own family. I think we should just be honest about that. But go ahead.

Ms. IVEY: I dont think there's anything wrong with having good very close friends who you love very much outside your family. I think that's healthy. The problem comes if you are mean to your own sibling. If you maybe want to not share your toys, you dont want to share with your brother but you'll share them with a friend. That's when we have a problem.

MARTIN: Jane, you talked about the role of difficulty, and even trauma in some cases, in bringing siblings together. And you interviewed a number of people for this book who had come from some difficult situations. And you talked about, and its almost in a way counterintuitive but you say that trauma actually drew a lot of siblings together. Tell us more about that.

Ms. ISAY: Well, when something terrible happens, especially when one of the kids has troubles, in the right circumstances the parents help them to draw together and be caring and kind. When brothers and sisters collaborate in doing something good for the family, that makes the bond so much richer.

MARTIN: Jolene, tell us more about that. In fact, I hope you dont mind, you know, sharing this - weve talked about this, that one of the reasons you think you and your brother are close is that your mom left when you very young.

Ms. IVEY: Right. Right. Absolutely.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit how you think that affected your relationship?

Ms. IVEY: Yeah. Well, I think that my brother at the time, he was six and I was three, and we were kind of thrown together. I mean my poor father, if you think about it, his wife left him. He's got these two kids to raise by himself. He's got a job. What's he going to do? And I'm sure he had his own issues. But because my brother and I had each other to rely on, we were able to really bond pretty strongly and we're still great friends. Weve certainly had our ups and downs. I mean, we fought like cats and dogs, sometimes; but overall, I think we made it into a positive experience.

MARTIN: How do you think Jolene, you forged that kind of bond in the absence of tragedy because frankly, what happened to you is not something, you know, you want to wish on anybody. Are there ways do you think you can encourage the siblings to look out for each other in the absence of something that dramatic?

Ms. IVEY: Yeah, intentionally because my kids have had an easy life and I'm worried they won't be close friends. They're not going to have this kind of forging experience. And so, a couple of things weve done is like send them on trips with each other. So the 14-year-old and the 17-year-old recently went to New York together. Just the two of them, they went to New York. They explored the city, saw friends, spent the night with somebody and came home the next day. And that might not be a real big deal, but Ill bet most 14 and 17 year olds have not had a trip like that together - unsupervised.

MARTIN: But why do you think that's important to do? And how do you decide who spends time with who? Because frankly, it's just often the case, just because kids are born into the same family and might have the same values and outlook doesnt mean they have the same personality and they'll get along.

Ms. IVEY: Oh, they dont have the same personality, those two in particular, but I think it's important for kids to be unsupervised by their parents, sometimes, because it's those activities that they do when youre not around that will give them memories for life. Now you dont want them to be some of the horrible things that Jane mentioned in her book, where kids torture each other - I'm not talking about that. But to get on the bus together and have to figure out how we're going to get around when we get off this bus? What are we going to do? So they bond together because that is their challenge.

MARTIN: Jane, talk a little more about that, if you would. You do point out in the book that there are some situations where siblings have been horrible to each other. And in fact, recently an issue that's been in the news, the actress and talk show host Mo'Nique disclosed that her brother had abused her.

Ms. ISAY: Yes.

MARTIN: Sexually abused her when she was a child. And he recently admitted it, years later, and apologized for it. But what about that, in situations where siblings have just, for whatever reason, been horrible to each other? Do you think it's important that they try to repair the breach because you can see a situation where she just might not want have anything to do with him? Can you really blame her?

Ms. ISAY: I can't blame her and I also think that we all have a choice. If we want to find a way back to each other, we can, so long as there's a single thread of love between the siblings who ward all their lives. One of the people in my book was sexually abused by her brother, and over the years they found a way of rebuilding that relationship and it's one of the most heartwarming stories I've ever heard.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Jane Isay about her new book "Mom Still Likes You Best," about the trials and tribulations of sibling relationships.

We're also joined by Jolene Ivey. She's one of our regular contributors through our parenting roundtable, and she's a mother of five and also a sibling.

And Jane, a major turning point for many siblings, I think everybody would agree, is the illness and the death of a parent.

Ms. ISAY: Yeah.

MARTIN: How did many of the people you interviewed deal with this situation? And all of us are going to have to confront at some point if we haven't already?

Ms. ISAY: Well, I think before that parent dies, there's that period where the grown kids have to take care of an elderly and ill parent. And this is one of those bell weather moments. People who dont get along, sometimes do and the bond that they form when they're collaborating in caring for their parent makes it possible for them to continue the bond after the parent dies, but when a brother or sister walks away from helping to care for a sick parent, that is a breach that's hard, very hard to repair.

Once the parents are dead everybody gets to choose how they're going to be without the picture in the mirror of the mom or the dad kind of listening or thinking and that is the moment of great choice. One of the things we have to be sure of - those of us who are alive - is that we dont leave wills that break up families, favoring one child, cutting a child out of a will, those are really, really hard to overcome.

MARTIN: Jolene, have you talked with the boys about this? Obviously they're young and youre young and this is not an imminent reality, one hopes, but Jane talks about the importance of talking to your children about what you expect and want of them after youre gone and I just wonder if that's ever come up?

Ms. IVEY: Well, it hasnt come up with, you know, the thought of me or my husband dying, but it has come up with my father. He lives with us. He's 91. My dad is so open about death. He talks about it all the time, almost to an annoying extent. But he's got everything laid out and we all know what everybody's getting and, you know, I think that that's been a positive thing. He'll come to me sometimes and say okay Jolene, I'm dead. What's the first thing you do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: Who do you call? So we're prepared.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, Jane?

Ms. ISAY: Yes.

MARTIN: In our last couple of minutes, everybody isn't so well prepared or as articulate as Jolene's dad.

Ms. ISAY: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you also point out in the book that there's some relationships that are just fraught. You talk about siblings who love each other but dont like each other. And I'm sure that a lot of people can relate to that. And you encourage people to have something called like a Sabbath truce, where people could try to just keep it civil.

Ms. ISAY: Yes.

MARTIN: But, you know, that's just really hard for some people. So I want to just ask before we let you go, why do you think it's so important that people forge some kind of civil relationship with a sibling? Because a lot of people in our culture just say, you know what, cut off people who are toxic.

Ms. ISAY: Right.

MARTIN: And if you think this person's toxic in your life, they should just go. Why do you think it's so important to try to hang in there?

Ms. ISAY: Because I found that when people break off with a sibling, they suffer from phantom limb. And even if you give up on them, which some people really ought to do, you feel bad about it. So my point is you have a choice. One thing is to say I'll never see that person again. The harm is just too serious. Another thing to say is it's really hard so I'm just going to be satisfied with what I call the wedding and wake relationship. We'll hug when we see each other and be glad when we say goodbye to each other. That's also a perfectly reasonable relationship with your siblings. But if there is a spark of something that makes you think I'd really like to know this person a little better or talk about the dog or remember the songs we sang on interminable car rides, it's worth a shot if you feel like it.

MARTIN: Jolene, I'm going to ask a final thought from you, because in addition to being a mom, a wife, a sibling; youre also a political leader. Youre an elected official and so you engage in complex negotiations all the time over very difficult issues. Have you found anything in your relationship with your sibling that has helped you to function in the political arena, or is there something youve found in the political arena that's helped you work things out with your sibling?

Ms. IVEY: Well generally speaking, I find that if you just try to be really really nice as much as you can, but then when that doesnt work anymore then you get kind of sharp. And that usually works. People dont like to mess with me too much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay.

Jolene Ivey's one of our regular parenting contributors. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Jane Isay is the author of "Mom Still Likes You Best: The Unfinished Business Between Siblings," and she joined us from our bureau in New York.

And I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. ISAY: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

KEYES: And that's it for today. Im Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

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