Questions for Jane Isay on Mom Still Likes You Best
Q: What made you decide to write about siblings?
A: I kept hearing bits and pieces of difficulties with brothers and sisters from the people I interviewed for Walking on Eggshells. I began to notice that many people feel that they don’t have good enough relationships with their siblings, and this is a source of worry and concern. Over time I came to see that this is another part of our lives where pain is accompanied by silence, and so there’s no relief. I wanted to see if I could understand more about the dynamics of closeness and distance, by listening to sibling stories.
Q: Was writing your second book a different experience?
A: I understood the stages of writing such a book, from listening, to germinating, to drafting and rewriting. And I knew that it would be possible for me to complete the task. But this book was more difficult to write because it took a long time to understand the core of sibling relationships. So I spent days and days struggling with the issues and feeling less than smart. Then a wise friend said to me: "It’s when you feel stupid that you’re doing your best thinking--you are at work solving the puzzle."
Q: How did your life as an editor help you?
A: I know how to formulate research and how to structure a book. That was a big help. Happily I can switch hats at will. So first I can be a writer, struggling to get something down on paper, and then I can be an editor, rewriting and polishing until the cows come home. The other great benefit of my time as an editor was the knowledge that other people might have useful advice for me. I treasure the readings from my friends and mentors.
Q: Was the research different?
A: This time I went deeper into the country, interviewing more people from small towns and far-flung communities. My website and some press interviews made that possible by introducing me to a wide audience. It was fascinating to see how similar families are, although they may seem extremely different on the surface.
Q: OK, so what did you find?
A: I believe I located the crucible in which our sibling relationships are formed: it’s the nursery or playroom, where kids interact without adult supervision. That’s where we behave well and badly, where we learn to deal with loving and hating our siblings at the same time. It’s where we are challenged to manage ambivalence. I think this is the lesson of siblings: we learn to deal with imperfect situations.
Q: Strong feelings are at the core, even when we aren’t close as adults?
A: You bet. Most of the interviews contained what I call the Just-So Story, a vivid memory of kindness or cruelty that formed the basis of the relationship. We remember these stories because they help explain why we feel the way we do. But if the story is sad or painful, we may at some point decide to look at it in a new way--it’s called reframing--and that often improves things. Many stories in the book show the wisdom of trying this out.
Q: Do close brothers and sisters start out that way?
A: Not necessarily. Some of the worst relationships improved when the siblings switched roles, the younger helping the older, for instance. Sometimes people fight their way back to each other, and sometimes facing life’s challenges together creates a permanent bond.
Q: I can’t understand how my sister and I could have come from the same family; we have such different values and see the world so differently.
A: That’s a puzzle, but it helps to remember that one of the things siblings do is differentiate themselves from each other. One woman I interviewed had a father who led the local high school band. Guess what? All the kids played different instruments. We naturally grow up to be different people. The paradox is when people who grew up together disagree about fundamental values. They take it personally.
Q: Are relationships different in big families?
A: Yes. In larger families, brothers and sisters tend to group themselves according to age. If there are many years between the oldest and the youngest, their experience in the family may be very different. In large families, older kids take responsibility for the younger ones, and the younger ones idolize their big brothers and sisters. There’s more competition for attention and material things, but they also aren’t so intensely tied to the parents, and they rely more on each other.
Q: How can parents get their kids to love each other?
A: That’s a hard one. You can’t legislate preferences and affinity. You can teach them something about dealing with conflict, and you can stay out of their fights--up to a point. You can work hard to show each child that you see him or her as an individual. Comparing siblings to each other isn’t such a good idea, and neither is "typing" your kids. The pretty daughter may resent the smart one, and they won’t be close until they shed their designated roles.
Q: Is it possible to heal rifts that have lasted a lifetime?
A: Sure, most of the time. As people get older, they may long for some kind of closeness with their siblings. If they can accept their own part in the difficulties, or understand the context of their shared childhood, they may extend a hand and receive a positive response. It takes perseverance to rebuild a broken relationship, and the last chapter in the book tells some heartening stories.
(Photo © Robin Holland)
PRAISE FOR MOM STILL LIKES YOU BEST
“Isay observes sibling dynamics with a psychologist’s eye while forgiving transgressions between brothers and sisters with a mother’s heart.”
, Professor, Dartmouth Medical School and author of Dying Well
“Here is human understanding offered by a wise and thoughtful and clinically savvy writer who helps us take notice of how we get on with one another as boys and girls, brothers and sisters—a Tolstoyan observer, with keen intuition and a compelling command of the art of storytelling, helps us readers look back, look inward, and thereby understand how we become who we are.”
—Robert Coles, M.D.
, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard Medical School and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book series Children of Crisis
"If you have a sibling, you'll see yourself in this inspiring book. Isay's observations are keen enough to make you see your mistakes, kind enough to let you forgive yourself, and hopeful enough to make you want to put the book down and call your sib right away."
, author of Odd Girl Out
and The Curse of the Good Girl
“Jane Isay's lively exploration of the sibling relationship in all of its complicated varieties is both incisive and benevolent, offering the reader new ways of understanding, repairing, and sometimes even transforming this profoundly important human connection.”
, author of I’m Too Young to Be Seventy and Other Delusions
“In Mom Still Likes You Best
, Isay explores the unknown territory of adult sibling relationships—both the best and the worst of them. Her keen observations of adult brothers and sisters and her fresh and profound ideas about this terra incognita give readers an opportunity to laugh, cry, identify, and, ultimately, to love their siblings more deeply."
—Mary Pipher, Ph.D.,
author of Reviving Ophelia
“Finally, a long overdue mapping of sibling relationships across the life span and how the passionate alliances and painful competitions of early childhood shape our adulthood. Of special interest are the changes that occur when siblings marry and later, when siblings gather to support their aging parents. A lively and revealing account of intimate family life which touches us all. Highly recommended.
—Judith Wallerstein Ph.D.
, family researcher and author of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce
"This is a very thoughtful and helpful book, one enhanced by anecdotes and images but offering no easy answer. There is much to savor here."
—Library Journal PRAISE FOR WALKING ON EGGSHELLS
"The stories are heartwarming, and Isay recounts them with intelligence and compassion." —Publishers Weekly
, starred review
"Ms. Isay's portraits have nuance and pathos and there is much to learn from." —The New York Times
"Achingly honest." —O, The Oprah Magazine