Sunday 23 October 2016

You may squabble, but growing up with a sibling should be treasured

Published 27/04/2014 | 02:30

Claire Byrne and fiance Gerry Scollan at 'Hairspray'
Claire Byrne and fiance Gerry Scollan at 'Hairspray'
Margaret Thatcher, and her twins Carol and Mark pictured in 1959. PA Photo.
Claire Byrne at RTE for her return to Prime Time following her maternity leave

Strictly speaking, it's none of my business how many children the lovely TV presenter Claire Byrne and her partner Gerry Scollan may have, or how they may space them.

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Yet, I somehow feel delighted that Ms Byrne, who will be 39 this summer, has announced that she is expecting her second child in the autumn.

She can now look forward to the hectic joy of being a mother to two children under the age of one: her first child, Patrick, was born just last October.

There is a lot to be said for having two children close together. Yes, it can make life frantic for the parents for a while, but as time goes by an economy-of-scale takes over, and it is easier to manage two babies, then two toddlers and then two young children of a similar age.

They can wear – more or less – the same clothes, one quickly inheriting from the next. They can learn to play together, eat together and go to sleep at the same time.

My eldest grand-daughter is just 17 months older than her little sister. Their mother said, very sensibly, when she was expecting the second baby so soon after the first: "They will never remember a time when the other wasn't around".

Sibling jealousy – that bugbear of child psychologists – usually arises only when the second child appears as a conscious intruder upon the first-born's existence.

Say you're five years old and suddenly there's a new baby – a rival in the cosmos of which you are the epicentre.

But if you're barely one when the sibling arrives, you hardly register the fact, and you grow up taking it for granted that there has always been a little brother or sister around.

So I would say that having two babies close together is perfectly sensible family planning. When Margaret Thatcher gave birth to twins, it was remarked that this was another typical example of her competence: two for the price of one made for more efficient use of resources!

To be sure, working mothers have to struggle with issues around maternity leave and child care, and I don't honestly think this is ever going to be different. But so long as you are having to make all these arrangements for one child, you might as well make them for two.

Families and individuals are in different circumstances, and plenty of women either only want one child, or only want one at a time, with several years' space in between.

I know a clutch of grandmothers whose own offspring have just one child and cannot see an opportunity to have another. What with budgets and shift work and the cost of nursery fees, frankly, they can't really afford a second.

Some women also feel that one child is as much as they can cope with, in terms of commitment and energy, and that's their decision. Many societies are now based on the one-child family model – in Italy, Spain and Greece, you will commonly see that: the family out walking on a Sunday, all focused on the adored only child.

And some couples can only have one child. Hillary Clinton has written in her autobiography how disappointed she was not to conceive a second baby – which illuminates her special joy that Chelsea, her one and only, is now expecting a baby herself.

Obviously, there are real benefits to having a sibling or siblings. I was very moved when my daughter-in- law said: "The best thing that my parents did for me was to give me siblings."

Growing up with a sibling, or siblings, is such a treasured experience, and I believe it greatly helps to form character, and even to develop negotiating skills.

When you share toys, and then swap them, you imbibe one of life's most necessary practical lessons – in the interchange of human relations, there has to be give and take.

This is not to diss only children who, anyway, have other advantages: they tend to be higher achievers and benefit from the full focus of parental attention.

And it would be wrong to characterise only children as likely to be selfish: I can think of many singletons who have plenty of innate generosity, flexibility, and understanding of the social skills which are often part of a sibling family.

But the sweetest thing about having siblings is that, usually (though not always: Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland never mended their sibling quarrels), you grow ever closer to them as you journey through life.

Little brothers do fight, and teenage sisters do quarrel over who has stolen whose clothes or make-up, but later on, it's so rewarding to have a sibling or two. And it's the saddest thing in the world to lose them if they die before their time.

A friend of mine who lost two brothers in a short space of time said: "Your sibling is the only person who has known you all your life, once your parents have gone."

Sharing old memories with siblings becomes such a rewarding exercise in old age. I now have no siblings alive, and there isn't a day when I don't think about my wonderful brothers and my fabulous sister and wish, ardently, that I could call them back to life and talk in the old sweet way.

And that, too, is why I am so pleased for Claire Byrne having another baby. It will indeed, as she says, "be great company" for her son Patrick. And for the next 80 years or so.

Mary will be speaking at the Cork World Book Fest today at 4pm. See


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