My College:
Family Life

Sibling Relationships

Marlene Kern Fischer

A child’s departure for college is not only a big adjustment for parents; it means big changes for younger siblings as well.

When my oldest son left for college, I wondered how that would affect his two younger brothers and the relationship they had with each other. Like most mothers, it's extremely important to me for my children to be close to each other and I was concerned that physical distance would negatively impact their bond.

Although the dynamic between my sons did change, it wasn’t in the ways I anticipated.

The most immediate and obvious difference my son’s departure produced in our house was a lower decibel level and strange sense of calm. Without the daily din created by my oldest, who had a strong personality as a teenager, there was less fighting and less stress in the house and I have to admit that part was kind of nice.

However, we all missed him terribly, and “When is he coming home?” became a constant refrain from the other two boys. My youngest son literally marked off days on a calendar until his oldest brother returned and would greet him with heart-warming enthusiasm. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder and, although my boys’ fighting wasn’t completely eliminated, hostilities thankfully never returned to their pre-college levels.

I also noticed that an alliance formed between my younger sons after my oldest son’s departure. Realizing that their ranks were dwindling, they grew closer and seemed to understand they were stronger with a united front. My youngest assumed a stereotypical little brother role, always wanting to be around his brother, and, to my middle son’s credit, he tended to be very understanding, playing with the youngest when they were alone and allowing him to join in sports, board and video games with his friends.

Meanwhile, no longer in the shadow of his older brother, my middle son came into his own and seemed to mature overnight. He had more of an opinion about things and was eager to share those opinions. He began performing better in school and growing socially. He seemed to enjoy snaring some of the spotlight — in a positive manner — which my oldest had monopolized.

When it was my middle son’s turn to leave for school two years ago, my youngest discovered he disliked being alone in the house. I get it; it’s hard to be the only child when you’re not used to it. There’s no one else to play with or blame things on, mom is extra focused on you and your homework, and it’s just plain lonely. He became closer with our dog, with whom he hadn’t really bonded previously and took it the hardest when the dog passed away this past year. Every night, before he goes to sleep, he closes his brothers’ bedroom doors so he won't have to see their empty rooms.

I try to be sensitive to his feelings, having been the youngest in my family as well, but I remind him that being the last one at home has positive aspects as well, like my always being available for rides, homework help and anything else he needs. His older brothers would add that he gets away with things they didn’t; however, I’d argue that at this point my husband and I are just more discriminating about the battles we’re willing to fight and less likely to sweat the small stuff.

The evolution of technology over the seven years since my oldest left for college has been tremendously beneficial for my boys’ relationship. They keep in touch via group texts, Facebook, Snapchat and probably other forms of social media of which I’m not even aware. I know they tell each other things they don’t share with me. My oldest and youngest even play video games against each other remotely. I'm thrilled when I hear they’ve been in contact — a mom’s greatest pleasure is knowing her kids are there for each other.

In many ways the separation has been a positive thing for my sons’ relationship with each other. I see them working harder to stay in touch and forging common interests beyond brotherhood. They try to attend big occasions, like graduations, and even some small ones, like sporting events and concerts to cheer each other on. They seem to enjoy each other’s company more when they're together and no longer take each other for granted. My older sons relish being able to give the youngest advice and sometimes pinch hit for my husband and me when we're weary or need backup. The oldest even wrote a blog post giving his youngest brother life advice.

I'm happy to report that a child’s departure for college does not signal an end to their closeness with siblings; the bonds formed through all those years of shared experiences will endure and may even grow stronger. Despite not always living in the same house, my sons have grown closer in recent years and I hope that trend will continue. I have confidence that wherever life takes them they will make each other a priority. After all, in the future who else will be able to reminisce with them and compare notes about their nutty mom and our family?

Marlene Kern Fischer is a wife, mother, food shopper extraordinaire, author and college essay editor. She has published two books: Trapped in My Sports Bra and Other Harrowing Tales and Gained a Daughter but Nearly Lost My Mind: How I Planned a Backyard Wedding During a Pandemic. Find her on Facebook at Thoughts From Aisle 4.
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