Both of my daughters have now officially reached double digits, and it is still magic watching them interact. Observing them together, I have at times been awed to witness moments of the purest tender love - and, on other occasions, been convinced that sibling rivalry is hardwired into our DNA.
How does a parent nurture that sibling bond? This is continually at the front of my 'mum: to do' list. Raised with an older sister and two younger brothers in a time when large families were the norm, I realise that today siblings are no longer a given for many families, and the once vast array of combinations and permutations of the sibling bond within families is greatly reduced. Dare I say it? In today's world, the sibling bond has become more special - in purely quantitative terms at least - and as such, siblings should never be taken for granted.
My daughters were very similar when they were born 24 months apart. Both weighed in at just under 2.7kg. The second one, although slightly heavier at birth, checked out of the hospital a little lighter because I was being a breastfeeding purist and would not allow staff to slip her supplements. They were skinny, no doubt about it. Little birds. But this was just a fleeting moment. I soon noticed - and I would not have believed if I hadn't had the second child - that they were gaining weight all right, but differently. Very differently. And this was a scientific study. The variables were kept constant: nothing but breast milk for nourishment, nothing but snuggling, sleeping and wailing for activities. By the ages of four and two, my elder one was the slender ballerina; my younger was the solid, rough 'n' tumble one.
Early on, I entertained the idea that I'd guide the second girl in the direction of sports appropriate for her body type. I thought of competitive swimming and martial arts. But like all little sisters, she idolised the older one, so she too grew up to love to dance - and she looked just as cute in a tutu.
But as my daughters are now into their double-digit years, their innate differences, which had only seemed slight a few years ago, are becoming more pronounced. The youngest is now firmly ensconcing herself in the world of sports, keen on netball and soccer, and now into rugby. The eldest is stepping up her dance and other performing arts pursuits. As mum, I am always on the lookout for that middle ground, the place where they can grow and develop their common interests. The solution in this case - gymnastics. They are both doing well and love it, of course, but there is trouble on the horizon: next year the youngest will go into her big sister's gymnastics class, and then they will compete against each other. They are talking about it now - or should I say, bickering?
The rivalry - or this 'not-to-be-left-behind' attitude - is reflected in many other ways. For instance, when my eldest went off last summer on a month-long peace camp, the youngest was putting in Facebook friend requests with her sister's campmates even before the camp had ended. If one gets a modelling job, the other all of a sudden starts checking her own portfolio photos and asking for updated shots.
In my nuclear family, there is only this one sibling bond, so you would think it would be fairly easy to focus on it and nurture it. I do try to 'engineer' the solid foundations of the relationship to an extent. This engineering can be as subliminal as an old, black-and-white photo of my own sister and myself together as children, placed strategically on the shelf next to the school photo of my two girls.
At other times, it can be as subtle as a sledgehammner: 'YOU were born to be a big sister and YOU were born to be a little sister. Accept these roles; it is your destiny! What that means as you grow up is up to you. As grown-ups, your 26-month divide will mean nothing. When you grow up and need your sister, she will be there for you. Please remind yourselves how lucky you are to have a sister - and stop fighting!'
It seems a hopeless task at times, nurturing this sibling bond. But I must be doing something right. I have noticed a pattern developing of late. When one sister is in the doghouse with her parents, so to speak, it doesn't mean it's a chance for the other sister to gloat. Nowadays, the not-naughty sister will look on sombrely and often offer a word in her sister's defence. It is becoming a trend. So now, they appear to be ganging up on me. Perhaps my gut tells me it is something I should be grateful for.
It is exactly what I hope will happen when they are all grown up - and when all they have left of this family is each other.
Karmel Schreyer is a freelance writer and mother of two