‘My children are fighting each other’

Nice for Darren (now 17), thought Nathalie (47) when she was pregnant again with a boy, Maurice (now 15). But her sons play and don’t make trouble together. On the contrary! “My husband and I have even considered living separately, and we each take a child with us.”

Nathalie: “I had just returned from my lunch break at work when my eldest son Darren, 14 at the time, was on the phone in a beeping voice. “Mom, I think it’s okay if you come home now.” There was deafening silence in the background as he continued, “I think you should take Maurice to the doctor.” I could tell by his voice that it was serious. Without asking what was going on, I grabbed my things and drove home in a heartbeat. On the floor of the living room I found Maurice, dead white, with the kneecap in an unnatural position on the side of the knee.
Ever since they were toddlers, I’ve been afraid of this moment, the moment when one day one would really hit the other in the hospital. Or the other would damage one permanently. Darren stood still in the doorway. Without asking him anything, I gave him a furious look, called the GP to signal to the emergency room that we were coming, and told both boys that we wanted to talk about this tonight.”

Busier and more primitive

‘Boys will be boys’ was the response of family, friends and colleagues when I told Darren and Maurice’s early primary school years that my sons were literally fighting each other. Or that building a Lego castle usually ended with a nosebleed or a tooth through a lip. I understood the reaction: boys are often busier and more primitive in their behavior than girls. But with us the struggle assumed very violent forms almost every day.
When I was pregnant again more than a year and a half after Darren and we were having another son, I felt like a queen. With Maurice still in my womb, I fantasized about how my children would soon be playing football together in the garden, or playing with dolls for all I care, plotting wicked mischief together. But from day one, Darren, then 2, found it complicated, a baby in the house who also wanted attention.
The first time I caught him being mean to his brother, Maurice was only a week old. My husband Roel had left for work, and while Maurice was sleeping in the cot next to my bed after dinner, Darren was watching a movie in our bedroom. I waited for the maternity nurse to come and fished out only a load of laundry ten steps away. When I walked into the bedroom, Darren pressed the sheet under which Maurice was sleeping close to his chest and pushed. It looked so well thought out that I was shocked. ‘It’s not allowed Dar, it hurts’, I faked laconically. At the same time, I called myself to order: Don’t panic. He was 2.5 and completely unaware of the gravity of his action. But it didn’t sit well with me.”

Argued and bullied

“As Maurice grew older and began to play more and more independently, Darren’s behavior only became more somber. Whenever he anticipated that Maurice would play with a certain toy, he quickly grabbed it first. Or he pulled toys from Maurice’s hands, knocked him over, or scared him. Conversely, from the age of three, Maurice was not kind to his brother either. Sometimes he would scream out of nowhere and make up about his brother hitting him. I don’t know if it was a reaction to Darren’s behavior that Maurice had been fighting all his life, or if he would have acted like that if he had been the oldest. On the other hand, wasn’t that also a little bit involved? Arguing is good, children learn to deal with conflict. And didn’t I look too much into it? Children under the age of eight cannot yet put themselves in a different position, so arguing and ‘bullying’ were probably not intentional.
My gut knew better: things pretty much didn’t add up between the boys from the moment Maurice was born. And the older they got, the more I realized it probably never would. I had to adjust my expectations. The two best friends who played evil together would never enter our family; I couldn’t count my blessings with more than a truce. I looked jealously at my sister who had two daughters between whom there was never a cross word. And to friends who spent entire afternoons drinking because their kids were having fun with each other. Not that it was only war at home, but the boys never really got along.”

Wonderful guests

“During a camping holiday in France, Roel and I thought for a moment that the tide would turn. The boys were now 10 and 8 and had been playing non-stop for days without arguing. They spent whole days in the pool, playing football with camping friends and enjoying themselves. In the evening they were simply too tired to argue, we joked with each other when they went to bed without murmuring and the peace for us continued undiminished. Would harmonious times then come? Until, on the fifth day of the holiday, I was startled awake by a loud bang in the awning followed by a hysterical scream from Darren. Maurice had hit him in the face with a folding chair. Darren had a thick lip and a bump on his head. It didn’t work out for the rest of the vacation. The boys only had to look at each other to argue. Everything was cause for struggle. Who will wash the dishes. Who was allowed in the hammock next to the tent. Who was allowed to take the football. It was driving me crazy. It was no longer possible, I concluded, and called a pedagogue when I got home.

I had of course mentioned the many arguments and fights between my children. For example with teachers. But they didn’t notice any problematic behavior; as long as the boys weren’t together, they acted like little angels. I talked about it with the doctor. But he euphemistically called my descriptions “monkey love”. In addition to interacting with each other, Darren and Maurice also really developed into nice, smart, relatable guys. They had many boyfriends, did well in school and behaved like real team players on their soccer team. ‘Delicious guests’ was the verdict everywhere.

Family constellations

“The teacher was the first to take my story seriously after that summer of camping. She deduced from separate conversations with the children that both Darren and Maurice were constantly under tension, always afraid of the other’s smack. Something I knew deep down, but hadn’t wanted to hear. Intelligence tests, ADHD tests, social-emotional examinations followed. After that, she could only conclude one thing: A family therapist was needed. There was simply no clinical reason for the hatred between the children.
Video footage of the dynamic entered the house. Family constellations. After a year and a half of occasional therapy, it resulted in a lot of educational insight for Roel and me. It turned out that with every contact between the children, we already assumed an impending argument. But the bond between our children did not grow warmer. However, the physical violence largely subsided as they learned to channel their negative emotions. And that they didn’t have to visit each other all the time; playing on their own or with their own friends was also okay. The result: if one was down, the other was usually up. The only real conversations that took place were during dinner under the guidance of Roel and me.”

Fighting on the grave

“Of course, it was not all doom and gloom in the family ranks. At first glance, we functioned as an average family. At Christmas, the boys could really enjoy a civilized gourmet meal without the spatulas flying over the table. We went to the movies together, where Darren and Maurice just sat next to each other and didn’t even argue about the popcorn. We walked in the woods on Sunday with the dog without the boys turning his stick into a weapon to fight the other. But it was rarely really relaxed. Unnoticed, Roel and I had become masters at always choosing activities where there was the least chance of an argument. Where there was no competition and the boys were not too close to each other. And then we lived a lot of the time with bales that squeezed, waiting for the flames to strike again.
I had nightmares about reports to the Youth Care Service and wondered every day if I was that bad as a mother. It wasn’t like that, the pedagogue and psychologist happily assessed. We simply had to deal with two characters in the house who simply clashed and could do with some ‘pedagogy’. The highest attainable for now was that they tolerated each other – and who knew how their bond would develop when they grew up. ‘Well, they’re still fighting on our graves,’ Roel sneered regularly. Still, we continued to draw hope from every pleasant moment between the boys. Although such a moment meant at most that everyone was sitting at one end of the sofa, the dog was impartial in between.”

Good sweet peace

“And now there was that kneecap incident – which ultimately turned out to be the result of a clumsy affair over a broken phone charger. That night I held a family meeting with Maurice in a brace. I no longer tolerated aggression in the house. If the boys could not keep their hands to themselves, they had to feel the consequences in another way. More than once Roel and I had discussed the possibility of continuing in a lazy relationship. Not because we wanted to, but for the sake of the children. Maybe it would bring peace to tent if the boys lived separately We hardly dared to think about it, but it was time we put the options on the table.
‘Divorce?’, the boys screamed in unison, when I told them that I saw no other way to bring peace and, above all, security in the house. ‘Not us, you’, replied Roel dryly – and I could hear the emotions in his voice. The unthinkable happened: Darren and Maurice burst into uncontrollable tears. They didn’t want to break up at all, they sobbed in unison, and they were sure to mend their lives. Roel and I were speechless. How could they possibly hold back now? What if I had dropped this bomb a few years earlier? It could have saved us years of trouble. And damn it: The situation got better.
Darren and Maurice are still not friends, but they tolerate each other – just as the psychologist predicted. Since Darren started secondary education last year, and the boys don’t see each other at school, they really only have contact during dinner. Sometimes I even see them having fun, and recently Maurice suggested that the four of us go to Catann. It was very nice. Very carefully, Roel and I hope they were just spicy kids and that the boys will do much better as young adults. I have learned to temper my expectations, I am already resting in good peace.”

Text: Jorinde Benner. All names have been changed for privacy. The real names are known to the editors.​​​​​​​
Photo: Getty Images

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