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"I Have Had Some Experience in the Sibling Rivalry Department"
Melissa Joan Hart has it all together. Well, that's her image, anyway. Mostly, it's the characters she's played. She's still known all over the world as Nickelodeon's Clarissa, who had all the answers and "Explained It All" to an audience of millions each week.
Now, she's Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, who may not know it all, but who could -—if she chose — make all her issues disappear with a flick of her finger.
"My fans still think I have the answers to everything," she concedes.
The TV image isn't too far from the real life Melissa. She is a totally upbeat young woman who believes in tackling her issues head on, by talking them through. Though at twenty-two, she's been through it all -- friendships, relationships, school stuff -- the issue she's most experienced in is the family thing. Specifically, sibling stuff. She ought to be: Melissa's got six sisters and a brother. What's it like to grow up in such a huge brood? As she relates, there have been some amazing times, and there have been some sucky ones as well.
If you thought being from a big family was all fun and games, you might be in for a surprise. And if you are one among several sibs, maybe you'll relate to some of what Melissa went through.
The upside: "I have built-in best friends."
"I'm the first born in our family; in April 1999, I'll be twenty-three. After me comes Trisha, who's twenty-one; Elizabeth, eighteen; Brian, fifteen; and Emily, thirteen. Our more recent arrivals — after my mom remarried — are Alexandra Hart-Gilliams, five, and Samantha, who was born in November 1997. Since I've always been the oldest, it's hard to imagine life any other way. It was always a thrill whenever a new baby arrived, always having another one to play with.
"I never wished to have fewer siblings. I actually thought having such a large family was normal. I grew up in a small town with a large percentage of Catholic families — everyone had a lot of kids. I mean, families with seven or eight kids weren't uncommon. I had one friend who was an only child. The only thing I was envious of, was that she got to be closer with her parents than I could — she was almost like a friend to them. But otherwise, I felt sorry for her. She must have been lonely. I never was!
"I especially loved having so many sisters and my brother when we'd go on vacation. We drove to Florida a lot, and I always had someone to do stuff with. Like, if I wanted to go down to the pool, I never had to go alone. There was always someone willing to go.
"For the most part, I had built-in best friends. We ate together every night, and at bedtime, it was like having nightly sleepovers. Sometimes we even pushed the beds next to each other, so we could all sleep together, because we were scared of everything we were such wimps! We'd check under the beds, and behind the closet doors, and make sure the hall light was on and the door was open just the right amount. Lots of kids are scared of the dark, scared to go to sleep; we were lucky that we had each other to be scared with!
"Of course, there were fights. But the wonderful thing about growing up in a large family is that whenever you get into fights, you have teams. It's more like we're debating than fighting; and it makes the conflicts less personal, because when you're all in it together, it's more about what's right than about hurting someone's feelings.
"And because there are so many of us, there's always someone to protect you, and the sides are always changing. I usually protect Emily because she's the youngest of the bigger kids, and everyone picks on her. That's another thing about big families — we all look out for one another."
"We bickered sometimes over clothes, but not that much. Most of the time, we all got our own new stuff — except for Elizabeth, who got all the hand-me-downs. The only 'clothes-encounters' I remember was when someone would 'borrow' something of mine without asking. Actually, they still do! Now that I have my own place, I have to search them before they leave — make sure they haven't absconded with any of my stuff. The truth is, I never really minded that much, except when they took something that didn't even belong to me, that I'd borrowed from a friend. That's when it became complicated. To this day, when I can't find something, I'm quick to accuse one of my sisters of taking it, before I really know if it's true. "
The downside: "I've always been a sharing person -- I never had a choice."
"Of course, the thing with best friends is that you always have that best friend/worst enemy dynamic happening. The competition between kids closest in age is usually the most intense, and that was true of me and Trisha. In the beginning, we both started out in showbiz together, so we were both auditioning. That made the competition worse. It was her decision to quit. And to this day, she's the only one in the family who doesn't act. Instead, she was able to have the most normal schooling — she's in college now — and probably the most normal social life.
"Things became difficult right after my parents' divorce. Before that, we lived in a house in the suburbs. Afterward, my mom and five of us moved to a small apartment in New York City. I've always been a sharing person — clothes, toys, rooms — I never had a choice. And I didn't know about privacy, growing up — it wasn't an option. All that intensified when we moved.
"In that apartment, we all had to share one bathroom — it was so small you could brush your teeth, use the toilet and take a shower all at the same time! That bathroom was the most coveted room in the apartment, not only for obvious reasons, but because it was the only room with a lock. So there was always someone in there, and always someone else banging on it to get in.
"Trish and I clashed over our bedroom, which we shared. It was small to begin with, and we'd fight over space. I admit I took most of it. Our styles were so different! Her side of the room was all Laura Ashley; on my side, I put the mattress on the floor, painted the walls with bright designs, and had all these long 'Clarissa' necklaces hanging all over the place.
"Naturally, we fought over everything having to do with that room — who was being too loud, whose music was better, when to shut the light for bedtime. We'd 'resolve' our differences by yelling at each other — or by running to our mom.
"There was one really intense fight we had. Now, we laughingly refer to it as 'the family embarrassment.' We were all in a nice restaurant in Los Angeles, at a corner table. I guess there was some tension between me and Trisha, because she was trying to get a stray eyelash off my face, and pinched me deliberately. So I punched her!
"But looking back, I have to say that it was really in our preteen years that Trish and I defined our differences and kind of ignored each other a lot. It was almost as if we purposely didn't want to mix our lifestyles."
"There are people who'll always be there for me."
"Sometimes in big families, the parents sort of give each kid an identity — but we did it ourselves. I'm the creative one; Trisha is the intelligent one; Brian is the athlete; Emily the cute one. Then there's Elizabeth, who was the middle child for a long time. She used to be the quiet one — I mean, I don't remember her talking when she was a kid — and the one who was pushed around sometimes. It was almost as if she said, 'Hey, wait, I need to stand out, and be different.' And when she turned fifteen, she suddenly got loud! Anyway, she's great at drawing, arts and crafts, painting, so she's now the artistic one. As for the babies, well, we're not sure about them yet.
"One thing we all learned early on was to speak up for ourselves. No one holds his or her feelings in, everyone's up front. Even when rude things are said, you always know what the deal is and can start resolving things. One tactic we use now is to just take a 'time out,' walk away from a conflict. It isn't easy, but that's what we do. Most of the time, when we cool off and return, we end up laughing about it later. Being very open with each other is another bonus of having such a large family. I'm not afraid to do anything in front of my brother and sisters.
"Because of Clarissa Explains It All, and now Sabrina, I've been the most well-known one in the family. Which has been a mixed bag, to say the least!
"For the most part, my siblings have not been jealous, instead, they've been very proud. And I never felt guilty about it, because there was a time, after my parents split up, that we had no money. And, because I'd just gotten the part of Clarissa, I was the one supporting the family. Don't get me wrong, I would have taken the role anyway, no matter what our circumstances had been. But there was a little extra pressure on me in those days. I mean, I couldn't let my family go without while I was making money. Luckily, that situation didn't last very long. My mom and I formed a production company, Hartbreak Films, my brother and sisters were acting, my mom remarried, and things got better pretty quickly.
"Some of my younger siblings would 'use' the fact that Clarissa was their sister to make friends at school. That bugged me, so I told them to stop. And there was Trisha, who used to be embarrassed that I was Clarissa. We look enough alike so people were always questioning her, and eventually she got over it. Now, Trisha's thrilled at the way things have worked out. She's glad she's not in showbiz. And the truth is, there were times I was jealous of her. At first, I couldn't handle the price of popularity, the loss of privacy. It took a while to get used to it, and to learn to deal with it. These days, Trisha and I are best friends, we talk all the time.
"Having so many siblings has helped build my confidence. Even now, when things get hard and I think — what do I have? There's something very real: my family. And because of them, I'll always have close friends. Those are the people who'll always be there for me. For the first time, I feel like my life is almost perfect."
Copyright c 1999 by Randi Reisfeld and Marie Morreale. All rights reserved. Published by Scholastic Inc.