Growing Up, My Little Sister And I Were Super Close. Then We Had Kids Of Our Own

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It’s hard enough navigating adult familial relationships, but when you raise your own children, your family narrative re-jiggers its complex web of archetypes. The bossy oldest. The passive aggressive middle. The rebellious youngest.  The confronter. The silent judge. The avoider. We’ve all reverted to our childhood roles once or twice at the Thanksgiving dinner table – and those moments are never good ones.

My younger sister and I are markedly different. Always have been. She knew from a young age that she would be a doctor – had mad skills in math and science. I was the “creative” one, writing and directing parodies of 80’s stalwarts Dallas and Solid Gold for us to act out while my dad videotaped us with a first-generation video recorder. Growing up two years apart, J. and I were very close and rarely had conflict.

Our adult lives have been more complicated. We are both moms of two kids under age 5, but we go about parenting very differently. I’m known in my family as the indecisive one, and J. as the effective, get-it-done type. It’s my default setting to assume I’m not doing the right thing, especially when it comes to parenting, whereas J. appears totally confident that she never makes a mistake.

I find her seeming inability to worry or question decisions with regards to her kids fascinating, as no mothers I know have that level of surety. Her ability to be practical and not obsess are admirable in a way – how many mothers do you know who decided right away not to breastfeed and never looked back? It must say something about our relationship that she is unable to share her insecurities about whether she feels okay about how her kids are developing physically and mentally; otherwise, she just doesn’t have them. Either way, it makes it hard at times to relate to her, as I’m a big sharer about my own kids’ traits – both positive and negative.

Part of our difficulties may be that we live in different parenting cultures. I’m in New York, which can have an aggressive, my-kid-needs-to-be-the-best-at-everything kind of vibe. Not that everyone in my world subscribes to that philosophy – I personally try not to – but it can and does pervade our lives and creates a level of competition for physical space, preschool spots, getting the good stuff (from babysitters to weekend activities). J. lives in the same place we grew up in – a smaller city in Pennsylvania where everyone seems to know each other, and where her kids do many of the same things we did as children, from camps to parks and museums. It is a lovely and safe place in which to raise a family. And, yet, I chose not to, much because I find the options and lack of anonymity I’d have limiting. And I know J. wouldn’t dream of putting up with the insanity we deal with in New York.

So both of us should be happy for the other that we have chosen well. But, instead, we have some envy and judgment for how the other operates.

I think in my family it may be partly about simple sibling rivalry and a desire for each of us to be recognized by our own mother. My mom has always been as fair and measured as possible with each of us – never allowing one sister to complain about another to her, or talking badly about to us to the other. So perhaps J.’s and my sizing each other up has more to do with that – not getting clear messages about how we are doing from our own mom. But does it all come down to a continuation of our own childhood needs for validation?

I have a good friend who grapples with a complicated relationship with her sister, who is older and had kids first.  My friend D. subscribed to attachment parenting principles, where she was exhausted physically and mentally from years of breastfeeding and co-sleeping. Her sister was and continues to be extremely critical of her choices, and vehement in telling D. how she makes mistake after mistake with how she parents. D. felt she was making an investment with her son, while her sister saw it was a sacrifice. D. and I wonder together why her sister couldn’t just listen and understand her reasons for not being able to separate from her son with compassion and without chiming in aggressively, like she personally had it all figured out.

Why is it so complicated for sisters? Why is it so hard for us to just be there for each other without feeling the other’s mistakes so acutely? Why do we judge each other so harshly?

I really have no answers except that raising kids is bloody hard. To the core! None of us really knows what we are doing. Seriously. And it’s difficult to feel confident that you’ve got it together, because whenever you do you’ll no doubt get kicked swiftly in the ass. So instead of looking around for confirmation, I think I’ll just stumble down my parental path, doing my very best, and trying not to judge – my sister or myself.

(Photo: Ryan McVay)