Domestic Intelligence

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Sisters: love and rivalry

Reflections on the power of sibling love and rivalry

When my older daughter was five she leaped out of school on a bleak February afternoon holding a heart-framed photo of herself, a treasure and a gift. Surrounding the Styrofoam frame were sequins and stars and beads and the meticulous, uneven letters declaring, "To Mommy, on Valentine's Day". It was too precious to hand over to me. Instead, having her fill of private admiration, she waved it in front of her 18-month old sister: "See what I did at school." She was delighted by her little sister's excited interest, but as the toddler reached out for it, the older sister whipped it out of her reach and declared, "You could never do this. You're just a baby. And you can't touch it. Ever." Her real Valentine passion was for her sister, who also had to be taunted, put in her place and rejected. Sister-love is like that, and what we learn from sister-love tells us a lot about love in general. It's mixed.

By the time I was five years old I realized that my sister played an all important role in my life, and that other people didn't grasp this.
The first realisation dawned when my handsome and rakish uncle came to visit. My sister and I had the welcome routine choreographed to a T. We'd each grab one shoulder, and settle into the crook of one arm. We could hug him and kick one another at the same time. He had a cleft chin that was replicated in my face, but not my sister's, and once he sat down, I would bag the best place on his lap, the place from which I could look up and view his chin when he talked, and appreciate this similarity that turned a feature I often disliked in the mirror into a sign of a special connection.

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My uncle could be relied upon to give us good presents - nothing large, but always exciting. Once he brought me a hilarious wind-up duck. When it had completed its routine, I asked him what he had brought my sister. "The same as yours," he said, stroking my hair. "I always give you two girls exactly the same thing."
This narrowed my world, took out the magic. I had been looking forward to seeing a variation, to enjoying the difference and perhaps brooding over the different qualities. "Just the same" was boring. When I complained to my mother afterwards, she said, "Well, he doesn't have children. He doesn't understand. And anyway," she said, launching into a different and less sympathetic argument in a very annoying way, "he probably didn't want you two to get in another of your awful fights."
Without sister fights, life was dull. Marion liked them because she was bigger and stronger, and, when things were really going well for her, she got a satisfying bit of my flesh between her teeth. Black and blue marks would later show up on my arm or leg, and I could display them to my mother, and watch her darken with disapproval towards my sister and soften with sympathy towards me. Once I showed my sister first, and she gasped, put one hand over her mouth and another on my "wound". She liked to attack me, but she was also protective.

Underlying all our interactions was a strong sense of identity. We may have been individuals, but we were always one of a pair. The second realization that "sister" meant something very special to me came when we visited the doctor for check ups and vaccinations. I'd be as interested in her blood tests as mine. Once a nurse took me to task: "What are you shaking your hands for?" she demanded of me. "Your sister's the one who's getting her finger pricked."
I froze, and suddenly noticed that my hands were suspended in mid air. I'd been shaking them frantically to ward off the on-coming pain. What difference did it make whether the target of her needle was me or my sister?

But I often felt towards my sister something very different from sympathy. I eventually learned to name some of my feelings as envy. My sister's virtues and talents called up love and admiration; they also slapped me hard, left me stunned, my head buzzing in a vast emptiness. This added to my guilt, because in its grip I felt capable of destroying the person I felt I loved most.
.Even today, whether she is telling a joke, decorating a house, or offering a consult to a patient, I find I am partly admiring her wit, her creativity, or her skill; but I am also locked in a room whose features I wish to ignore. In that room, I breathe a soulless air that smothers any assurance as to my own abilities, connections and status. The feeling is primitive and terrifying, but I now understand that this what we learn with our siblings: the terror of being displaced, the confusion of loving and hating the same person, and the necessity of living in a world with other people who are like us and with whom we have to compete and share even those things on which our life depends.

I went through a period during adolescence when I pretended I wasn't interested in her, when I pretended that we weren't close, I wanted to do different things, refused to take an interest in whatever interested her. I now understand that I was engaging in common sister behaviour: I was creating "contrast effects" to make sure I was different from my sister. Just at the time girls work hard to fit in with their friends, they work just as hard to be different from a sister, as a way of sharpening their identity.
But it is also unsettling when a sister undergoes sudden change. When I was still comfortably in childhood, something strange happened to my sister. I saw my sister's body change, and I took note of her many private conversations with our mother, and heard our mother's whispered conversations to our father. My sister appeared self-absorbed and self-important, and no one in my family was willing to reprimand her for this. "Who does she think she is?" I inwardly demanded.
Later, my sister was to explain that she resented, suddenly, being an object of curiosity to me. She shut her bedroom door when she dressed, she wouldn't let me come into the changing rooms with her when we went shopping, and she stopped inviting me to go swimming with her. "You made me self-conscious. You kept staring at me!" She herself felt betrayed, because she was no longer the sister that her little sister knew.

I tried to replace my sister with my friends. My friends, I thought, would not tax me with such ambivalent feelings, nor would I have to compete with them in my home. Surely the relationship with a friend to whom I was a close as a sister would be safe.
But then I ran directly into the awful cliques of girls' friendships in late childhood and early adolescence, when the dynamics are in constant flux and competition is rife, and the girl everyone loves today is the girl who tomorrow is ostracised for being "stuck up" or "thinking too much of herself." Among our friends, we have to continue learning what we learn with our sisters - which relationships are complicated, that we are sometimes ferociously annoyed by the people we love, that others' success and pride can be difficult to take, however much we admire them.

In the course of my research on sisters, I heard many interesting sister stories, but among the most compelling is that of Gina and her older sister Sam. In her late twenties, Gina suffered kidney damage and her only hope for a life free of the constraints of dialysis was for a kidney transplant. Sam was tested, and found to be a match. "When I heard this," Sam told me, "I felt two things, right at the same time. I thought, `Well, good, that's solved,' and I also felt as though chains were being clamped onto me. I wanted to run as fast as my legs would carry me. There was only one choice. I mean, there was no choice. But it was still difficult. I mean, boy, was it difficult."

They have both recovered, and are both close and conflicted, as normal sisters are. Sometimes Sam thinks that Gina is insufficiently grateful, and this bewilders Gina: "Of course I'm grateful! But am I supposed to love her like a saint because of what she's done? I would have done the same for her. Can't we just go back to being ordinary sisters, with our ordinary ups and downs?"
It's often difficult to catch hold of the sister knot because of its many strands and complications. "Ordinary" sisters continue to have "ordinary ups and downs", yet I also discovered that grief at a sister's death lingers throughout one's life. When 18-year-old Amy spoke of her older sister who had died three years before, she said, "I feel her inside me. She's a real part of me, still." The attachment and identification, combined with the guilt of our mixed feelings, make mourning for a sibling one of the most long-term.
The sister bond is long-term. Older women remain highly loyal to their sisters; they are stimulated by each other's company. I imagine my older sister as a comforting and infuriating companion even at age ninety. She'll be bossy, but also she'll remind me of what I can do, even when the frailty of age takes over. There are times when I think that no one has greater faith in my abilities or more comprehensive acceptance of my limitations. She has made her mark on me, and not only with her teeth. Like Amy, I can locate my sister's place inside my soul.

Based on my book, The Sister Knot

 

Terri Apter, Ph.D., is Senior Tutor at Newnham College, University of Cambridge. Her most recent book is Difficult Mothers. (2012)

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