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Undone by Envy

Hara Estroff Marano, used with permission.
Hara Estroff Marano, used with permission.

My oldest daughter, 40, just had a baby. Earlier in life she had two abortions. She is engaged to the father and is excited to be a family. My middle daughter, 37, has been trying to get pregnant for a year and is resentful of her sister, feeling that, because of her past, she is undeserving of a child. She refuses to see pictures of the baby and resents me for wanting to see my granddaughter. Fertility tests show no problems. How do I react to her indifference and anger? She has always had anxiety and insecurity. Our family walks on eggshells around her.

Let’s start with what deserves to be recognized: Congratulations. But how dispiriting that what should be an occasion for joy is an emotional minefield and has delivered that most painful parental dilemma—seeing your children at war with each other, whereby any move you make is someone’s ammunition.

At the moment, the emotional needs of your middle daughter are controlling family dynamics. Fertility jealousy is a real thing and very common among women struggling to conceive. Childbearing is a deeply rooted desire, and infertility can breed despair, depression, and a host of dark emotions.

For many, unexplained infertility also eats away at a sense of self. It leads women to feel like failures as human beings, as daughters, as women, and as wives, questioning their own femininity. Given her sister’s ease of conception, infertility could be exacerbating long-ago sibling strife, as second and subsequent children are ipso facto born into comparison and competition. Your middle daughter may experience her problem conceiving as a marker of second standing, a simmering source of resentment.

But like everyone else, she is responsible for managing her own emotions. Choosing to dwell in disappointment does not entitle her to make it the axis on which the whole family turns. Yet her emotional needs have long been accorded priority—those eggshells dictating family interaction patterns.

Adding to the emotional charge, your daughter seems to have crossed a line from garden-variety pregnancy envy into mean scorekeeping—monitoring her sister’s fertility, counting unused passes, and insisting her sibling be penalized for her biology.

Fraught as the situation is, it offers a long-overdue opportunity to restore balance, both to your middle daughter and to family dynamics. Instead of tip-
toeing around your daughter, you can move empathically toward her and help her acknowledge the normal pregnancy envy that she now feels so acutely.

You can use that discussion as a lever to explore all the grievances she collects and counts. Just listening may be all that’s needed, unburdening both of you and releasing years of tension. But it’s possible that deeper repair is required. If so, a round of family therapy could restore to everyone the pleasure of acknowledging family milestones.