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The Joys and Sorrows of Sisterhood

Sisters are sisters forever -- even if you see each other rarely or not at all. There are always reasons to express -- or suspect -- not only enduring love but also enduring resentment.
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"I wish my younger sister would visit me," the woman I was interviewing said. "We see each other pretty often," she explained. "She lives near my parents, so I always visit her when I visit them. But I want her to see where I live and where I work, so she'll better understand me and my life."

Hearing this, I squirmed in my seat. My own oldest sister, Naomi, had been urging me to visit her, pointing out that it had been several years since I'd been there. I wanted to, but I never managed it. For one thing, I was busy working on my book, and Naomi lives in the Adirondack mountains, nearly two hours' drive from the nearest airport, while I live in the Washington, DC area. My longing to see her was satisfied when she came through Washington, or when we met at the home of our third sister, Mimi, who lives in between us, just as she's placed between us in age. I didn't see why visiting Naomi in her home was such a big deal. But as I listened to the woman I was interviewing, Naomi's complaint made sense, and my failure to hear and honor it made none.

Like a medical student who diagnoses herself with every disease she studies, I saw myself in many of the frustrating-sister stories I heard from women I interviewed for You Were Always Mom's Favorite!, my book about sisters. Sometimes I'd check with my sisters: "A lot of women say that their younger sisters don't do their share of work; they just sit around and expect to be waited on. Do I do that?" I was relieved when they pronounced me innocent. But when I showed them each an early draft of the book, I was stunned to learn that they saw me in anecdotes that I hadn't connected with myself at all.

In one anecdote I described in the book, a woman was driving somewhere and realized she was lost, because the directions her sister had given her were leading her astray. She kept feeling as if her sister had done this on purpose. Even though logic told her it was untrue, she's never been able to shake the conviction that sending her on a wild-goose chase was exactly what her sister had intended to do. I included this example to show that even between the closest of sisters -- these sisters are very close -- "sister-suspicion can co-exist with sister-support." It's easy to suspect a sister of seeking revenge for the many times you frustrated her.

I was genuinely surprised and chagrined to read the comment Naomi wrote in the margin next to this example: "Like the time I was sure you spilled coffee on me on purpose." I called to assure her that spilling my coffee had really and truly been an accident -- one that happened decades ago! Yet now, as I write this, I laugh out loud to think that my sister could have suspected my motives -- and maintained that conviction over all these years. (Yet I can't help wondering whether my finding it funny means that on some subtle level it tickles me to think of spilling coffee on my oldest sister!)

Many offenses that women reported were more serious. One woman, Jill, told me how bad she felt that she had unintentionally hurt her sister. Jill and her husband had stayed with her former brother-in-law when they visited the city in which he lived. Her sister had said this would be fine, but it turned out not to be. Jill's sister hadn't realized she'd be upset when Jill stayed in the home of the man she had recently divorced. I included this example to illustrate the concept of alignment: invisible cables that connect family members, like lines connecting the dots in a children's drawing book. Jill's alignments to her sister and to her former brother-in-law conflicted. It was clear that the alignment with her sister had to come first.

I had another surprise in store-one that doesn't make me laugh at all; it makes me wince and wish I could go back and do things differently. After reading that example in the draft of my book, my sister Mimi said that she had felt the same way: she'd been hurt when her former husband moved to a city where I lived, and I saw him socially. "But you said it was okay," I said, echoing Jill. And, like Jill's sister, Mimi explained, "I thought it was. I didn't know it would bother me, but it did."

That happened over 30 years ago. I doubt Mimi thinks of this often; she's been happily remarried for nearly as many years, and she knows I would never intentionally hurt her. Yet that's another thing about sisters: you're in each other's lives for good. A spouse you've divorced is no longer your spouse. But sisters are sisters forever-even if you see each other rarely or not at all. Because you have so many conversations and experiences behind you, there are always reasons to express -- or suspect -- not only enduring love but also enduring resentment. That's why a word from your sister can send you into a tailspin, when it wouldn't have bothered you coming from someone else.

During the last year that I was writing You Were Always Mom's Favorite!, I was aware of the irony that I couldn't see my sisters because I was busy writing about sisters. As soon as the book was finished, two of the first things I did was meet Mimi in New York and visit Naomi in the Adirondack mountains-in her home, on her turf.