Sibling Rivalry

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Siblings: My brother and I as kids.

Siblings: My brother and I as kids.

I don’t have sisters, but I’ve always heard people talk about the unbreakable, immeasurable bond between female siblings. But there is also something about sisters that they all share: jealousy and cattiness. They all say “oh my sisters is my best friend,” but they can envy each other like no ones business. I recently read this article in Redbook, one of my many magazine subscriptions, that illustrates this concept.

My Sister, My Frenemy
These siblings who compare everything from their kitchen faucets to their cup sizes will make you feel (relatively) normal.

By Lucinda Rosenfeld

My two older sisters and I are all undeniably adults now. We have families of our own, careers of our own, homes, cars, mortgages, and lovely gray hairs of our own. We are also close — we talk on the phone or email nearly every day. And yet, the sensation that we’re competing against one another for some grand prize has never entirely gone away, and mostly, I feel outranked and outrun. The list of categories is endless. Who has the best marriage/career/figure? Who’s the best dressed/the best traveled/the best parent with the smartest/cutest/most gifted and talented kids — as well as the nicest fridge? I’ve recovered (more or less) from not getting into the Ivy League college attended by my oldest sister, 25 years ago. But the fact that she got her kids into a better elementary school than my daughter’s is a fresh source of angst. A year ago, my middle sister announced she’d gotten a prestigious new job. My first thought was that I was happy for her. My second was that I was the only sister without an advanced degree. I was clearly the “dumb one.” That, in turn, reminded me that my sisters, in addition to getting better grades than me, outdid me on the SATs by many hundreds of points. Twenty-five year later, why do I still remember anyone’s SAT scores?! That’s the crux of sibling rivalry: It doesn’t matter how far you’ve come; the past was always just yesterday.

From what I can gather, my sisters feel competitive with me too. True to my family reputation as the “fancy sister,” I’m the one with the Brooklyn brownstone. Since I write from home, my sisters seem to think I have an annoyingly easy work schedule for a mom. Also, I’m the tallest of the three — by one measly inch, but still.

Even typing that last paragraph made me feel slightly insane. Is something wrong with us? Is our cycle of one-upmanship typical? In search of answers, I talked to other sisters to see if they, too, felt as if they were still duking it out in the center ring. I quickly realized that sisterly competition is the norm, not the exception — and that the things we get worked up about are often the most absurd. I suspect that the bean counting will follow all of us to our assisted-living facilities. The best we can do is try to maintain some perspective — and laugh accordingly.

For many sisters, it seems, the intense competition they experienced as children gets projected onto the next generation. Translation: Little cousins are unwittingly pitted against each other. Take Kelly*, a fund-raiser in Boston. She hadn’t been pregnant three months when her younger sister announced that she was pregnant too. “I got my nose out of joint a tiny bit,” admits Kelly, who, despite being incredibly close to her sister, felt that her thunder had been stolen. When both of their kids were preschool age, Kelly’s sister and brother-in-law started throwing around the genius word in regard to their son. “That really annoyed me too,” says Kelly, “but I can’t tell if it was because I think genius talk about little kids is stupid or because I felt threatened that my daughter wasn’t a genius!” These days, Kelly feels jealous that although her daughter learned to read first, her sister’s son is a more avid reader. Then again, says Kelly, “My daughter plays pretty good tennis and guitar, and I feel more proud of that in front of my sister than anyone else!” So they’re even — or almost. (In truth, Kelly hasn’t entirely forgiven her little sis for asking some of her close friends to be bridesmaids. “I was like, ‘Get off my life!’”)

But wait, it gets nuttier. Jemma, a lawyer in Denver, was tweaked by the fact that her younger sister breast-fed both of her babies forever. What’s more, her sister could pump so much, so fast, that she breezed back to work after her maternity leave. By contrast, Jemma could barely eke out two ounces a session and spent half her workday sweating it out in the ladies’ room. Never mind that Jemma was fully aware of how ridiculous it was to be competitive about breast milk: She still felt as if she’d lost the “Mother Earth” derby.

Looks and weight bring out the inner Olympic competitor in Amy, a fashion merchandiser and the oldest of three sisters in Los Angeles. It began in college, when her younger sister suddenly turned into a major hottie. “I remember going to the beach with my old high school friends over the summer,” Amy says. “My sister was wearing a bikini, and all the guys were like, ‘Who is that?’ Her bathing suit felt like the worst thing that ever happened to me.” Now they’re both married with kids, but “every summer we have that silly thing — who’s the skinny one?” And who is the skinny one these days? “I feel really chubby right now,” Amy says, not laughing. “So she’s winning.”

No one really wins — we just jockey for position continually. Catherine, an editor in San Francisco and the younger of two girls, says her sister was a straight-A student and musically gifted, while Catherine was held back a year and failed miserably at the cello. Eventually she began to get good grades, and she also won a state title in cross-country. “But I still feel one-upped sometimes,” Catherine says. “When I got a new job at a magazine, I was excited, and my family was too, until my sister announced that she also had a new job — at the White House!”

Often, the catfight is about who has the most Purina in her bowl, so to speak. Tammy, a teacher in Miami, always feels like the poor relation when her older sister, an executive in Silicon Valley, is around. By coincidence, both sisters had their kitchens redone around the same time. Tammy was thrilled with the results — until her sis visited. “She asked, ‘Where’d you get your sink faucet?’” says Tammy, sighing. “When I told her Home Depot, she said, ‘Interesting. Well, I splurged on a Perrin & Rowe. It was two grand, but I couldn’t help myself.’” For weeks after, Tammy had to remind herself how happy she’d been with her kitchen before her sister had laid eyes on it. Similarly, Amy had to keep reminding herself what an “amazing, beautiful wedding” she’d had — after she found out her youngest sister would be serving lobster rolls at her own ceremony. (Their parents had nixed the same idea for Amy’s reception, citing the cost.) Of course, it wasn’t really about the lobster rolls — it was about being Mom and Dad’s favorite, the Golden Child.

Melanie, a stay-at-home mom in Chicago, can relate. When her extended family gets together, she often catches her older sister rolling her eyes at their parents over things Melanie’s small children do. “Like, if my baby throws his sandwich on the floor, my older sister gives my parents a look that telegraphs, ‘My kids don’t do that.’” Melanie also competes with her sister over who has the better (handsomest, funniest, most successful, best mannered) husband, wardrobe, and home decor — all in search of their parents’ seal of approval. “I love my relationship with my sister 98 percent of the time,” reports Melanie. “But I spend the other 2 percent just hoping she doesn’t sell me down the river!”

My parents factor in my own sibling decathlon as well. I was the last of my sisters to get married and pregnant by many years — years that, for the record, I still feel insecure about. During that time, my parents went from being middle-aged to senior citizens. When my elder daughter was born (she just turned 5), they weren’t quite as available for babysitting as they once had been. Every time I hear that my sister’s twins, now older and nearly self-sufficient, have spent the night at Grandma’s house, my heart shrinks with resentment. What gives?

I called Adele Faber, coauthor of the best seller Siblings Without Rivalry, first published in 1987. She said it goes back to early childhood and the jockeying for parental attention after a new sibling is born: “From that moment, you get less of the miracle that is the parents’ love — also less of their time, less attention, fewer laughs, fewer smiles.” And why do sisters in particular care so much? According to Vikki Stark, a family therapist in Canada and the author of My Sister, My Self, “Women’s identities are more rooted in connections. Brothers can be tremendously competitive, but if they’re not getting along, they just say, ‘Eh,’ and write the guy off. When women have problems with sisters, it troubles them. They think about it; they try to work it out.”

Stark has a handy trick for dealing with sisterly gatherings: “Make a mantra for the event, like ‘Dignified, cheerful, calm.’ Repeat it on your way over in the car and all through dinner. It will center you.” More generally, she advises identifying your own role in the family — and choosing not to play it anymore. “You can decide, ‘I’m not like this with anyone else, and I’m ready to start changing.’ You can also decide, ‘My sister is always going to make that comment, but I’m not going to give her the keys to the button cabinet anymore.’”

And yet, based on my own experience, I wonder if sibling rivalry, in addition to being a major stressor, might also be a great motivator. I suspect that I wouldn’t have the full life I have (kids, house, husband, three books published) if I hadn’t been so desperate to keep up with my super-achieving big sisters. It also seems that competition has kept my two sisters and me as close as we are, since we never stop keeping tabs on the nitty-gritty of each other’s lives. If you’ve ever watched runners waiting for the gun to go off at a track meet, you’ll notice that they’re all crouching, shoulder to shoulder. That’s how I see my sisters and me, except we’re arm in arm.

Lucinda Rosenfeld’s most recent novel is I’m So Happy For You: A Novel About Best Friends.

My daughters have something I never did: a sister.

My daughters have something I never did: a sister.

So my question, to those of you with sisters, is this true? I have a brother and we used to be fairly close, but things have changed as we have grown up and gone our separate ways, but there is no jealousy there. He is who he is. He is that little boy I grew up with, only now he had a great job, lovely wife and an awesome home. I actually wish my children and I could be more involved in his life. I don’t look at him and think about my weight. I don’t look at him and think about who is smarter. I know there are areas where I excel and areas where he excels. I’ve always cherished being able to team up and share those areas.

Is that just me and MY brother? Is that all brother/sister combinations?

I’m not sure, but what I do know is that my relationship with my brother and my husband’s relationship with his brother and sisters is the main reason that we are happy to be parents to two wonderful little girls. Whether boys or girls or a combination, we knew how lucky we were to have awesome siblings growing up and we are glad we are able to share that special bond by providing our children with each other.

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