My sister Anne and I were not close growing up. Anne was the oldest. I was a duplicate. She and I were jealous of each other. There was so little parental engagement, and we four kids were like hawks, always hunting for a scrap to eat and squawking if another bird got it.
From my perspective, Anne got all the attention from Mother, and I had to work to find ways to gain Mother’s notice, to feel the warmth I longed for and was sure emanated from her if I could just figure out how to turn it my way. Like most kids, we projected our expectations onto an image of our mother. Neither of us had any idea that Mother’s miniature supply of devotion and nurturing was not the same as most other mothers are filled with. Anne’s view was that I was elbowing her aside, a crafty thief acting with a competitive motive of getting attention away from her, and she resented it.
Our mother had only enough nurture and protection for one, herself, and there were four of us kids.
By high school, Anne and I were very different and had no friends in common. She was quiet and an excellent student and never any trouble to our parents. On the other hand, I found a substitute family in a group of kids who were from families as broken as my own. We were outliers, the high school hippies.
As a teenager, I was home as little as possible, and my parents didn’t seem to care or wonder where I was. I generally stayed out all weekend, and no one said a word. Looking back, I’m a little surprised I lived through it. I put myself into dangerous situations and sometimes didn’t care what happened to me. I was needy and lost; I latched onto one sad boyfriend after another, but no amount of love or obsession could fill the hole in my heart.
I took long walks. I wrote poetry. I listened to music and spent long periods of time alone trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I thought I was building a self when I was at least as much self-destructing. My parents had little comment beyond one conversation in which my father told me he could trust Anne to take care of herself but he didn’t have any faith in me. I was trouble, and their hands-off, not-my-problem strategy for dealing with troublesome kids was the same one they used for compliant ones.
When Anne left for college, I hardly noticed. She came home as infrequently as possible. I don’t think I ever wrote to or received a letter from her. We were both undernourished and ill-confident and self-absorbed, and we had never been shown that family mattered.
After I moved to Texas when I was 18, Anne and I never even temporarily lived in the same town again. We didn’t talk often and didn’t see each other more than once every year or two until Mother moved to Atlanta when we were both in our thirties. We were pleasant to each other, but that was all.
Our relationship changed only when Anne let go of her hopeful assumptions about our mother and began to realize that she did not fall within the range of normal, loving mothers like Anne had always assumed she was. Anne began to recognize that she had misplaced the responsibility when she blamed me for trying so hard to get Mother’s attention. Anne and I started talking more often and having more substantial discussions.
I learned a lot from Anne in these conversations. Her two sons are about eight years older than my two, and when we started talking, her sons were young teenagers. One of Anne’s revelations was that she couldn’t understand why Mother had virtually abdicated her role when we were young teenagers. At the time we didn’t have a way to know better about how good parents operate. But now that Anne had teenagers, she couldn’t reconcile Mother’s past apathy and inaction towards the four of us with her own continued involvement in her children’s lives.
As Anne realized, teenagers still need lots of support and guidance and oversight. They aren’t fully formed. They’re all insecure and uncertain. They can’t raise themselves. They need parental involvement. Why, Anne wanted to know, did Mother not instinctively want to function as a loving and protective mother? Why wasn’t she wired to nurture and to view us as lovable charges who needed her guidance and interference and understanding, even when our ages reached double digits, even if protecting us was stressful or demanded some self-sacrifice? As Anne and I talked, we had to admit that she was not that much more involved when we were younger.
Anne and I are close now. We talk often, though all too frequently it is about our frustration with Mother’s oblivious self-absorption: her latest unreasonable demand or fear or another instance of her expecting us to act as her problem-solving marionettes or the most recent example of her lack of interest and love for her family. Our closeness, our sisterhood, was late coming, but I am grateful to have that relationship now.
Anne has pointed out that our parents never showed us that family was important. She thinks it’s not a coincidence that the four of us kids have ended up in distant cities, many hundreds of miles from each other. One year at the beach when my older son was seven, Anne took him along to a minor league baseball game with her family. I stayed back at the house with my younger son, but I really appreciate that she wanted to bring my son along with hers. We haven’t had much opportunity to blend our families, and she has taken the lead on this. She has thought of ways to create the family we never had growing up. In fact, the family beach trip was her idea, and she took on the annual challenge of wrestling with Mother to persuade her to continue to fund it.
I am not suggesting that my mother wanted to keep her children apart. In fact, she believed we would be the close companions she’d read siblings would be. But she had no sense that her actions might play a role in our relationships or in the development of our sense of self. She just could not grasp that kids need attention and understanding and that motherhood includes self-sacrifice that the mother does not resent giving. Trapped in the black hole of her stresses and needs and fears, she had no way of knowing that it’s hard for kids to be close when they are perpetually hungry for maternal love and attention and protection.
It’s not her fault that she is oblivious to even her children’s needs. She has no foundation for empathy; she just isn’t built to support it. I know that, though it is so hard to face.
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