I don’t have a sister, but I do have two daughters so I’ve been reading Deborah Tannen’s riveting new book, You Were Always Mom’s Favorite! , from a slightly elevated point of view.
It’s odd watching two sisters grow up together without having been one myself, and I find I’m leaning on Tannen as a kind of user’s guide. Some of what she says I’ve already figured out. The fact that sisterhood is a special relationship that can simultaneously contain the deepest love and the bitterest hate already sounds right from my whistle-blowing position on the field.
“Sisters are inevitably compared to each other because they are often together, and in any case are thought of together,” sounds like a basic, straightforward premise too. But it was the kicker to this that got me. “And comparison is never far from competition.”
Women, in my experience, can be extremely competitive. We tend to play down our own competitive instincts, preferring to think of other people as competing with us as we gently glide above the fray. But when you are going to head-to-head with your sister- elbowing each other out of the way as you race to the cookie jar, finish line, or spotlight-the stakes seem to be that much higher.
The crux of this special relationship lies with the concept of identity and the thought we discussed yesterday about how we define ourselves in relation to our family.
Tannen explains this wonderfully.
We all seek to figure out for ourselves-and show the world-who we are. Having a sister adds an image that you see in addition to yours, when you look in the mirror. You can’t help looking at that other image when you examine your own. A sister is you and not-you. Understanding who you are means figuring out who you are on relation to her. And to find your place in the world, you need to know how close to-or distant from- your sister you want to stand.
I want to hear from more sisters as I continue to try to raise my two. Send me your memories of childhood. Tell me about looking up and talking down. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org . All advice will be gratefully received.
Photograph of Venus and Serena Williams by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images.