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Not What You Imagined: When Your Grown Children Don’t Get Along

Every parent wants their kids to support each other, be each other's memory, and love one another along life's path—but what do you do when that doesn't happen?

Years ago, when I found out I was pregnant with my second child, I knew fervently in my heart that I wanted a girl. There was none of this “Oh, I don’t care if I have a boy or a girl—I just want the baby to be healthy” stuff. What I specifically wanted was for my older daughter, then age 4, to have a younger sister. Lucky me. I got my second girl—and now it’s 20 years later, and I’m faced with the peculiar heartbreak some mothers know when grown sisters don’t get along. 

My Touchstone

When I was in sixth grade, my sister was a senior in high school. I used to carry her yearbook picture in my wallet—she was so glamorous, so pretty, so grown-up. I’d show it off to my friends. Six years apart, we never fought growing up, because she was almost in another generation, always ten steps ahead. I followed like a puppy behind her.

When she was 10 she started piano lessons, and I—age 4—insisted on them, too. She majored in journalism in college and got a job as a reporter; I worked my way through college in part via a writing gig and got a job in publishing right after graduating. (She switched careers after a few years; I, decades later, am still working with words.) For a couple of years, our jobs were in the same office building in New York City. Imagine the chances of that, all those buildings in the vast city, and we worked five floors apart, one of us at a law firm, the other at a publishing house.  

She moved to Brooklyn; I moved to Brooklyn, five blocks away. She moved to Queens; I moved to Queens. She moved to Jersey; I moved to Jersey, two towns away. Then we both moved to the town in between us, and now we live a mile apart.

She is my Person, my favorite person. We talk almost daily and text multiple times a day. Our kids mistake us for each other. If we go to the same store at different times, we’ll often walk out with the same shirt. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I feel connected to her.

I wanted this for my daughters, but it hasn’t worked out that way.

Read More: Are Mother/Daughter Tattoos the Perfect Mother’s Day Gift?

In the Beginning

My favorite childhood photos of my daughters are the ones when they’re cuddled under a blanket together. Lucy, a sassy 6 year-old, posing for the camera and flashing a V with her hand—I know she was saying “Girl Power!”—and 2-year-old Becca looking up at her with great concentration as she tried and failed to get her fingers to do the same. The two of them lying opposite head-to-feet in Lucy’s bed, with Becca’s toes nestled under Lucy’s chin.

Photos like that break my heart. They weren’t the best of pals—being four years apart put them in different lifetime zones—but they curled up together watching cartoons, drew pictures together, piled into our bed at night with their stacks of books. They had the normal sister arguments, all with the undercurrent of “That’s not fair!” and the calculations of who was getting more and who was losing out.

My older daughter demanded more of the attention and got it. She was always highly verbal and talked over and through everyone else. She had some phobias and anxiety growing up that we needed to focus on; plus, she was the first so every parenting challenge seemed fraught. I worked full time, with an hour commute each way, and struggled to have enough time for each of them. Sometimes, the quieter child misses out.

Still, there was no unusual tension as they grew up. When Becca hit a stage that Lucy had already passed through (like the emo, black-eye-liner-tragic-music phase), Lucy had no patience for it, in that tendency we all have for disparaging what we’ve survived. She was quick with the biting comment; Becca was quick with the well-timed kick. When they each went through periods of depression and anxiety after their father died, it occasionally bonded them together but more often pushed them apart.

A year ago, at ages 20 and 24—both of them living at home—they had a terrible, awful fight with long-ranging consequences. Lucy, the wronged party in this battle, moved in with my sister for a while. I would stop in and see her in the morning before work, and she’d come by to see the pets when Becca wasn’t home. They each trash-talked the other to me; they each accused me of favoring the other. Caught in the middle, I could only keep repeating: You’re sisters, and at some point, you’ll want and need each other. Weeks passed, then a month, and beyond.

When Grown Sisters Don’t Get Along

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Image: Daiga Ellaby/Unsplash

My mother-in-law wasn’t close to her sister, her only sibling, as they were growing up. She didn’t talk about her (and honestly, I didn’t like her much, so I didn’t ask), except for one story she told me soon after her son and I were married: When her mother had died 20-plus years before, her sister had made off with the linens, the lace tablecloths, and the damask napkins. “We never spoke again,” she told me. “I was so angry!” She clearly still was.

I asked her if, over the years, she’d ever been tempted to reach out to her. “Nope,” she said. “She stole the linens, my mother’s linens, right out from under me!” She pursed her lips and shook her head. It seemed so petty. Imagine not speaking to someone again because of an argument over fabric. They’re both dead now, never having reconciled. My husband and his sisters never had an aunt, didn’t get to hear her stories about their mom as a kid.

I couldn’t and still can’t imagine anything that my sister could do or steal or say that would make me stop talking to her. Would this big chill between Lucy and Becca turn into a frozen tundra, I wondered, too big to easily cross?

Perhaps a Thaw

About six weeks into the freeze, I got a text from each of my daughters, a minute apart. I saw Becca at the Toucan/I saw Lucy at the Toucan. The Toucan was the only hip coffee place in town, and it was kind of amazing that they hadn’t run into each other before. I called Lucy first. “It was okay,” she said. “We nodded at each other.”

A week later, they ran into each other there again and spoke a few words. A few weeks after that, Lucy moved back in, mainly because she missed the pets, she said. In the months since, there have been flare-ups but no horrendous fights, and they try to stay out of each other’s way. The other day, I was sitting on the couch next to Becca, consoling her as she cried over a guy, and Lucy came in and hugged her.

They’re not ready to hear this yet—there’s still so much anger under the surface—but at some point, I’ll tell them each this: There will come a time when your sister will be the only one who also remembers your childhood. She’ll be the only one who also remembers how Dad’s taco casserole tasted and the look on my face when I showed up carrying our new puppy. She’ll be the only one who knew about Dad’s vast dorky tie collection, and how I unconsciously push my rice into a neat pile and pat it with my fork before eating it. Or about our early morning walks at our rented beach house, saving the horseshoe crabs and putting them back in the water. About the awful trip to Colonial Williamsburg in the 105 degree heat, with the murky warm pool at the sketchy hotel.

At some point, you’ll need, and want, to be each other’s back-up memory banks—because our memories and our stories are so much of who we are, and who we eventually become.

A version of this article was originally published in July 2018.

By Lisa Bain


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