By Esther Mann, LCSW
My sister Sandy and I are ten years apart. We’ve always gotten along really well and been close. Though our personalities are different, we always sought out one another’s company. We have two brothers and another sister, with whom we both get along, but our relationships with them are different and not nearly as tight.
When I got married at 20, and had a daughter, Rena, within the year, Sandy became a permanent fixture in our home. She spent more Shabbosos in our home than in our parents’ home. It worked well for all of us. Sandy enjoyed our company, my husband and I both enjoyed her company, and she soon became a regular babysitter for Saturday nights, so that my husband and I could always run out and enjoy a date night. Everyone was happy.
A few important things took place while Rena was growing up. First of all, Sandy never married. Though she is now 30 years old and would still love to get married, Mr. Right has just not come along yet. Mind you, Sandy has a great career and a full life. The other important thing to note is that Rena seems to be a lot more similar to Sandy than to me. They both are outgoing and love to joke, laugh, and have fun. I’m a more serious type; I love reading and spending time alone. They seem to have more similar taste in clothing and enjoy going shopping together. They can spend an entire Sunday going from store to store, looking or shopping, whereas I only go when I have to. The two of them have so much in common and spend as much time together as they can.
I’ve started noticing that I’ve been pushed to the back seat and Sandy and Rena are up front. I’ve started feeling insignificant in terms of my role as a mother and almost like I’ve been replaced.
This is such an important time in Rena’s life and I would think a meaningful time between a mother and daughter, when a young woman is making so many life-altering decisions, such as deciding on a career, husband, and more. I’m not at all sure that Rena considers me her “go-to” person for these important decisions. I think she respects what Sandy has to say more. It’s hurtful to me. This is not a sudden event, but something that has been slowly building over the course of time, probably having its roots when Rena was still a young child. But it’s taken me some time to wake up and smell the roses.
Lately, I’m finding myself feeling jealous of Sandy and specifically of her relationship with Rena. I try to calm myself by telling myself that I am so blessed to have a wonderful husband and two other terrific kids. Sandy has none of that. On the other hand, Rena is mine but it’s not feeling that way. I feel like I lost her to Sandy.
Is there anything I can do to change this situation to one in which I am number one in Rena’s life? When she comes home from a date, I want her to want to sit down with me and tell me all about it, rather than run to the phone to call my sister and discuss it. I don’t have a problem with what Sandy might be saying to her, it’s just that I want Rena to trust me and respect my opinions as she does with Sandy.
How can I make this happen? Is there a way to create some kind of distance between Sandy and Rena so that there is enough space for me?
Various people enter our orbits in life. Most of the time, we smile, act graciously, and move on. Sometimes, it becomes quite clear that a certain individual is meant to be a constant in our lives. Every now and then, we have the opportunity to meet someone who creates magic for us. Hopefully, this magical feeling can contribute to the decision to marry the right person. Friendships that last a lifetime often contain this special quality. And within the complexities of family life, sometimes we are blessed to discover that some of the people we are destined to share our lives with also create that joyous feeling of enchantment. It happens, though maybe not often enough for some people. When it does, it is certainly beyond special. It is one of the greatest gifts of all.
Clearly, Sandy and Rena have that magic together. They are aunt and niece, but so much more. They are friends, but so much more. They see themselves in each other and love what they see. They have something unique and wonderful.
Though you mentioned that Sandy has a full life, I’m sure that in some ways, Rena plays the role of the daughter she hasn’t had. Hopefully, some day she will have a daughter of her own. But for now, it’s the closest thing she has to the real deal. For Rena, Sandy represents an older, authoritative figure, someone who babysat for her and looked out for her well-being, but still young enough to relate to and enjoy hanging out with. Let’s face it, the age difference between you and Sandy is the same as between Sandy and Rena.
And let’s not overlook the fact that the genes are there! As you mentioned, the two of them seem to have inherited some similarities from the same gene pool, that somehow are not as present in your make-up. For so many wonderful reasons, Rena and Sandy are enormously important in one another’s lives. They are blessed, and I’m sure they realize that.
The question should not be how to create distance between Sandy and Rena, so that you can come between them. If you tried to separate the two of them even slightly, it would be a disaster. Firstly, I doubt that you would succeed. Secondly, they would both resent your intrusion terribly. The key is to figure out how to appreciate how lucky they are to have each other without experiencing the hurt, and then to determine how to insert yourself into your daughter’s life in a more meaningful way. Not to take the place of Sandy, but to contribute more value to Rena’s life in a fresh and new way, so that Rena will begin to more fully appreciate you.
What that might be is up to you. I understand that in general you two are wired differently. But there must be certain things that the two of you can enjoy together. Just to throw out some ideas, if you don’t already belong to a gym, could the two of you join one and take some fun classes together? Does theater appeal to both of you? Can you help Rena with college applications? What can Rena help you with? Maybe it’s a good idea to teach her how to cook, if she doesn’t already know how. Maybe she can bake challah with you or help you plan your Pesach menus. Sometimes, it takes a certain amount of mindfulness, so that you just don’t continue to bob along, like a cork on a wave. Sometimes it helps to stretch your mind and come up with a plan that can change your routine in a way that brings Rena and you closer together.
Expand your imagination. Don’t take no for an answer. Create a shift. Make it work. One of the truly special features about the human heart is that, like all muscles, it can stretch and grow. It can certainly always burst forth to embrace more of the mushy stuff. The human heart is never too full to sustain a never-ending amount of love. The more it gets, the more it can handle and the more it desires.
Though I have no doubt that Rena loves you already, the quality of your relationship can shift and grow and give you both so much more than it already does. And perhaps you will find that your relationship with Sandy will also soar to new heights.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.