My mother’s mantra was (and still is): "I always treated you and your sister exactly the same." But that didn’t prevent us both from wailing, "It’s not fair. She’s…" followed by the latest accusation of preferential treatment given to the other sibling. It didn’t matter that the perceived injustice was totally unfounded.
I remember vividly my younger sister smashing her forehead against the wall during a particularly vigorous game of ‘Ring O’ Roses’. Blood poured down her face. But the reason I recall this event so clearly is not because of her injury, rather that she was offered handful after handful of Smarties to quieten her down. As the size of the handfuls grew, so did my indignation (I got nothing) until I was incandescent and convinced she was hamming it up, looking down at me victorious from our mothers’ arms.
Rivalries are born early on in childhood. Who has the bigger slice of cake, at what precise age to the day – and my God your younger sister better not get hers done earlier – you are allowed to have your ears pierced. But however painful these jealousies are at the time, they are nothing compared to when sibling rivalry spills over into adulthood.
It never ceases to fascinate me how two or more children who grow up in the same household with the same parents can have wildly different levels of success in their adult lives. As soon as you step out of education and onto the career ladder, money and status can catapult you into a different stratosphere from your sibling. The ‘poorer’ sibling will often feel they can never catch up – and as the wealth builds, so envy becomes more entrenched. Who has the nicer house in the better part of town, the more expensive clothes and the luxury holidays.
But envy goes beyond the materialistic – what happens when one sibling finds a partner before the other? What if the unthinkable happens and the younger sister goes and gets herself married before the older sister has even got herself a partner? And to add insult to injury the older sister has to act as bridesmaid?
My own sister entered an industry where there were jobs aplenty and through hard work and brilliance, she soon took a meteoric rise to the top with all the prizes that came with it. Whereas I decided on a career in the crushingly competitive television business, where you were often asked to work for free and my biggest achievement was being able to pay the rent that month. Of course it’s hard at times, the sensation of grafting and getting nowhere fast, while your sibling seems to get all the breaks. But I learned that life is like a game of Snakes and Ladders. You may watch your sibling throw six after six and land on all the ladders, while you seem to fall on all the snakes, but one day your luck will change. I, too, got lucky breaks in my career and enjoyed some of the best experiences of my life in my work.
It’s easy to compare yourself to your sibling – you spend an entire childhood comparing yourselves, often inadvertently fuelled by a well-meaning parent making unhelpful comments such as, "Why can’t you be more like your brother?" or, "If your sister can do it, why can’t you?". The intention of this may be to encourage you to pull your finger out but in reality it often has the opposite effect, making the child who is ‘left behind’ feel both resentful and a failure.
When I was 16, I had a Saturday job in a travel agent. On the wall opposite my desk was a poster of the Maldives. I instantly fell in love with the place and vowed that one day I’d go there. My sister was tactful when, decades later, she told me of her upcoming trip. I asked her to text me a photo of the beach when she arrived. It was every bit as beautiful as I’d imagined. I sent back a photo of me in my garden in December, standing in front of a wall on which I’d painted an outdoor mural of the sea.
It wasn’t quite the same thing. But I wasn’t envious (OK, maybe a little) as I’d taken a few days off to start writing my first book, baby steps of what would become a new career as a novelist. So what I may have at one point in my life perceived as a ‘snake’ – unable to afford a trip to a paradise island – was actually the bottom rung of a ladder. I was lucky enough to have that book published, followed by several others. Success comes in many guises and often won’t reveal itself until later on. In the meantime, we all have to manage envy, or better still, let go of it altogether. As a good friend once said to me, "Don’t look sideways, look forwards."
My sister and I are lucky. We have very different lives but are incredibly close. Both of us know of people who’ve become estranged from their siblings as a result of being unable to handle a growing gulf of differences, whether that be financial or personal. They’ve let the envy and rivalry define their relationships and take over their lives.
I still haven’t made it to the Maldives... having children kyboshed that. Whereas my sister has been a number of times. Would I change anything? Not for the world.
Sisters by Michelle Frances is available now, £7.99.
You Might Also Like