The sweet Valentine my niece Megan sent to her sister Tamra
Oh, how I wish I had a sister! This has been a life-long refrain. A recent Valentine post on Facebook between my two nieces, Megan and Tamra, stirred my envy embers anew.
As a little girl, I regularly begged my mother to make one more trip to the hospital to bring home a little bundle of pink sister joy. Getting no results from her, one Christmas I elevated the request to Santa, still to no avail. As the youngest of three siblings and the only girl, I tired of the never-ending rough and tumble of boys. At home, my brothers used me as unwitting pawn in their sinister boy games, setting booby traps and ambushes that left me in a perpetual state of suspense. One brother abducted my paper dolls, snipped off their heads, and hung them on the clothesline. And when they did invite me to play with them, it was usually a physical game in which I invariably turned up injured since they were so much bigger than me. One game of ball tag ended with a head-on collision between my older brother and me. He remembers the sensation of being momentarily slowed by some minor turbulence. My recollection is of being flattened by a Mack truck. That same brother enjoyed fabricating and telling chilling stories designed to scare the bejeezus out of me. One particularly complex tale told of the origins of a mole over his lip, recounting a terrible accident in which his lips were pulled off his face after they froze on a car door outside, and ending with the startling revelation that the mole was anchoring his lips. (He did get in trouble for that one after I ran screaming to Mom begging her never to remove Tom’s mole lest his lips fall off.)
Me with my brothers and Mom. Notice how my mother seems to be protecting me from them
My brothers especially enjoyed the nights my parents went out and left them in charge of babysitting me. They were then free to wreck havoc unfettered by parental interference. I still remember my attempts to fall asleep looking pained, sure that when my parents returned they would look in on me, see my look of torture and then give my brothers hell. That never worked either.
Of course it wasn’t all bad having brothers, and one benefit was that I had my own personal goon squad. My brothers could torment me endlessly; however, if someone else looked at me cross-eyed, my older brother wanted the name and address of the perpetrator, and he was off to take care of business. There were few repeat offenders. But I was convinced my life would have been perfect, or at least calmer, had I had a loving sister as a companion.
Then I grew up and married a guy who came with a son. I later gave birth to one more male and no females, and again found myself grossly outnumbered. Further, none of the males in my nuclear family are particularly sensitive types. There are no art lovers or musicians or writers. My husband’s favorite pastime is watching sports, any sport, preferably contact. My son played just about every sport, and in his free time enjoys grisly video games, like Call of Duty and Halo, that I can’t even watch without getting nauseous. There were many days I came home after work to find football on one TV, COD on the other, and dirty sweat socks hanging in every bathroom. I did insist my son take piano lessons, but his complaining was so incessant that I finally let him quit and he never went within six feet of the piano again. But my upbringing was good training for this environment, as I know the rules to just about any sport and I know how emotionally simple guys really are.
Throughout my life, my mother was a calm island of estrogen in my vast ocean of testosterone. She and I were close, and we did girlie things together as time and money allowed, although neither of us was overly girlie, and probably out of convenience I developed into a tomboy anyway. She told me repeatedly how happy she was to finally get a daughter after being surrounded by males the first 8 years of her marriage, and as I grew into my own version of token female, I understood the sincerity of that statement. I really miss her. Since she passed away, I find myself the only surviving female from either my family of origin or my nuclear family.
Oh, how I wish I had a sister! I know people who have sisters they wish they didn’t. I know sister relationships can be rocky and emotionally fraught. But some shining examples of sisterly love abound in my extended family. They have an emotional bond and deep DNA understanding that seems fundamentally different from the brother-sister connection. Women tend to be more natural caregivers and nurturers, and when you have a best friend who is also your sister, what a blessing!
My friend Sue and her little sister Kathie
One early “sister act” that made me think I was missing out was my childhood friend Sue and her younger sister Kathie. I met Sue in 6th grade math class and before long I was spending time at her home. The Warrens’ house, unlike mine, was clearly matriarchal with a definite female sensibility. Sue’s mom ruled the roost, along with Sue’s grandma (Sue’s mom’s mom lived with them) and there were no brothers. I only vaguely remember Sue’s dad – usually sitting in the living room watching football games by himself. Sue and Kathie adored each other and their house was like a sorority. If I had a problem I need to talk over, I could go to Sue’s and have a ready female support group of four available for consultation and advice.
My lovely nieces. Clockwise from left, Alyssa and Kelsey; Genoa and Carey, Megan and Tamra
My two nieces, Megan and Tamra, probably love each other more than any two sisters I have ever met. My husband’s sister Judy, their mother, once told me that Megan fell in love with her little sister Tamra the day Tamra was born and they have been best friends ever since. They have supported each other through thick and thin, and are now facing a serious health issue together. But in the midst of everything, they laugh, they talk, and they love being together. My husband’s brother Rich also has two daughters, Genoa and Carey, who share a similar bond of love and affection.
My brother Jim was rewarded with two girls of his own. Besides his two daughters, he has a severely disabled son, which has complicated and challenged their family life. Yet my nieces Alyssa and Kelsey are growing into gorgeous, gracious, capable young women who support each other and their parents and who inspire me with their adaptability.
Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t trade my husband, son or brothers for anything. I love them all to death. I adore them. I enjoy hanging out with them. I love sports!! I just wish I could inject a close female relative into my nuclear world. I often crave that female perspective and hug in those situations where the guys either want to “fix” me or just get that clueless befuddled look.
And more than just wanting a close sister/friend I can talk to at Thanksgiving, there’s a practical side to this problem. One that is picking up more urgency the older I get. Who will take care of me in my old age? One thing I learned, in caring for my parents during their decline, was that either a sister or, more commonly, the oldest daughter in the family is typically the caregiver. That was me for my parents. Who will be that for me? My son wanted nothing to do with visiting grandma in her assisted living facility and he found her rather disturbing once dementia claimed her mind. One day, during my Sandwich Years, when I had him as captive audience while driving to school, I went on an embarrassing (in hindsight) rant that went something like this:
Me: [out of blue] “When you meet a girl that you think might be The One for you, I want to meet her right away. Right away!!! You need to understand – this girl is going to be very, very, important to me. Why? Because when I’m old and Dad is dead and I get dotty like Grandma, who do you think is going to take care of me? Not you! No, hopefully your wife! She’s going to tell YOU where to go and what to do, and she’s going to decide what to do about ME. If she doesn’t like me, I’ll get parked in some God-forsaken Looney bin, and nobody will even visit me. If she likes me, maybe it’ll be a nice place and you guys and my grandkids will come visit. If she loves me, maybe I’ll even live with you. So, [picking up steam] I get veto power over this girl that you are getting serious with. Understand?!!”
Son: “Mom, I’m only 14.”
Me: “I know that! Future reference.”
Oh, how I wish I had a sister to discuss all this with! But the sad fact is, I don’t have a biological mother, sister or daughter. I do have wonderful sisters-in-law, nieces, cousins and aunts, but they mostly live in other cities. I have noticed, particularly in the past few years (once I started slowing down in anticipation of retirement) that I have instinctively put more energy into friendships, particularly my female friends. Furthermore, I’ve increasingly reached out to long-standing friends and family members, in some cases renewing connections that had been dormant for years. I am finding these relationships to be deeply comforting and rewarding.
What is it about sisters and close female friends that are so impactful? For answers, I did a little research, and my findings confirmed what I’ve already discovered from my own non-scientific experience. The need for community with other women is biological. In The Tending Instinct, by Shelley E Taylor, (as described in the article “The Girlfriend Instinct – The Value of Female Friendships” by Debbie Haupert) a variety of studies lead to the following findings:
Longevity – Married men live longer than single men, yet marriage is not a determinant of life expectancy in women. Rather, women with strong female social ties (girlfriends) live longer than those without them.
Stress – Women don’t have the same ‘fight or flight” response to stress that men do. Rather, women under stress have the need to ‘tend and befriend.’ We want to be with our young and our friends. Time with our friends actually reduces our stress levels.
More stress – When we’re with our girlfriends, our bodies emit the “feel good” hormone oxytocin, helping us reduce everyday stress. By prioritizing our female friendships and spending time with these friends, we take advantage of a very simple, natural way to relax.
Even more stress – One study show that prairie voles, a monogamous rodent, have a similar response to stress. When a male vole is put in a stressful situation, he runs to his female partner. Female voles, when stressed, immediately run to the females they were raised with.
Health – Women without strong social ties risk health issues equivalent to being overweight or a smoker!
So, now it all makes sense! I have instinctively been assembling a close network of “sisters” that will support me and nurture me, friends that I can talk with and laugh with, who know me well, and that I can discuss my feelings with. My lunches with friends are actually inexpensive therapy sessions and important emotional work. (In fact, I wonder if I should write them off as medical expenses? I’ll ask my CPA – who’s a man. Never mind.) And hopefully, someday my “sister-friends’ will visit me at the assisted living facility (in case that future daughter-in-law thing doesn’t work out.)