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Daughters, Sisters, Mothers…Love

February 12th, 2009

I have two daughters and I come from a family of three daughters… I am one of three sisters. It is an interesting dynamic and cause for many life lessons. It is not easy to have siblings… we look up to them when they are older and we push them around when they are younger. We are in a constant need for parental attention. The whole mission of my childhood was to get as much love as possible from my parents. I wanted more attention than my sisters. I didn’t know that my mom and dad weren’t the most balanced people in the world and couldn’t fulfill our needs. It didn’t take me long to figure out that they were not happy, still I didn’t know that our family wasn’t perfect.

My folks had come from damaged backgrounds so how could they model a healthy life? None-the-less they were my parents and I loved them. I wanted to be the apple of their eyes especially my mother’s eye. She was demanding, hard and full of self-loathing. She was sick most of my childhood beginning when I was eleven. From that time on her life demanded more attention than anyone else in the family. Although my eldest sister suffered mental instability and exercised very bizarre behavior, (which warranted lots of attention) in the end my mother’s health and mood was first. She was a strong willed and stubborn woman who grew up in Idaho. She was a hard worker and did everything herself. At one point we hired a housekeeper because of my mother’s illness, (she suffered cancer on and off for years till she died), but my mother cleaned far better than our hired help and no one quite understood the point of having her there until one day mommy didn’t have the energy to clean anymore.

It became clear to me that cleanliness warranted accolades so I cleaned and organized cabinets all the time in hopes that my OCD behavior would get noticed and I would get love. Love was any acknowledgment that I had done something and that someone I adored had taken note of it.

My childhood was a mass of misunderstandings and a myriad of unspoken longings. I longed to be able to talk about how I felt to my mom. I wanted to share my fear that I was gawky, not smart enough, and how I felt smart inside just not in the world ie; school, and that I was scared that no one liked me. But my house was too filled with the anxiety of illness, insecurity and the tension of a loveless marriage.

I suppose all the behavior of my sisters and myself were for the same outcome to be noticed to get loved in a home that lacked the definition of what love meant. We were not raised particularly religious which could give a person a sense of love or at least devotion. We went to church on Easter and Christmas and sometimes when my mother was really scared that her cancer was coming back or that one of my sisters may not return from another bender. She prayed when it felt like God was not paying attention to her and she sang in the church (which looked up to the mountains where I daydreamed of being in the trees) totally off key hoping that her cracking pitch-less voice would be heard by God.

I watched my mother with tremendous devotion… there was no one in the world that I loved more than her. Irascible as she was she was beautiful and I could see the daughter in her. When we would visit my grandmother in nearby Twin falls, she became the little girl who longed for her own mother’s love. She was a sister too. She had one sister, and like my two girls and there was love and competition there. You could see a mutual respect between my mother and my aunt but there was a missed connection between them. I mimicked that with my own sisters as well. I was 7 years younger than Margot and 11 years younger than Muffet, so we never got too close.

My mother and Aunt were 13 years apart. In some ways when there is that kind of distance in your youth, you experience two different families. The early family is more hopeful but gets whipped by the challenges of new parenting and the later family is either forgiving, attentive or completely exhausted from a perceived failed first attempt at child rearing. I lived through the latter.

My mother wanted to be a sister but she didn’t really know how. It was the same for me. I loved my sisters and in some ways looked up to them but they were like legends, who came and went from our lives. We were not close because by the time I was old enough to know them they no longer lived at home. Margot went to boarding school and Muffet moved to Paris, learned to cook at Cordon Bleu and pursued her passion for French. I found her to be magical. She was my crazy, beautiful sister who came home every once and a while with hippy clothes long braids and a French accent and she drove zig zags down the highway if I was ever so lucky to have her drive me to school. I knew she was a little “crazy” but she was also incredibly interesting and of course in her madness she was a genius…everything came easily to her.

Margot was less lucky that way but her charm, humor and love of people made her a delight for everyone to be around. She was very funny. We were not close though growing up. I was just old enough to have taken the light away from her and she was demoted to middle child; it made her bitter with me. We competed for love when she was around. Margot looked up to my dad and longed for his focus more than anyone. Still it was my mother that we all wanted to be loved by. She somehow held the key to our self worth.

Muffet was both my parents favorite even though she was so tortured and torturing to their lives much of the time. They loved her intelligence, her ability to cook and speak French and her artistic talents. She was also a tennis progeny. She was their love child and everyone knew it. When she became more challenged mentally you could feel their heartbreak at her not being in the world in the way that they had dreamed she would be. She held so much promise. Promise that Margot nor I could ever hold. I was loved, I am sure but coming so late in their marriage, (I was told that I was a mistake), it felt like I was there to keep the peace, behave and not cause problems. Margot made a spectacle of herself, she was a wild outspoken girl with freedom in her gait. We both tried to find ways we could be noticed.

There is more to tell of my family dynamic. Yet today it makes me think of my own girls as daughters and sisters and what I have given to them. I am sure that the way that I was brought up and why I felt as desperate for love and approval as I did, has to have tainted them. I was careful to give them a kind of love and attention that would make them feel confident in who they are because I never received that. When they were young I know that my own insecurity was so deep that energetically I must have given them a message of perfection and self doubt. Now that I am in my late forties the idea of perfectionism has softened in me.

But being a perfect, strong and loving mother was my drive because it seemed better than what I came from. Yet, much of the time the message that I was modeling was of self-scrutiny. It is not easy to by pass childhood conditioning. I see that my girls are far more confident in the world in a way that I wasn’t and that pleases me. It looks as though they are at ease in their skin in a way that I didn’t feel at their age. I also know that they received a quality of love that was not about performance. I loved them and told them so daily. I also pronounced their astonishing beauty all the time. I think they feel that they are beautiful and loved.

I also see that I have modeled a need for parental love. At some level they must have felt that there was a price for it… They must have thought that there is a certain kind of behavior that provides a better love. In other words the patterns I came from have been repeated albeit they are far less apparent. If I am honest I can see that in my loving them so differently from the way I was mothered was as selfish as my own mother was with me. I wanted them to love me as the best mom in the world…in fact in some ways I put too much pressure on them to find me to be perfect in their eyes. There was no room for them to find fault with me. I admitted to them when I made mistakes but in truth it was always on my terms. That was my need to control, even to control how and when I was not in control and how I would admit it to others when I felt ready. I had my own version of making our family about me. I thought I was balanced in my parenting but I feel now that I was trying to be so distinctly different from my mom that in doing so I was not always honest about how I was truly behaving.

I love being a mom but there were times in the past when it felt hard and that my choices were made from what I knew was right but not what came joyously. I am glad that I at times forced myself to be a “good” mom. I think that it gave my girls stability. What I might change today is the need I had to be right. Maybe I never really got out of the pattern of looking for love the way I did as a child. I tried to get it from my daughters.

My girls are not like all young women, they are different and they can feel their unique place in the world and I think that the way they were brought up gifted them that. I know there are times when they must wonder why they don’t think the way the rest of their peers do. I see patterns in them that are a clear mirror of my own. Could I have changed the way that they are? I am sure that I could have but then I would have known more about myself earlier and frankly self-awareness seems to have revealed itself to me most poignantly in my 40’s. I am changing the outcome of my life now. I think it will affect my girls even though they are grown and living on their own. We are very close.

When I think of the sisterly relationship that I didn’t have I can only hope that my girls will redefine a voice of support for one another. There is an appreciation they had when they were babies. My eldest could tell us exactly what her baby sister was thinking saying and needing without words and they was a shorthand of loving communication that was and is ingrained in their souls. I know that as time goes by they will find their unspoken language again because they were raised to feel each other from across a room.

I was told that when you have children it is absolutely normal for you to love one child more than another and yet I can honestly say that I never felt that way. How could I love one child more than the other when they hold such different ways of showing their uniqueness to the world? It is similar to liking sunlight over moonlight…they are not comparable and both are necessary to the balance of the planet. My girls as daughters and as sisters are sunlight and moonlight and I love them for who they are. I know they will have special insight to one another for the rest of their lives. They will be sisters daughters and possibly mothers someday. They will forge their own way of being that will heal our family even more deeply.

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