Vikki Stark, author of the acclaimed book, My Sister, My Self, discusses the impact of sister relationships on a woman's identity.
Commitment: My Sister, My Self: Understanding the Sibling Relationship that Shapes our Lives, Our Loves and Ourselves is a fascinating book about sister relationships and the effects they have on our self-esteem, our careers and how we see the world. How did you become interested in this topic?
Vikki Stark: One day, at a family dinner, my youngest daughter mused, "No matter where I go or who I'm with, I always feel like a little sister!" and as soon as she said it, I thought, "Me, too!" I can be in a room full of women who are younger than me, even a room full of my students, and I'll still feel like I'm the young one and am impressed by how much they know! Hearing my daughter's comment, the light bulb went on - it was the first time that it struck me how my relationship with my older sister had such a powerful impact on my self-image.
So I started asking friends about their relationships with their sisters and saw a side of them that I'd never seen before – their eyes lit up, they smiled, they laughed – or – they looked sad, pained, drained, and I realized that the topic of the role of sisters in women's lives is really powerful. As a family therapist, I'd heard women talking with love or longing about their sisters over the years and it all crystallized – I had to know more!
Commitment: Why are sister relationships so special?
Vikki: There's a mystique to the word "sister" in our culture – we assume that a sister is just one-step removed from your "self". It goes without saying that a woman's sister should be the person to whom she can turn at any time of the day or night. She knows you better than anyone else and would make any sacrifice on your behalf. That's the myth and the reason women feel so sad if their real sister relationship doesn't match up with the idealized one.
As you're developing your identity growing up, it's normal to compare yourself to see how you're doing, and who better to measure yourself against than the girl in the next bed? Which one's smarter, which one's prettier, which one's more popular, which one does mom and dad admire most? Loving sister relationships downplay that competitiveness but sometimes the struggle to be seen as the best can lead to a lifetime of painful acrimony.
Commitment: What can a mother do to encourage a strong relationship between her daughters?
Vikki: Many of the sisters I interviewed who told of wonderful, satisfying, loving relationships said that their parents kept gently reminding them to love their sister. One woman said that her mother would insist that the girls hug after they'd had a fight. The parents of close sisters were often active in encouraging positive feelings between the girls.
Most importantly, mothers should avoid comparison, either good or bad. It's equally damaging to the relationship between the girls when a parent says, "I'm so proud of your report card; it's so much better than your sister's" as it is when a parent says, "Why can't you work hard like Sue?!!?" Either way, the girl's achievement is measured against a backdrop of that of her sister and it trains her to constantly think of her sister when she is evaluating herself.
But mothers should also know that sometimes, no matter what they do, there's no way to stir up good feelings between their daughters so they shouldn't feel like a failure if the girls just don't get along!
Commitment: You refer to The Sisters Project. What is The Sisters Project?
Vikki: I did two things when I realized that I had to know more about sister relationships – I read everything I could and I lunched The Sisters Project in which I interviewed over four hundred women, teens and girls about their sister relationships, some face-to-face and others through an email questionnaire. The youngest was four-years-old and her quote was, "I play with my sisters and then I hit them . . . and then I hug them!" (I figured that about summed it all up) and the oldest were ninety-five year old identical twins. It was an amazing experience to be welcomed into the homes and hearts of women and girls who were brimming with stories about the special place their sisters had in their lives.
Commitment: How does a woman's childhood relationship with her sister(s) influence her identity as an adult?
Vikki: Although we know how important parents' influence is on children, when you think about it, the person you actually spend the most time with growing up is often your sister. If you grew up in a family in which your sister absolutely adored you, no matter whether she's older or younger, you will naturally feel better about yourself. One woman in The Sisters Project told how she came from a very, very poor family and suffered terribly in school because she was really an outcast, but when she walked in the door of her home and her two little sisters jumped into her arms with glee, it made her life bearable.
On the other side of the coin, if your competitive sister is constantly telling you that you're a loser, how can you not question your own value?
Commitment: Do the roles of girls as older sister, middle sister or younger sister translate to certain personalities or roles in adulthood?
Vikki: The focus of The Sisters Project was to explore how having grown up as an older, middle, younger or twin makes an indelible mark on a woman's identity and boy, did I find evidence of that! It is very clear that we carry those childhood sister roles into all aspects of our lives, but usually we are unaware of how profoundly we are shaped by them.
In a nutshell, women who are older sisters tend to suffer from the need to make everything right for everyone and have trouble letting others take care of them. Older sisters over function. As one young woman in her early twenties said, " I catch myself telling my friends to watch how much they drink at bars – I don't drink because I'm ALWAYS the designated driver. I watch out for the guys my friends hook up with. I always make sure they call me when they get home safely. I don't smoke. I don't do drugs. I adamantly lecture about condom use to all my friends. I guess I feel protective of them?"
Middle sisters may seek their identity through their social life outside the family as kids, but as adults, they often become the backbone of the family. Among their friends, they are good mediators because being both older and younger sisters; they can easily see two sides of an argument. They're often more black-and-white, practical and solution oriented than their sisters.
Whether the youngest one is the adored, spoiled family pet or the overlooked afterthought, the hallmark of the youngest sister is powerlessness. As a result, as an adult she often either becomes fiercely independent (to prove that she's someone of value) or she remains very dependent, needing validation from others in order to act. The latter sentiment is reflected in this quote from a younger sister: "It is my natural inclination to function as the youngest, the 'baby'. I tend to defer to others and assume (without thinking about it or examining the facts) that others know more than I do. I tend to have a 'someone-will-take-care-of-me' world-view."
And twins? Ah, twins! So fascinating! Like middle sisters, twins tend to be good mediators and more so than any other sister position, seek harmony. They are often used to having someone who knows what they're thinking without having to state it and try to replicate that in friend and love relationships, frequently being disappointed that others don't just "get" them without a lot of explanation.
Commitment: How does birth order impact a woman's career choices?
Vikki: This was the most unexpected finding from the study. It appears that women's choice of their occupation is affected by their place in the sister hierarchy. The clearest indication is among middle sisters and twins who are much more likely to find themselves in jobs in the business sector than their older or younger sisters. Middle sisters were the ones who you’d find working in retail or management; they were the engineers, scientists or I.T. workers – fields that are more black-and-white. They were rarely to be found in the helping professions as nurses, doctors or dentists. Who were more likely to work as therapists? The younger sister!
Commitment: How does a woman's family role position affect her views of beauty and body weight?
Vikki: This was another startling outcome from The Sisters Project. Women feel differently about their own bodies depending on their birth order position. Girls are very influenced by watching their sister's bodies grow and change, but in differing ways.
Older sisters were acutely aware of who was prettier and much more likely to suffer jealous based on attractiveness, although middle and younger sisters rarely raised that issue. But older sisters also were instrumental, in some cases, in helping a younger girl feel good about herself. The number one hot topic for younger sisters was . . . boobs! Younger sisters were very preoccupied with who was bigger. One woman said she was a "late bloomer" and her sisters teased her mercilessly but she grew to have a bigger bust size so . . . "who's laughing now?" Twins proved to be preoccupied about the minutest differences in their appearance and would comment on the fact that one was a quarter inch taller or her nose was slightly longer.
Weight was often a painful issue. One younger sister who struggled throughout her overweight childhood and was significantly heavier than her sister said how she appreciated the fact that, although her parents were always on her case, her sister never mentioned it once.
Commitment: Do her sister relationships effect how she parents?
Vikki: Once I was working as a therapist with a woman who felt that her mother was overwhelmingly dependent on her. Her mother had never learned to drive and called upon her daughter to drive her everywhere. When the mother had a decision to make about anything, she'd ask her daughter to make it for her. My client was so frustrated that her mother leaned on her so much. Eventually, I asked my client (who was the oldest of four kids) what her mother's role was in the family and learned that she was the youngest of ten! It all fell into place. This woman was used to having nine siblings and two parents tell her what to do and she subconsciously expected her eldest daughter to fill that role as well.
I've seen that repeated over and over. A mother who is a younger sister might have trouble saying "no" to her oldest daughter. This is an unexamined dynamic that has a profound effect on parent/child relationships.
Commitment: You state that the oldest daughter in a family very often assumes the role of caretaker. Is that due to innate instinct, a function of societal expectations, or something else altogether?
Vikki: Sometimes it's very clear that the parents expect the oldest daughter to play a very defined role as caretaker for her younger siblings. They not only expect her to look after a little sister, but also require her to act as a role model for the younger one. At other times, however, that older sister delights in the tiny pink baby in the crib and vows to herself that she will be devoted to that precious infant's care for a lifetime. This lyrical vignette describes that kind of devotion: "I remember when she was born. I looked into her crib while she was sleeping and had this overwhelming feeling (and I was not even six years old) that she and I had a very deep soul connection, like I knew her forever. Like she was mine, not in a parental kind of way, but like I loved her unconditionally and wanted to teach her things and be there for her. Like we were going to have a special bond throughout our lives."
Commitment: You are a social worker with twenty years experience as a family therapist, supervisor and educator. You have dealt with all kinds of family relationships over the course of your career. Were you surprised by the results of your study on sister relationships?
Vikki: In my years of practice, women occasionally raised issues about their sisters. But when I began working on the Project, I started asking and then, deeply felt emotion came pouring out. One woman, with whom I'd seen for several months, had never mentioned her sister other than to say that she had one, but when I asked outright, her eyes filled with tears and she told me that her sister was the most important person to her on earth! Good or bad, we often take sister relationships for granted. A lot has been written about the importance of women's relationships with their mothers and recently, some books have come out about women's relationships with their fathers, but sister relationships have rarely been spotlighted. I think many women would be surprised to learn all the different facets of their lives that are influenced by this connection. I certainly was.
Commitment: How do sister relationships change as girls reach adulthood?
Vikki: I've noticed that when the girls reach their early twenties, there is often a "flying up" stage (to steal a term from the Girl Scouts) during which the relationship takes a turn. By the time they are both adults, the rigid hierarchy becomes softened. The younger sister may have children earlier than the older one. The middle sister may graduate college while the oldest one is still in the middle of her studies. In many families, the strict older/younger dynamic becomes more peer-like as they attain the same status in life of being an adult and start to share recipes and child-rearing tips.
Commitment: Is it difficult for younger sisters to break out of their “baby” roles?
Vikki: Younger sisters are often unaware that they are playing that role – it has become so entrenched in their personalities – so in order to break out of it, they first have to recognize it. But it is certainly a comfort zone for a lot of younger sisters who are constantly looking for back up in life. They may not identify what they are doing to keep themselves in the role of the little sister, even apart from the family.
Commitment: If the older sister is the caretaker, and the younger sister is the care-receiver, what is the typical role of the middle sister?
Vikki: The stamp of the middle sister is independence – she's the one who dons a backpack and travels the world. The one word that was used most often for middle sisters was, surprisingly, "clown". Her role in the family is the most undefined and by being a joker, she can capture some attention. The other interesting thing to note about middle sisters is that they tended to be closer to dad and have the most conflict with mom. In a family with no boys, they're the one to kick the football around with the old man. They are the most sports-minded in general. And finally, middle sisters are often very hard on the younger one. There is a tremendous amount of jealousy that middle sisters feel toward the one who takes their place and several women said that, as adults, they deeply regretted how they made their little sister's life miserable.
Commitment: How does being a twin affect a girl's view of the world?
Vikki: Being a twin is often a happy place to be. Many twins felt special; if they were identical they certainly got a lot of attention growing up. If the girls got along, and most twins do, they never felt alone and always felt valued. But the challenge for twins as adults is achieving independence. Some women said that they always feel something is missing when they are not with their twin – it's very hard to make a decision on their own. In an unrelated area, one fascinating feature that jumped out regarding twins was that they were the most likely among all the sisters to care about social justice and world peace!
Commitment: You have had an “on-again, off-again” relationship with your own sister, and have not spoken to her in over a year. Did you learn anything about your own sister relationship from your work on My Sister, My Self?
Vikki: My sister and I have gotten back in touch during the past year, which just proves that anything is possible! Meeting and talking with other women about their sister relationships, particularly when they reveled in the closeness, I often felt like a kid with her nose pressed up to the candy shop window. Due to the differences in our personalities and also the fact that she is five and a half years older, we never had that easy sisterly closeness. I pretty much felt like an only child growing up. So listening to stories from women whose sisters are deeply integrated into their lives, I often thought, "Oh, that's what all the fuss is about! That's what it's like to be close to your sister" and it sounded pretty good to me.
Vikki Stark, M.S.W., has twenty years’ experience as a family therapist, supervisor, and educator, and appears regularly as a guest expert on television. She grew up in New York City.
To purchase My Sister, My Self by Vikki Stark, click here.