By Esther Mann

 

Dear Esther,

My older sister Anita is in her forties and never got married. Honestly, I’m not so sure she ever will or if she even wants to marry. Regardless, I’ve always felt very close to Anita, even though we have different personalities and lifestyles. I’ve also had a great deal of compassion for her, being that she is alone. I’ve always opened up my home to her. Thankfully, my husband is also extremely gracious when it comes to Anita spending a great deal of time in our home. For every holiday, birthday, celebration, Anita is the first person I call to invite. Any time she feels lonely, she knows she can come over and hang out whenever she wants. We have a designated room just for her, so she can sleep over any time she feels like it.

My older brother gets along with Anita, but he never created the same type of closeness to her as I have. Maybe because he’s a guy or maybe because his wife never really connected to Anita in a big way. My younger sister never felt close to Anita. There is a big age gap between them, but I think it’s more about the fact that she doesn’t feel so comfortable around Anita. Anita has a bohemian style about her and sometimes says things that may be considered slightly inappropriate by some people. From the beginning, as a married woman with children, my sister confided in me that she didn’t want to bring Anita’s “influence” into her home. I always felt she was being selfish and lacked sensitivity for what it must be like to be Anita.

Anyway, my oldest daughter, Sari, turned 17 this year. She and Anita have always gotten along really well. When Sari was young, Anita was a tremendous help to me with babysitting, and as Sari got older, Anita started spending Sundays with her, doing fun things that I didn’t have the time or patience to do. Over the years, the two of them have formed a strong bond, which I always thought was beautiful, and I was happy for both of them.

Lately it seems as though Sari is happier spending time with Anita than with me. I’ll often find the two of them alone in Sari’s room, hanging out, talking, laughing, and having a grand ole time. Though I’m happy for them, I do feel a bit left out and maybe even a little jealous. But worse than that, I worry that maybe Anita will have a profound influence on who Sari turns out to be as an adult. I worry that maybe she’ll see Anita’s lifestyle as a possible choice for herself.

For example, Sari will quote something that Anita says, even when it is in direct opposition to something I’ve said. I’ve noticed Sari taking on a few of Anita’s dress styles; Anita loves wearing scarfs and suddenly Sari is sporting them whenever she can. Anita has a second piercing in one of her ears, and now Sari is begging me to let her pierce her ear. They are spending more time together than ever before and it’s making me nervous.

I obviously love my daughter and I love my sister. I don’t want to have to choose between them and hurt either of them. But, honestly, I wish Anita would start spending less time at our house at this impressionable stage in Sari’s life. I wish I could tell Anita not to come around as much, but I can’t even imagine how devastating this would be for her. She would be so hurt, and it’s not like she has too many other places to hang out at. We’ve become her secondary home base.

How do I put a stop to what I see happening in front of me in a way that doesn’t seriously damage two of the people I love most in my life? Is it even possible?

Nervous

Dear Nervous,

The teenage years are often challenging, both for teenagers and for their parents. It’s a time when children start to individuate — they start moving away from their parents’ control and ideas as they begin to figure out who they are, separate and distinct from their parents. This can feel extremely threatening for many parents for various reasons. Though many of us probably don’t want to admit it, we kind of would like our children to emulate us — share the same values, lifestyles, goals, even appearances — as much as possible, and, if we are really fortunate, do it even better than we did it ourselves. A new and improved version of ourselves! When that doesn’t seem to be in the cards, and we observe our children growing into adults we don’t even recognize, it can be disturbing for some people, to say the least.

Sari is changing. It seems that this metamorphosis is bringing her closer to emulating Anita than you (for now, anyway). So first off, the question is, why? Could it be, as you suspect, that it’s because they are spending too much time together? Is it because perhaps Anita and Sari share a certain amount of DNA that connects them in a special way? It wouldn’t be the first time that a young woman winds up resembling an aunt more than her very own mother. Could it be because there is some underlying tension between you and your daughter? Maybe all of the above? Though you may not be able to know for certain the true reason for this shift in alliances, perhaps at this time it might be just as beneficial for you to try to understand what it means for you and why you say that it makes you “nervous.”

It seems that your main concern is that Sari will opt to never marry because Anita is not married. No doubt, the scarves you can live with, but Sari being single? Having a sister who never married brings the possibility home in a very real way and must be frightening to you. But as you well know, being single is not contagious, and, I would imagine, if anything, Sari’s close relationship with Anita enables Sari to observe firsthand the hardships that her lifestyle involves.

I hear that you don’t really have any intention of abandoning Anita at this time (though it may feel like an easy out). Not only would it totally destroy Anita, it would create enormous pain and resentment on the part of Sari. It’s clear that the two of them have a special chemistry, which probably brings something special into each of their lives. So rather than focus on how to separate the two of them, try focusing more on how you and Sari can connect better, both in purposeful time spent together and in meaningful dialogue.

You’re still the mother, and if you look hard enough, you can find or create opportunities for the two of you to bond further. Additionally, consider joining the two of them occasionally. If you find them hanging out in Sari’s room on a Sunday afternoon, suggest taking the two of them out to lunch, to the movies, to the mall, or anywhere. As they say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! When you’re together with them, take the opportunity to listen closely to their conversations so that you have a better understanding of what their connection is all about, thereby feeling safe knowing that it’s all good, which will most likely be the case.

On the other hand (and highly unlikely), if you pick up on conversation that is disturbing in some way, and you’re unhappy with the messages Anita is presenting to Sari, on any level, you’ll have to step up your efforts. You’ll have to have an honest conversation with Anita, explaining your concerns, and maybe even laying down some laws. That’s hopefully not something you have to worry about.

Sari is far from fully baked. Possibly she’ll be off to Israel next year, exposed to new people and new experiences. You have every reason to feel confident that Sari will develop into the wonderful woman she is meant to be!

Esther

Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at mindbiz44@aol.com or 516-314-2295.

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