The Sister Thing

Posted On: 07.09.12

Because I am the middle of five girls – and now have three girls of my own – I find myself thinking about sisterhood a lot. What it means to have a sister, to be one. A huge part of my identity is still wrapped up in the fact that I am a sister to four Donnelley girls, now Donnelley women.

I find myself stepping back at moments to watch my girls, to witness their interactions, the way they communicate and converse. The way they play, and tussle, and tangle. I cannot tell you what immense and ineffable joy it brings me to know that no matter what they will always be sisters, they will always have that little bit of childhood that can never be lost.

Last week, in Cape Cod, I felt this keenly, this sense of reverence and awe for the sisters Husband and I have created. After a late night drive that led to a sleepless first night away, we ended up bunking all three girls in one room. The big girls slept on their amazing Shrunks blow-up travel mattresses and the babe slumbered in a rental crib. And, oddly, wonderfully, this arrangement worked quite well. I think, I know, the girls liked being close to each other. It makes me wonder if we will put all three in one room, dorm-room-style, sometime soon. That’s the way my sisters and I grew up and I loved it. Hmm…

Do you have any experience with sisterhood? Are you close with your siblings? Do you enjoy watching your children interact? Do you think we’d be insane to put all three of our creatures in one room at some point?

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45 Comments for: "The Sister Thing"
  1. I have a sister (with whom I was happily reunited this past week when she returned from a year in the Middle East) and my relationship with her is one of the most central – and probably the most crucial in terms of defining and shaping who I am – of my life. It’s actually my one major regret about my family, that my daughter won’t have a sister. When my second child was born a son (and we didn’t find out the gender ahead of time either time) I was so shocked it took me a while to get over it. I just never imagined anything other than two girls. Of course having a brother is its own kind of magic, and watching them together is so joyful (and sometimes aggravating, of course) that I could never imagine it otherwise. But sometimes I do get a pang of sorrow when I realize Grace will never have a sister.

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      I love how honest you are here. That you say that you love your kids and love your unique combination of kids, but that you do have that pang. I think this makes perfect sense because you know what it is to have a sister, and to be one, and you and H are so close. But I do wonder if there is something truly unique about sisterhood, or whether we are really speaking of an uncanny closeness that can manifest between brothers and sisters as well? Could be, right? I have recently really begun to accept the fact that we are done having kids – and this is really a happy thing – and I am waiting to feel the pang that I have not had a boy. Truth be told, I do not feel it right now (and this could be because I never did experience having a brother) but I imagine I will feel it at some point? Like you, I adore the family I DO have, but I think it is only human to imagine other scenarios and iterations of the lives we lead… Thanks, you. xox

  2. This made me think of a really great book I read awhile back which was full of essays about siblings called Freud’s Blind Spot. Really good read.

    For me, it’s like a gaping hole. My half-siblings (father’s children from a previous marriage) are 15 and 18 years older. I was obsessed with them as a child, yet they never took a whole lot of interest in me growing up.

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      That book sounds great. Will make sure to check it out. I think I am a lot more thoughtful about this these days because my younger sister – whom I often call my twin because we are so close – is moving at the end of the month and I know how much I will miss her. I’m sorry to hear that about your half-sibs. Are you close with them now at all? Do you think that those of us who do not have siblings can find friends who are so close to us that they become, in many ways, sisters and brothers? I have heard people say this and it makes some sense to me… Thanks, Nikki!

      • I had a period when I was semi-close to my brother when I was a teenager, largely because he had opened an arcade at the mall with his friends and that’s where I went to hang out with mine… but as an adult I’ve never developed a close relationship with either of them. We’ve mostly discovered that we have very little in common with each other. I’m a city mouse, and they’re country mice.

        I know that in my life, I’ve developed a sibling-like rapport with certain friends. It’s definitely possible. On the downside, it’s something that sometimes isn’t taken as seriously by people as being blood related… My best friends growing up (a brother and sister pair) called me their sister, but when I got a boyfriend that they didn’t like (and in retrospect for good reason) they cut me off like I had never existed, and after we broke up they never forgave… and I don’t know, I have a feeling that would never have happened if I had been blood related.

        • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

          Such an interesting thing to ponder, namely what blood has to do with it. My hunch is that you are right – that bonds that are blood-borne perhaps withstand more than those that aren’t? I don’t know. As an aside, I love that you describe yourself as a “city mouse.” I might have to steal that one 🙂

  3. D

    For me sisters, indeed siblings, are a foreign, almost exotic concept. I grew up as a quasi-only child, quasi because my brother, older by 3 years, was severely autistic and lived far away from us my whole life. I always wondered on our trips to see him what it would be like to have a sibling that you could talk to, fight with, commiserate about your parents etc.
    Now, I am lucky enough to have a girl and a boy and they are extremely close. This summer, they are at separate all boys and all girls sleep away camps across the lake from each other but have several weekly joint events. The photos of the two of them together (posted on the camp website) are magic. In each and every one, you can see their joy at being reunited and their love for each other. Their relationship is touching for anyone to see but for me, it is extra-special and bittersweet. Although, I will never know what it is like to have a real sibling relationship, I never knew truly what I was missing until I had my kids. When a sibling relationship is good, it is a true gift and one I am glad to be a part of, even as an observer.

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      A true gift indeed. Your comment has me thinking about something, namely the unexpected (or expected?) joys that can arise from having children. I never predicted that I would be so blown away by the relational aspect of being a parent to three girls. The nature and evolution of their relationship(s) with each other is nothing short of fascinating to me, and brings an incredible meaning to my days, even the harder ones. Just to be able to watch them navigate things with each other is a simple, and abiding, treat. Then again, I have friends who have only one child and I see how much attention and focus those kids get and I do feel a bit of envy too because I feel, quite simply, that when you have more than one child, that kind of attention/individual shepherding is impossible… Anyway, a tangent, but interesting I think. I think it’s incredible that you are enjoying your kids’ relationship with each other even more because you did not experience it, you know? Hope you are good, D! xox

  4. Sam

    3 sisters are a bit of a tradition in my family. I am the oldest of three sisters. My mom is the youngest of three sisters. My grandfather had six sisters. And the list goes on. My sisters have had such a huge role in shaping the person that I have become that I don’t think I could even begin to separate out the parts of me that have been touched by them, and all the other parts. I’m not even sure that there are other parts. They are my fiercest protectors, strongest advocates, and most special friends, and I theirs. Recently the three of us were at a bridal shower together and the bride’s sister spoke beautifully about their relationship. At the end of the speech, my sisters and I all looked at each other, all in tears. My middle sister said what we were all thinking: “everyone needs a sister.” I can’t imagine my life another way, without being surrounded by sisters. And I hope that one day, if I have a daughter, she too will grow up drenched in the sisterhood that has so defined my life.

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      This is so beautiful, Sam. And I get it. Oh do I get it. I love the image of the three of you at a shower listening to words, absorbing them, eyes filling with tears. Very poignant. I hope your dream of daughters comes true and that they are so beautifully drenched as you describe. Thanks for this 🙂

  5. Laura

    I’m the youngest of three sisters, and I, too, am largely defined by that fact. We are very close in age (two years between my oldest & middle sister, and then two and a half between my middle sister and me), and have spent most of our lives pretty much on top of each other (bunk beds as kids; same grade school, high school, college; and for a little while, the same neighborhood of the city). It’s really hard to describe what sisterhood feels like, other than to say that my sisters are everything to me. I thank God for them every single day.
    Lately, I’ve been wondering what it means to be so close. Maybe it’s because the last boy I dated made some off-hand comment that just stuck in mind, about how sometimes he felt like no matter what, he’d never be as close to me as my sisters are. Sure, he was conflating two things that really are completely different — family love & romantic love — but it left me thinking: what does a super close sister bond mean for the other people in said sisters’ lives? I have a few girlfriends who are like sisters to me. Literally, we all joke that they are the fourth, fifth, sixth sister. And yet, we are not sisters. The relationship that I have with my sisters is decidedly different. Sisterhood is complex in a way that friendship is not. But there is also something about it (something I can’t quite articulate right now) that just isn’t there with friendship. Maybe that’s not true for everybody. I’m sure there are women out there who are closer to their friends than they are to their biological sisters. I have a few friends for whom that’s true. Do they experience that sisterhood that I experience, but with friends? Is there even a decipherable “sisterhood” experience? Probably not. But there have to be some strains of commonality in sister relationships.
    I don’t have kids (yet- hopefully!), but I’ve spent the past year and a half watching my twin nephews forge a bond that makes me wonder whether we are simply biologically programmed to be that close to each other. Whether it’s our twin, our sibling, our cousin, our friend, I think everyone craves that kind of closeness and everyone finds it somehow, whether it’s in the form of a sister or not.
    Anyway, thanks for making me think on this sunny Monday morning! I always appreciate it. 🙂

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      Such an interesting question, Laura… What effect does incredible closeness in biological or other sisterhood have on other relationships? I’m not sure. I do know that I am so so thankful that Husband gets along with all of my sisters and understands and respects my closeness to them. I can only imagine how hard it would be if this weren’t the case. And the whole notion of being biologically programmed to find closeness? Fascinating. I know little about this, but hopefully someone reading knows a bit more than I do?

      I’m not going to lie: I love that you (and Sam, too) describe a beautiful trio of sisters because, yup, that’s what I am raising and I hope that years from now, they describe their bond the way you two do.

      Thanks, Laura!

  6. I have a much younger sister so our relationship is part adult-child, part sibling. But she’s great and I wouldn’t trade our relationship for anything.

    You should read Rosamund Lupton’s novel Sister. Apart from a dreadfully ambiguous ending, it’s excellently written, and she really gets it.

  7. As I read Lindsey’s comment I nodded and nodded. Much like her, I grew up as one of two sisters, and my relationship with my sister has always been very central to my life. And it’s because of that relationship that my similar realization about my own children has been a hard pil to swallow.

    I have two boys now, and we’re in the process of adopting our third child who will almost certainly be a boy. (That’s just the way it goes with Korea these days; mostly boys are available, and you’re not allowed to indicate a gender preference.) Our fourth child will be adopted, probably from China with the express purpose of getting a girl. And she will never have a sister. And my heart aches for her about that. She will have three big brothers looking out for her, which will be an experience all its own. But I wish for her that same bond that I’ve experienced with my sister.

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      But just think about it. That little girl – your fourth (!) – will have three wonderful brothers who love her and protect her. And she will love it, and you guys, and never know what she is missing, right? I know so many people who have brothers and LOVED having brothers and I don’t miss that I never had a brother because I don’t even know what that would be like, you know? But, yes, all of that said, I get it. I get the pangs. I get the questions. I get the longing. I am still so amazed and inspired and awed by the way you are building your family. It’s really incredible, Gale. xox

  8. I’ve always been secretly envious of girls/women (including you) who are best friends with their sisters. My sister and I have never been close. Yet my brother and I are good friends. I can’t explain it other than we’re wired differently. I always thought if I tried harder to be a good sister, then we would be closer. As an adult, I finally realized that it took two people to be in a relationship so I let things be.

    Now I have two sons and I am amazed by how much and how fiercely they love each other. And boy, do they ever missed each other while my eldest is away at school! But also, seeing my boys together makes me realize how painful it must be for my mother to see my sister and I at odds.

    Enjoy your sisters and watching your daughters be sisters. I say put all three girls in one room!

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      I know a lot of people who are not close with their sibs and I think that this is sometimes just the way life works. Just because you are born into the same family doesn’t mean that you are destined to be close, although that’s definitely ideal. All of this makes me feel extra grateful that I am close with my sisters. The relationship between your boys sounds wonderful; I can only imagine that it brings you immense satisfaction to witness their bond.

      Thanks for the 3 girl room vote! I really do love the idea.

      Thanks, Erica!

  9. I have 2 children: an older daughter, a younger son. I am the youngest of 6, if you count the “steps” which I do.

    There was fighting between my children for quite a few years. And now there is almost none. They are so grateful to have each other, just as I am grateful to have siblings.

    Siblings understand each other in a unique way because we know each others’ baseline. There are no pretends. This is comforting for the most part.

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      I am very taken by the idea that siblings know each others’ baseline. Such an interesting, and compelling, thought. I also do think that siblings, even very close ones, go through phases. So far, my girls really don’t fight. Sure, they will get into a tug-of-war over a toy or a book, but it’s really quite peaceful (and chaotic) around here. But I trust that even if they do come to fight a bit down the line, they will remain close. Thanks, Rebecca.

  10. I could not imagine life without my sister. We are incredibly tight and there are times when we talk daily (or multiple times a day) or go sometimes weeks without speaking. Even though we are 3,000 miles away there remains a closeness that will never die. There is even a further bond from the loss of our mother. We are the women of the family now and that means something more.

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      I am so happy to read this because my younger sister is moving in a few weeks. I know that we will remain impossibly close and in touch, but I love to read these sister success stories 🙂 And, yes, I think the loss of my dad only made all of us closer. Thanks, Cathy 🙂

  11. TWC

    While I have no experience with sisterhood, I am incredibly close with my one older brother. (We are 18 months apart.) We weren’t always close growing up but now that we’re older and starting families of our own, we talk often, share stories, ask & receive advice, and truly look out for one another. And now I am raising only boys (also 18 months apart)! I can only hope that my relationship with my boys is as strong as my mom and brother’s relationship is today. And hopefully they’ll never live too far from me. And yes, I LOVE watching them interact now. I prefer the interactions of sharing or laughing or high-fiving over the pushing and stealing trucks and trains. 🙂

    Hope you’re well – I heard you all had a fun week!


    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      See… I am thinking this might not be just about sisterhood, but about siblinghood. I know many women who are close to their brothers as you are (and vice versa) so I really think this is about sharing a childhood with someone. From the little I know, I have no doubt that you will have a super-close relationship with those darling boys of yours. And, yes, I agree that it is more fun to witness the joyful play than the whiny arguments or all out mini-battles… But, at the end of the day, there is magic in all of it, huh? Hope you had a good 4th! xxo

  12. Monica Selby (@monicajselby)

    My brother and I are not very close, though we like and respect each other.

    But I have three boys (no girls), and I love watching them. The younger two are twins, but the oldest is only 19 months older. They are quite a little passel of energy and fun. We talk to them a lot about how they will always be brothers, no matter what happens. They are best friends now, and just the sweetest things. (Though, of course, there’s fighting. They aren’t angels!)

    We have all 3 of them in one room. There are times when it’s a problem getting them to bed, but mostly they–and we–love the closeness it creates. You would not be at all crazy for letting your three share.

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      Oh, love to hear that you have all three of your boys in one room and that it is working out – or mostly! So cool that they are best friends and it makes sense that they fight from time to time, right? Thanks, Monica!

  13. I have three younger sisters and one older. I was the only boy.

    For a long while sisterhood meant four anywhere from 2-4 girls teaming up to “beat” the evil brother. They did their best to convince our parents that I was at fault for every fight or minor issue.

    Can’t tell you how good they were at turning on the tears just as our dad would walk into the room. There was a stretch of time where I remember thinking I would never get married because I “knew” that girls would be your friend one moment and then your enemy the next.

    Eventually we all grew up a bit and I went through a stretch where sisters meant that some of the good looking girls from school would end up staying over at our house.

    Learned a bit about how to talk to girls in ways that the other guys didn’t and felt like there was a benefit.

    But the truth is that I never realized that one day we would all be friends. I think it has been good for all of us because your sibling always provides a different perspective.

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      I didn’t know about this 4 sisters thing, Jack! Something we have in common, huh? I think it probably benefited you big-time to be surrounded by women although I can only imagine that the situation posed its challenges during childhood. Thanks, Jack!

  14. Monica

    I love your posts Aidan! They relate to what I am going through in the present moment. I am the oldest of 1 younger sister. Yesterday, we go into a little argument over male friendships, and how she fears for me. I know nobody’s perfect, but I told her I am an adult, I feel like I know what’s right from wrong and am fully aware of the choices I make. Then, I started thinking that’s why I’ve never had a real “boyfriend,” because I put up these walls to which people run away from me, and it’s going to take a strong man, to tear down those walls. These walls are to protect my family, so I also run away, but really the only thing I can do right now is pray. Pray and don’t worry over the things we cannot control. Regardless, thought I know my sister just cares too much about me, liek I do for her, and it’s normal and human because we’re also still grieving over the loss of our mom who passed away a little over a year ago. Thanks for opening my mind and for reading. God bless. 🙂

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      Sisterhood is absolutely wonderful, but can be complicated as your story here shows. I am so sorry about the loss of your Mom. I know from experience that there are no words, but I am glad you have the support of your sister. Thanks so much for your kind words!

  15. Awww, so sweet. Why not bunk them? Soon they will be at the age where they will bicker more than snuggle.

  16. Jacqueline

    Oh, I am all about sisters too! I have an older sister who is, and always has been, my world! When my first child was a girl, I hoped and hoped that she would have a sister. She did! Watching my two girls together, who share a room as well, is just one of my favorite things. Granted they can turn on each other quickly at times, but they adore each other so much. Pregnant with my third, I really hoped (is that terrible to admit?) for a third girl to fall in with her two older sisters. What could be better than that, right? We were surprised and blessed with a little boy, and of course, I couldn’t imagine it any other way now. I just hope he can continue to endure the affection, adoration, and attention he receives from his sisters!
    I say put them all in the same room- they will love it!

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      Thrilled for another three girls in the room vote! I have to say that when I was preg with number three, I was secretly hoping for a girl, too. I can only imagine that having that little boy is amazing though and those big sisters of his must dote on their little guy. Thanks, Jacqueline!

  17. Kristen

    I stumbled across your blog a while ago and for a variety of reason was drawn to it, although this is the first time I have responded 🙂 I, too, am one of five girls in my family, however, I am the oldest. Oddly enough, I am closest to our middle sister. We are spread apart in age (17 years between us) but I agree the bond is like nothing you could experience unless you lived it. My family has always been one of my most defining characteristics – I mean, how many other people are one of five daughters in a family? I have some interesting relationships with some of my sisters – some are much younger and some so different but at the end of the day there is no one else like them and our relationship. I just got back from a long weekend visiting sister number 3 (your spot) in Portland, OR and had a fabulous time. Unfortunately I am the only one of the east coast but again that bond resumes immediately when I see one of them.
    In response to putting the girls in one room: my two youngest sisters (3 years apart) that were the only ones that consistently shared a room are the closest of us all, almost like twins. There have been many times that I have been very jealous of their relationship.
    So, the other reason that your blog has resonated with me is the whole drinking (or not drinking) aspect. I have had many of the same feelings and thoughts that you experienced with alcohol, but that will be for another comment.
    ~ Kristen

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      Another one of five girls!! LOVE it. Their aren’t many of us, so we must celebrate when we find each other, huh? So happy you found your way here. And I look forward to your comment on the drinking thing. I am realizing that I am FAR from alone in struggling with this. Thanks, Kristen!

  18. Dara

    My sister is my best friend, whether sharing a room, or living across the country. It’s funny you wrote this post now as my husband and I are discussing whether to have a second child. I want for my little girl what I had, but then no matter what I do, she will not have what I had… She will never live in the same city I lived in, she will never experience the 80s… she will not have the same sister. If my reason for having a second child is to make my baby a friend, that is a poor choice, as they could turn out not to be friends (which would be devastating).

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      So interesting. You are right to point out that no matter how hard or diligently we try, we can’t duplicate our own childhoods. I can’t tell you how many people here in NYC ask me if I will have 5 girls like my parents did and it just seems like a bizarre question, or maybe not? Anyway, the whole question of how many kids we should have – or should want to have – is so fraught and interesting. I’m planning a post on this very question. For what it’s worth – and my opinion should decidedly not count – I vote that you give that little cutie a little bro or sis. 🙂

  19. I think of siblings a lot. Our son entered the world prematurely and gave us a good scare. We aren’t sure we could go through another pregnancy knowing the possibilities on the other side. We also aren’t sure we want to stretch ourselves financially to become a family of four. And yet, I wonder if raising a single child is the right thing to do. One of my parents and both of my husband’s parents were only children and they all turned out pretty darn remarkable. I know it can be done, but what do they miss out on as a result … hmmmm….

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      Such a hard question, but my hunch is that there is no right answer here and that you guys will come to the best conclusion for you. I know beautiful and “successful” and happy families with many children and with only children… Thanks, Nilsa!

  20. I think it would be wonderful to have had a sister, but I have two older brothers. I always felt that they were closer because they had more in common. I am lucky to have a best friend that is my soul sister. This post is sweet and tender, enjoy watching them being sisters and best friends.

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