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Navigating a world with a ‘perfect’ sibling

By Annicca Albano Published Oct 15, 2021 5:00 am

When I was a kid, my mom said that all she prayed for was that my sister and I would love and look out for one another — I privately rolled my eyes at how dramatic she was. Now that I’m an adult, I get it. The world can be cold and cruel; when I hit rock bottom, I am always grateful I have my family to count on.

It was just the two of us until I was nine. We did everything together: built blanket forts, played pretend, dressed up in matching outfits, and wrote letters every day. Depending on which sister you ask, people calling us twins was either a curse or a compliment. Though we had our fair share of tiffs and teasing, we made up before the day’s end.

When we moved houses and transferred schools, my sister and I naturally developed our own personalities. She, being good at keeping her grades and room impeccable, appeased our Asian household.

Having a sibling to grow up with and love is a gift.

I struggled to fit in, prioritized extracurricular activities over schoolwork, and had boy dramas by fifth grade. I drove my family berserk with my poor decisions and passionate backtalk, which usually ended with them wishing I was more like their perpetually pleasant firstborn.

The same feeling of not being favored was with me wherever I went. Our teachers questioned if I was really her sister because I wasn’t smart in math. She went straight to med school, while I had to work for my dreams.

No matter the talents I developed, my sister’s quiet accomplishments outsized mine. Even if I succeeded in beating her academically, I only developed anxiety.

Whenever we visited Grandma’s, her friends would mistake me for “the doctor.” Their smiles died when Mom corrected them. Obviously, I pursued communications, a useless job I was told.

My mom did her best to assure me, offering support and watching me whenever I entered storytelling and writing competitions. But no matter how many talents I developed, my sister’s quiet accomplishments outsized mine. My admiration quickly became anger at how she had coasted through life. Even if I had succeeded in beating her academically, I only gained anxiety.

That hate-studying got me into a different university, at least. I remember being relieved at the idea of not being stuck with my sister and risking comparison again.

Each new interest I developed and friendship I forged, I let myself become disinterested and disconnected from her. We were just roommates, I saltily convinced myself. I didn’t welcome the people she brought into her life. Gifts from her made me feel poorer. As soon as I was given the chance to work in a faraway city, I grabbed it.

At one of my pity parties, I met my boyfriend. Drunk, with nothing to lose, I confessed the things I wasn’t proud of. For whatever reason, he stayed. He isn’t a writer, but he made me feel I was the best one until I got promoted. I picked up new hobbies that filled the empty cup I was pouring from.

Each day, we peeled away the tough skin I’d developed to get me to understand I would never be like my sister. When I sought professional help for my panic attacks, my heart stopped at the question: Why do you still feel the need to prove yourself to others?

If there’s anyone who knows who we are underneath, it’s our siblings.

I spent many, many years resenting my sister for having things I couldn’t have, to the point where I’d forgotten who I was. My boyfriend coming into my life reminded me that, despite the ugliest circumstances, I could still be a loving person, child, and sister. My therapist made me see that I’d managed to achieve what I’d always wanted to do after all.

But how does one push through the resistance and get to “restarting”? Since she uprooted her life to start her own family, interactions with my sister have become less frequent. The few times I reached out, say to ask for first aid advice, her replies were unsurprisingly brief.

And when she gave birth to my niece, all I could offer was a lame congratulations over text. The universe jerked in disgust, knowing I was reaching out, but still expecting to be thanked for making the slightest effort. Feeling guilty, I retreated into isolation.

Like the prodigal son, I returned home at my lowest point. My parents let me heal from the feelings I was struggling with. After collecting myself, I convinced them to help me start a new life abroad. What I didn’t plan on was my sister showing up at our doorstep with a debilitated look, one I recognized. I knew she needed us.

It had been so long since our family was complete. We shared meals, laughed at inside jokes, and ran errands around the city. In quiet moments, I wondered: how could I, or anyone, hate her? She has saved lives, yet she boasted how I touched souls. Seeing everyone shower my sister’s daughter with familiar love filled me with happiness — no longer an urge to compete. It seemed only yesterday that I was her baby. I missed her, I realized.

Parents promise us that sibling rivalry is inevitable, but ephemeral. It doesn’t last. Nobody tells us, however, how it really ends or how to deal with our siblings as grown-ups. What I do know is that going through bad times helps us appreciate the good. Siblings are gifts to us, on the premise that we can help navigate our lives together — not to see their strengths as a threat, but as a complement to our weaknesses. I tried to blame her for everything, when all she did was show me the way. 

Sibling rivalry may not be as harmless as we once thought.

Insecurity manifests in different ways, and these things happen to all of us. If there’s anyone who knows who we are underneath those, it’s our siblings. Those people with whom we share a history — they’re all we’ve got in the future, too. Seldom do we admit that family rifts are normal. Often, it’s the repair that strengthens the bond beyond blood.

My path has been laden with mistakes I’m still learning from. The mistakes remind me that I’m only human — someone who is also capable of doing better. My sister endured my worst times and she deserves the “best sibling” tag. I reached out, with humility now, and apologized by penning her a letter like old times.

Though we are barely three years apart, she messaged me on Telegram later saying she had always known I needed time to mature, mentally and emotionally. The greatest paradox of having what I thought of as an annoyingly perfect sibling is that I ended up more myself. I never lost her; I simply needed to find what she meant to me — on my own.

I became self-sufficient and brave-hearted and a writer because of her. I didn’t make the best decisions then, but I’m now choosing to be the loving one. That’s what counts for her and the answer to our mom’s prayers. I’m still finding ways to express this new sister love. For now, I will just do what I do: write.