When sisters become mothers

July 24

(Joanna Edie)

Our lives had always been like swooping birds, my sister’s and mine, mirroring and weaving around one another but never quite touching. My trail off into motherhood only made the four years between us seem greater.

When she and I talked on the phone, I felt our connection gradually fading. In the early years, I was overwhelmed, even strung out. She and I no longer traded stories of riding public buses through South American villages, of teaching in mud-walled schoolhouses. Unlike her, I had quietly shut the door on that kind of adventure. Instead, I told her how my daughter crouched down on her hands and knees to lap water out of the dog bowl, or how my son had pooped on the couch as if he were laying an egg. My sister laughed, but in a kind, bored sort of way.

Motherhood could be an isolated, lonely place.

Once, I saw my sister’s apartment in Brooklyn for five minutes on our way to her engagement brunch. Afterwards, when we spoke on the phone, I would flash back to that still life: her tiny kitchen, a jar of marmalade on the shelf, a buttery leather sofa placed against the far wall. I framed her life in that way—small and incomplete—because it was all I had of her then.

She talked about having children herself someday, but my sister was in no rush.

She and her husband visited us often, slipping into the familiar tableau in my suburban house: my dog pressing his wet nose against their faces before dawn, our dinner plates tacked to the dining table with pools of maple syrup left over from breakfast.

During those visits, I imagined her curled up with her husband in our guest bed at the end of each day, exhausted by all of our blooming and growing. Her hushed laughter from behind the closed door betrayed her disappointment in what lay ahead and, I feared, her disappointment in me.

Then, she moved back to Washington D.C. and had a baby. Her son was born peacefully in her guest bed with the help of a fantastic home birth team. My sister was stunningly relaxed when we spoke. I was in awe.

Two weeks later, the day before I was to visit, my sister slipped and fell down the stairs. The baby fell from her arms, his skull fracturing upon impact with the wood floor. She called the paramedics, and then she called me.

I cried that night while my sister lay in the pediatric trauma unit with her son. All the tests indicated he would be fine, but the lingering worry felt like agony, even to me.

The next morning, I stashed my three children with various neighbors, scribbled instructions for my husband, and headed to the airport, unfettered and focused, for once.

I arrived and my sister was still at the hospital. I let myself in her front door, stepping gingerly over the foyer—wet, salty tracks from the paramedics’ winter boots had been left to dry overnight. The image of my sister and her infant son sprawled on the floor hovered like a somber ghost until I pushed it away.

At first, I felt I was trespassing—wandering up and down her split-level home, flickering through the scenes of her life that I had missed while tending to my own family. I made her bed. I started a load of laundry.

My sister was well prepared for a stream of helpful guests: her kitchen appliances were labeled with typed operating instructions. The linen closet was dotted with even stacks, each labeled like graphic table elements—beach towels, queen sheets, and rags among them.

Leaning up against her perfect placement of things amplified my own tendency toward clutter.

Don’t be annoying while you’re here, I thought, as if that were most important.

An hour later, my sister walked in the door. I flung my arms around her. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” she said stoically, pushing me back gently and setting the baby’s car seat on the floor.

I crouched down and cradled the baby’s soft head with my hands. I sat down on the couch and held him, staring at him for what would amount to three hours.

“We have an ant problem,” my sister said wearily, apologetically.

I shooed her off to take a nap.

Later, my sister read aloud the to-do list she had typed for me into her phone: remove ballpoint pen markings from the coffee table. Flatten gift bags and coordinating tissue paper. Remove the red wine stain from her bathrobe. Listen to her birth story.

I followed her instructions. I tiptoed along her wood floors. I was beginning to make a salient truce with a new order.

I also swaddled the baby, stuck my nose behind his newborn ears, and sat on my sister’s couch, cataloging all the things in her house that I hadn’t seen before: the carved oak secretary in the hall, the felt-lined boot jack from the family farm in her husband’s Western Kansas town.

Then, I noted the familiar: an amaryllis by the front window that matched the one our mother had also given me; my sister’s slender, red leather gloves; a string of Ugandan paper beads, coiled in a vinyl storage pocket on her closet door; her long, cream-colored feet nestled neatly among the sofa cushions like Koi.

On Sunday morning, she took me out to brunch. We plopped the baby’s car seat in a chair. We drank hibiscus mimosas and nibbled from a cheese board. Nearby, two women whispered and turned, mewling at the baby. They marveled at how brave my sister was to be out and about so soon. She supposed it was because I, her expert nanny, was there to help. I smiled with my mouth closed only because my teeth were stuck with candied figs.

We turned back to one another and clinked our glasses, aligned in a new sisterhood, recanting ridiculous indignities we now shared, like recovering from giving birth and pooping in places not explicitly labeled “toilet.” She laughed easily, not in some fragile and watery way.

When it was time for me to leave, I dragged my suitcase to her front door. When I turned to face her, we were both already weeping.

We spoke simultaneously:

“What am I going to do without you?”

“I don’t want to go.”

“The distance between you two is going to feel greater now,” my sister’s husband reckoned softly as he drove me down the parkway to the airport. I stiffened, the bastions gathering around my poor heart, until I realized he was talking about the miles between Washington and Boston.

“Yes,” I nodded ruefully.

As a mother, there are times when the beloved details of my life are scattered before me like a bevy of popped buttons, and remembering what has been lost or forgotten takes a particular effort. The remembering then becomes an act of recovery, of finding within me that nimble core that leads me back to a place of loving wildly, one that I might not have found had I kept it too close all along.

Samantha Shanley is a writer and editor who blogs about parenting at Simtasia. She is a D.C. native who now lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children.

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