My three daughters are in their closet desperately searching for my middle daughter’s favorite dress—the oversized pink satin one with glitter and sheer sleeves.

“We’re going to pretend ball,” squeals my oldest as she runs past me. Though none of them really understand time, they tell me it’s starting in an hour.

“Oh, oh, oh. We have to find your perfect dress!”

They don’t have any luck in the closet, but they do in the dryer. Still in the laundry room, all three girls huddle in a circle to help get their sister dressed. “We must hurry!” says my oldest, helping her sister’s arms into the unforgiving sleeves. “The ball, the ball is starting soon!”

Once she’s in her dress, they stay in their huddle. Now in silence, they admire each other with slow nods and winks.

I welcome this kind of play because it doesn’t always happen. Just two hours ago, they were fighting over breakfast. Competing for the pink spoon with hearts on the handle, the princess cup that had only the illusion of more milk, the chair that wobbles, my attention.

With my daughters who are 5, 3, and 1, there’s a pecking order. Fights over territory usually happen between the daughters who are closest in age. I read once in a magazine that the reason for this is simple. Like in the wild, they’re competing for the same resources they think they need to survive.

“I don’t like my sister!” This is what my oldest screamed at me after breakfast. “She won’t let me read my book in the corner, and…she’s so yucky!” she said, staring in her 3-year old sister’s direction. Then, for what felt like an eternity, they bounced back and forth with “No, you’re yucky!” “No, you are!” “No, you!”

I once had a vision of the kind of sisters I would be raising. Kind of like those sisters of Rebecca Wells’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, they would always be best friends. They’d stick together through thick and thin, always understand and support and love one another. And they’d never, ever, ever fight, especially not over milk or spoons. To get the sisters in my vision, I did everything right. I read all the right books, carefully crafted their wardrobes, and made careful notes on every study I could get my hands on about sisters. “The sister tie,” said one study I read in my third pregnancy, is one that cannot be easily broken. Relationships between sisters are not only usually the strongest in families, they’re also the most enduring and life changing.

I wanted to raise perfectly good sisters. But after brokering far too many failed peace deals between them, I’ve come to accept that perfectly good is not what I’ve got. Even with all the right books and parenting tactics, my daughters are like magnets– drawn to and repulsed by each other at the same time. On any given day, it’s normal for my daughters to fight, compete, argue, sulk, and complain. But between all that, they love each other. I live for the in between. But I’ve come to accept everything else as part of their deal.

Watching how my daughters work, I’m often reminded of the very old saying, “Friends come and go, but a sister is forever.” I heard this often when I was growing up with my own sister. But I never really understood what it meant. As children, we teetered on a love/hate tightrope that kept us interested and uninterested in all the same things most of the time. We shared so much back then — the same room, closet, friends, clothes, and secrets told under the giant oak tree in our backyard. We sounded and mostly looked the same. So we spent much of our early years drawing lines in soft sand to assert ourselves as individuals, as different people (even when we didn’t feel that way ourselves). We fought over all the same things until we were old enough to afford our own new things. We stopped talking then, or in our early 20s with our new things. But then my dad died and we started talking again.

Now in our 30s, with more desire to get along, we usually just get along. “Hello?” I’ll ask, even when I know it’s my sister calling on most Fridays. We talk then for hours, mostly about our days, what we’ve seen on the news, and weekend plans. It isn’t perfect what we’ve got. We still compete, argue, and fight over our grown-up versions of milk and spoons. But between all that there’s something else there, something we often don’t name in weekly phone calls: There’s love.

We live for the in between and accept everything else as part of our deal because all of it put together is just how we work. Good or bad, love and hate, she’ll always be my sister. Friends come and go, but a sister is forever. I get this now.

My daughters are all dressed and running in the hallway toward their room. “Come on, girls,” says middle sister. We don’t want that wicked lady to see us.” They’re tiptoeing on carpet, holding the front ends of their dresses with a pincher grasp. Their shoulders are hunched forward. “Don’t worry,” says one to the others in a hushed voice, “we’ll keep each other safe. We will always have each other.”

I hope they always remember what they’ve got because I know it’s worth holding on to.

Jessica F. Hinton is a writer who blogs at jessicafhinton.com and tweets @jessicafhinton.

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