I was seventeen years old and had been an only child for that entire time. I had reveled in having no rival for my parent’s love and attention. But then in the spring of 1957, my mother reported she felt nauseated.
She’d recently taken a bad fall and only went to the doctor because my dad and I urged her to make an appointment to check for a cracked rib.
Twenty four hours later my world was topsy-turvy. Mom wasn’t sick.
She was pregnant.
Thousands of thoughts steamed through my head. I would lose my parents’ focus and attention. I would lose their love. I would be displaced by a cherubic angel.
What if it was a boy? Father always wanted sons. Dad had never said so but I had heard other fathers talking about the joys of having sons follow in their footsteps.
What would I do? How could I survive? How could I maintain my position?
My mother wasn’t a psychologist. But she was, and is, a wise woman. One night, long before Baby X’s presence was obvious, she and I went to our favorite hamburger hangout, one where parents were welcomed. We ordered cheeseburgers followed by banana splits with all those gooey strawberry, pineapple, and chocolate toppings.
During dinner, we had chatted about my favorite teacher who taught history and civics, a social function for the cheerleading squad of which I was a member and an upcoming piano recital that I was trying to escape.
As we were polishing off the final bites of dessert, mom said to me, “Anabel, I want to talk about something pretty heavy duty.” “Oh, no,” I thought, “I don’t think I can deal with platitudes of how much we will still love you. Of course, this baby won’t take your place, blah, blah, blah…’
I was still pretty resentful, and although I hadn’t said anything out loud, I’m sure my attitude and body language were clear.
But these were not the words that flowed out from my mother at all.
Instead she said, “You know I’m pretty scared, Anabel.”
I remembered being surprised by this comment. She may have noticed my reaction because she said, “I’m not a spring chicken anymore. I’ll be thirty-seven on my birthday.” She smiled a little and said, “It’s harder for ‘old hens’ to give birth you know. And your birth was long and complicated. I was in labor for three days. I was convinced I would be torn in two, before you finally arrived safely.“
I remembered thinking what kind of a conversation is this? It certainly wasn’t transpiring along any normal recognizable lines from my point of view.
“Anabel, your father and I have a favor to ask.“
Now I was really confused. A favor? What kind of a favor? What was she talking about?
At my perplexed look, she stated, “Here’s our request. If something should happen to me during this pregnancy or during the delivery and the baby lives and I die – “
“Oh, mom, don’t say that – don’t think it – don’t even whisper it.”
Let me finish,” she insisted. “And if I die, I want you to promise me you’ll raise this baby – boy or girl.”
I was in shock. She wanted me to raise the baby?. My gosh, surely there were more qualified individuals than I. She trusted me with this unknown quantity of humanity. I was overwhelmed.
I was also immensely flattered. This could be a future president, this baby. This could be a space traveler. This could be a …
And suddenly I was at peace with my parents and myself.
This request provided perspective for me in several new ways. My mother had created an opportunity for me to glimpse some of her angst about this unexpected truth, some of the tragedy that might occur if this baby had no mother and a glimpse of the ‘hope’ that all new life generates.
This enlarged perspective made me realize that the new baby was not a rival to love, but an ally for building stronger bonds of affection for us all.
This new addition was not going to violate my expectations of being significant in my parent’s life. Instead a whole new importance was going to be developed – one in which my opinion would be solicited.
My jealousy evaporated.
In the years since I have learned that not much good comes from jealousy. In fact, jealousy is probably the harbinger of self-hatred.
When I looked up jealousy in the dictionary, I thought it was fascinating that many of the synonyms were tied to what I would define as by-products of jealousy: resentment, bitterness, and spite.
Certainly, I do not want to fill my life with these wasteful emotions.
Jealousy is essentially about vulnerability. Our self-esteem is in danger. We are anxious and worried because we may lose something of crucial importance.
For me, the potential loss was parental love. As a teenager, I did not recognize either the breath or depth of the loving bonds in my family.
Maintaining self-esteem and avoiding jealousy comes by proving the suspicion groundless or by growing the sense of self so that the threatened need is no longer important.
In this instance, my mother provided the proof that parental love would not be lost.
What I did not know then, but do now is that it is not how much you are loved, but how much you love yourself that is the key to preventing jealousy.
Jealousy is needless, totally unnecessary, if we are confident and secure about who we are.
Now looking back many years later, I wonder why those first feelings of jealousy were ever born.
Tami, of course, came into a world that was always composed of two mothers. Later, after we married and had kids, we learned to be sisters.
What a wonderful love exists between the two of us. I cannot imagine her not being emotionally present for me.
Perhaps George Eliot’s words on friends best describes my present relationship with my sister:
“Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure word, but to pour them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”
Sibling rivalry simply doesn’t exist between us. We are secure and supportive and safe in each other’s hearts.
Jealous, we certainly are not.