#1357: “My sister won’t come home for Christmas.”

Hey Captain Awkward—

My sister and I (she/her) are both students at a small college. We are both training in the same arts field, and one of our primary future career paths involves working closely together (think like a two person play, but not that). When we were younger, our mom was pretty controlling. She wanted to instill in us good habits (eating right, working hard in school and in our chosen career path, working out, etc.), but sometimes went overboard, more so with me, the elder child, than with my sister. We have a pretty fight-y family, and my mom would be the first one to admit that she does most of the yelling. She is a very insightful and organized person, so she has in the past tried to step in and run our lives in a way that is not always helpful (for instance, she used to read our emails and respond from our accounts). When she found out that we had been doing something harmful like sneak-eating snack food or staying up to read under the covers, she would be very upset: sometimes in a way that felt (at least to me back then) a bit scary.

In my early years of college, I rebelled against my mom hard. I stayed in touch with her much less and worked less hard, resulting in me falling behind a bit in my training. Over quarantine, she and I were forced into proximity and became much closer. I understood how difficult it was for her to try to raise us to be successful, and although she was not perfect (and would never claim she was), I no longer resent her. She doesn’t act like she used to anymore: she is very supportive of me and a helpful source of motivation and advice. She is teaching me to drive and cook for myself, and helping me learn the tools I need to become a responsible adult at a realistic pace.

But while I was in my rebellious phase, I tried to convince my sister (who has always worshipped our mom) that the way our mom raised us was harmful, and that we needed to become more self-reliant. Recently (like in the past 6 weeks), she has suddenly started to agree with what I thought back then, but has taken it much farther than I ever imagined.  She never tried setting boundaries or asking for changes—just suddenly woke up one day and cut my whole family off in a very cruel email, without giving my mom a chance to fix anything. Once she realized I was not going to agree with her, she started acting like she barely cared about me. I can’t remember the last time we talked about something not related to school or a book one of us read. And if I say anything positive about our family or negative about how she is treating me, she immediately walks away and refuses to hear it.

We have a VERY important event of our “two person play” that is right after our school’s break. I am a very nervous person and require a lot of practice to do my best. But she has announced that she will not come home because of my mom. As a result, I can’t practice with her at all—just get my part ready and hope for the best. She won’t even tell me where she is going.

I feel like this rift in our family is my fault. And I know my family would do anything to fix this with her. It feels petty, but I can’t help resenting that my sister is sabotaging a make-or-break career opportunity that was years in the making because of this very sudden change of heart.

Any advice would be amazing,
Sister Act

Hi there, Sister Act,

I have a few strong initial reactions to your letter and I’m just gonna go right in:

  • The process you went through in re-creating a relationship with your mom (both the rebelling/distancing and the making peace) is not transitive to your sister. She observed your experience, but it doesn’t replace her own experience. She’s going to have to find her own way.
  • If you treat “persuading your sister to reconcile with your mom/your family” and “repairing your relationship with her enough to get this art project done” as a package deal, with you as the Family Ambassador, I think things will get worse before they get better.
  • I have a lot to say about the artistic collaboration part, you’ll find it at the bottom.

It is possible for siblings to grow up in the same family and have extremely different experiences and relationships with their parents. You feel more generosity and compassion toward your mom now, but there are reasons that you felt the way you did when you were trying to convince your sister that your mom was toxic. Your sister didn’t agree with you then, but you distanced yourself from your mom anyway because it was what you felt you needed to do. You may not like the way she’s going about things, or the timing, but your sister is not inventing the dynamic so much as following in your footsteps.

Questions to ponder:

  • Did your mom stop her attempts to control you because she realized it was wrong, or did she stop because you stopped complying?
  • What if your ability to create that distance, to describe painful events accurately and feel your feelings about them, was necessary to heal and grow, and necessary before you and your mom could form a better relationship on more equal footing now?
  • You say now that you understand your mom’s perspective on parenting more, but I wonder, has your mom ever apologized to either of you for reading your email and impersonating you? Has she ever said she regrets invading your privacy and  punishing you harshly for what you read and ate?
  • Did she actually stop those behaviors with your sister? Do you know that for sure? “I’m not mad anymore, so you shouldn’t be, either” isn’t really a thing, especially if the person who caused the harm hasn’t asked for forgiveness or made their own amends.
  • In the current conflict,  has your mom tried to build her own bridges with your sister and get to the bottom of what’s happening here, or is she tacitly agreeing that it’s your job to fix it? 
  • Are you sure you know why your sister is so upset? People don’t tell their families to eff off forever out of the blue for no reason, and your sister may not have told you or anyone else in your family everything there is to tell. That’s not a prompt to play detective and get to the bottom of it, by the way. It’s a reminder that when things are bad, listening, questioning your assumptions, and withholding judgment until you have all the facts rarely make anything worse.

You worry that the rift in your family is your fault, but it might not be about you, at all — not to cause, and not to fix. Your sister is figuring out what kind of relationship she wants to have with her family of origin. The process is painful and confusing, the way it was probably painful and confusing for her when you were in a vastly different place than she was. It’s so tempting to be the peacemaker and help her skip a few steps, but it doesn’t work that way.

As for your sister’s “cruel” letter and decision to not come home for the holidays, maybe she was really out of line in how she expressed herself, but this blog will never make the argument that people must celebrate holidays with family if they don’t want to. Your hurt feelings and surprise aren’t imaginary or invalid, but you’ll lose less in the long run if you accept that she has her reasons now than you will if you force the un-winnable game of tug-of-war called “If you really loved me, you’d come home” vs. “If you really loved me, you’d trust me on this one.”

This is why, if you want a truce with your sister, I suspect your best bet is to make it clear that you won’t lobby her to come home or reconcile with the other people in your family. Stop defending your mom and her parenting decisions to your sister. Even if you are right, and your sister is being unfair, I suspect that the last thing your sister wants is for you to Be Aggressively Right at her. If your mom *was* invasive and overly critical at times (and not gonna lie, it sounds like she was), the best antidote is a combination of solidarity and faith in your sister to manage her own life. “I don’t fully understand, but I love you no matter what, and I trust you to figure this out in your own way. Come home when you’re ready. I’ll be here.”   

You write: “I can’t remember the last time we talked about something not related to school or a book one of us read. And if I say anything positive about our family or negative about how she is treating me, she immediately walks away and refuses to hear it.” 

What happens if you incorporate your sister’s incredibly clear and consistent feedback and respect her boundaries? Tell her *one time* that you’ll miss her at Christmas, but you understand if she needs to take some time, and starting now, you will stop bringing up family stuff unless she does. Then, keep your promise and drop the subject. If your sister knows that she can talk to you about school stuff and art stuff without navigating a minefield of family conflict, it may open the door to resuming work on your joint project. Picture her as a rescue kitten, feral, furious, and hiding under the laundry bin. If you want her to come out, you can’t force it. She’ll only come out when she feels safe. To help her feel safe, take her at her word about what she needs, stop chasing her, remove pressure, and give her room to breathe.

If *you* need to work through family stuff in the meantime, take it to the school counseling office or confide in a good friend. Especially if you are feeling nervous enough that it’s interfering with your ability to function, tell your regular doctor and/or make an appointment with the school counseling office.

From there, you can model good boundaries, like, not passing on your mom’s feelings, comments, or messages to your sister and vice versa, and not discussing one while the other is not present. “I love you both, but this is between y’all.”Resign from your Parental Press Secretary and Sibling Whisperer roles, effective immediately. Your mom and your sister will have to forge their own relationship, eventually. You can love them both, and root for them both, but you cannot do the work for either of them. Let go of the notion that you have to.

This is so hard, I know. It requires you to have faith and trust in someone who is not showing those things to you. If it helps, from what you’ve told me, I am extremely hopeful that things will not stay this bad forever. Unless there is some huge piece of the puzzle you’re missing, your sister is most likely going to work through whatever this is and find her way back to you. Will it be in time for your big debut? I can’t promise that, but read on. This is not the first time I have met college students who are undertaking a high-stakes collaborative art project that is at risk of collapse.

Here is where I remove my Advice Columnist hat and don my slightly dusty but still quite fetching Film Professor hat.

It’s not that your honorary Film Professor doesn’t care about your feelings or your relationship with your sister, but right now she is much more interested in hearing about your plan. 

  • What needs to happen in order to pull off your planned project, on time, under budget, and in a way that does what you hope it will do, both creatively and professionally?
  • Details please: Dates, times, equipment, locations, materials, who is doing what.
  • Working backward from the deadline, what needs to happen each week between now and then? Are there any particularly time-sensitive pieces or firm deadlines?
  • How will everybody share drafts and updates,  keep track of all the moving parts, and communicate? [In-person meetings, a dedicated email thread or webspace, texts, phone calls, etc.] In my classes, students jointly proposed ground rules and made agreements about how and how often they’d communicate. “I will check email and reply to messages at least once a day between now and filming.” “If I can’t do something I promised to do, I’ll let everyone know right away so they can make another plan.” 
  • What resources do you have? What resources do you need? What are the gaps that still need to be filled? Who can you ask for help?
  • If something falls through or doesn’t work out as planned, what’s Plan B?
  • Great, what’s Plan C?
  • What are the artifacts that are being created and how will they be stored and accessed? [Digital material like scripts, raw video footage, edited video, graphics, concept art, sketches and schematics should all be backed up in at least three places and be accessible to everyone on the project.]
  • Who is the project’s spokesperson for publicity and social media purposes? How will the finished product get to its audience?
  • Just between us, what’s Plan D, marked Top Secret, the contingency plan for if your sister bails on the project completely, or you find it impossible to keep working with her if things remain so tense? You may think of you and your sister as a package deal, but pedagogically speaking, these are YOUR office hours and I’m interested in YOUR creative future right now. Don’t worry, if your sister stops by later, I’ll ask her the exact same thing.

To me, it sounds like the most pressing issue is rehearsals. You originally planned around being in the same place over the break, making it less urgent to nail down times or reserve space and equipment. But now you won’t be in the same place during those weeks, so those rehearsals need to go on the calendar now. Let’s say, at minimum, one rehearsal before everybody leaves for break, one rehearsal first thing when you come back, one tech rehearsal, one dress rehearsal. That’s four more rehearsals than you currently have planned , right? If you need more practice than your sister’s schedule or emotional bandwidth will presently allow, find a friend who will run lines with you. Maybe they can film you so you can see yourself.

If your sister won’t agree to *any* rehearsals, even with an agreement in place to put family issues aside, you will not be the bad guy if you replace her on the project or otherwise move to Plan D. She can set her own boundaries about family. She cannot drop the ball with a classmate and expect that there won’t be fallout.

You’re a trained artist, so I’m sure this is not the first time you’ve heard about good practices for collaboration. But I”m getting into the dirty details for a reason, namely, that in collaborating so closely with your sibling, you may not have had to spell any of this out before now. She’s your best friend, your creative partner, your other half. You can practically finish each other’s sentences! You always know what she’s thinking!

Until one day you didn’t. And it was terrifying to discover that you can’t just let go and trust the old shorthand, the automatic, dependable, seamless joy of having someone there who absolutely gets you. So if you’re going to make this work, you have to find something else to go on. That something else is process, it’s the sum of all your training, the difficult-but-repeatable act of turning what you imagined into something that somebody else can work with. Making art is making decisions, and logistical decisions are creative decisions. “They’re out of banana costumes, can we make T-Rexes work?” “They had the silver fabric that you wanted, but what do you think of this shimmery purple? It is 1/10th as expensive, meaning we can also rent the smoke machine.”  “We can’t use the big theater that day, there’s a concert. Will the black box work?” “Mary has class that night, can Toby run the lights?” 

You don’t have to particularly like each other or work out all your family shit to put on a show, but you do have to to solve one problem after another, artist-to-artist, until you “finish the hat.

I hope you finish the hat.