I also have two sisters, one 26 and one 20. My 26-year-old sister has graduated college, works for her university, and is talking engagement with a great guy she’s been seeing for four years. I couldn’t be happier for her. My 20-year-old sister, on the other hand, is still in undergrad, has changed her major four times, and has lost her scholarships due to poor grades; she’s so behind she can’t graduate on time. Roughly six months ago she started dating a Marine who recently graduated from Annapolis and is being sent overseas soon for his first duty post. I had dinner with them last Friday and they never indicated there was anything out of the ordinary going on. However, she visited my parents this past weekend, and on Sunday night I got a call from my parents during which I found out — through the excited squealing of my grandmothers in the background and the pride in my father’s voice — that my 20-year-old sister is engaged to the Marine. They were all excited in a way that they have never been for me. Ever.
I don’t feel happy. I feel angry and hurt. The youngest has wasted most of her college years partying and blowing my parents’ money. She won’t be able to support herself with her current major if she does graduate because her field is shrinking and the jobs don’t pay well. Meanwhile, my other sister and I have put our noses to the grindstone to support ourselves in burgeoning fields… and all our parents care about is that baby sister will be the first to put a Mrs. in front of her name.
To make it all worse, now my fiancé wants to wait a few months to tell my family about our engagement so as not to “steal my sister’s thunder.” He even wants to delay our projected wedding timeline so as not to conflict with hers, even though I’m the one working around a tight grad school calendar!
I am so upset! Please, tell me how to deal with this. — Hurt Sister
First, congratulations on both your acceptance into a prestigious master’s program and your engagement to what sounds like a thoughtful and loving man who clearly cares not only for you but your whole family. You, my dear, sound like you’re going places, and you should be very happy and proud. I’m sure your parents are proud, too, but, at the moment, their pride is overshadowed by what is likely a lot of relief that their youngest daughter has found someone who will help support her financially and emotionally in a way she probably needs much, much more than her two older, more responsible, ambitious, and driven sisters. And she didn’t find just anyone — she found a recent graduate of the highly-regarded Naval Academy who will have a secure position in the United States Marine Corp. — something that for a lot of people — probably including your parents — commands immediate respect and admiration.
As an officer’s wife, your sister will have a life of adventure and relative comfort — certainly more than she likely would as a single, struggling college drop-out without many opportunities or much focus or direction. As a military wife, she’s also going to face a lot of challenges you will likely be spared: long and frequent separations from her husband; moving a lot; feeling lonely and unsettled; maybe raising future children on her own a lot of the time; being far away from family and friends; worrying about her husband while he’s deployed in dangerous places doing dangerous work.
I say all this because it’s clear you’re feeling resentful and jealous of your sister, and, though I understand why, I hope you can try to see her life and her position from a different perspective. She’s kind of a fuck-up with two older sisters who do everything right. Imagine how that must feel. Probably as bad, if not worse, than how it must feel to work as hard as you have and still not be able to impress your parents.
I have two kids — one is 4-1/2 and super smart and ambitious (he taught himself to read when he was two, he does second grade math workbooks for fun, and he’s learning to count in as many languages as he can by watching YouTube tutorials before school), and I have a nine-month old baby who just learned to wave. And let me tell you, when the baby learned to wave, she might as well have spontaneously started counting to ten in Arabic like her big brother did a few weeks earlier — that’s how excited and impressed we were.
“She can wave!” Drew and I exclaimed. “She’s waving, she waving!”
“I can wave, too!” Jackson chimed in, “See?!”
Well, of course he can wave. He’s four. He can do a lot of stuff — certainly much more stuff than his sister can do. She’s just a baby. And we’re only beginning to watch her learn new things and grow and become a little person. And it’s thrilling and fun, and our excitement over seeing her wave or watching her crawl sometimes eclipses the pride we very much feel over all the accomplishments of our first-born because we already know how incredible he is. Our expectations for him were set pretty high, pretty early, and, because of that, sometimes we don’t show the level of excitement and sheer surprise that new accomplishments might otherwise warrant in a four-year-old. Maybe that’s not fair, and in reading your letter, I’m reminded that, in regards to my son, I must never discount or in any way discredit his accomplishments and hard work simply because they were expected. They are worthy of my excitement as much as my pride. And your accomplishments and hard work are certainly worthy of your parents’ excitement and pride, too.
I’m only a few years into this parenting thing and I already needed reminding to show excitement for my ambitious and tenacious kid’s accomplishments. I bet, after twenty-seven years of parenting, your folks might need some reminding, too. So, tell them. “Mom, Dad, it hurt my feelings that you didn’t show more excitement when I shared the news about my acceptance into the master’s program. Do you know how competitive the program is and how hard I worked to get in? Aren’t you proud of me?”
Parents are people, too. They don’t always say the right thing or make the right choice or react in the best way. Maybe yours will get better — especially if you give them some gentle prompting — or maybe they won’t. But the good news is, regardless of how they respond to your major life events, at 27 you are already on a great path and have, what many would consider, essentially won the life lottery. You seem to have enough privilege supplementing your strong work ethic to get you into a prestigious master’s program, and you’ve already found the person you want to spend your life with when many people your age have years of searching ahead of them (a search that isn’t always very fun and can be pretty soul-sucking).
If you take nothing else from my advice to you, please take this: You will be a much happier person with stronger, better relationships if you learn to communicate with the people you love when you feel hurt and to accept that everyone is flawed, that expressions of love differ, and that we all have limitations in our ability to meet the needs of people we care about. You will be a happier person with stronger, better relationships if you practice gratitude for the many gifts given to you while accepting that some things can’t change and some people don’t love us exactly the way we would prefer to be loved. There will be times when you’ll choose to leave relationships and friendships that no longer serve you, and there will be other times when you’ll choose to accept the relationships for both the gifts and the limitations they present. And when limitations exist, you’ll have to look elsewhere to fill your emotional needs, and, if you can get your emotional needs met elsewhere, realize that you are a very lucky person indeed.
P.S. Tell your family about your engagement when you want to, and, if you decide to plan the wedding around your “tight grad school calendar,” you’ll have to accept that everyone else has a tight calendar of his or her own, too, and that your wedding may not fit into it (especially if there’s another family wedding scheduled to work around what I’m sure is an even tighter calendar for an overseas military posting!).
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org.