Last year an incredibly powerful film was released called Miss Representation, a documentary about how women are portrayed in the media. One of the most powerful statements it made was that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” For example, for girls to dream about being astronauts or presidents or software engineers they need to see female astronauts, female presidents, and female software engineers in books, movies, and television. (Instead, the number 1 career aspiration for young girls is to be royalty because mostly what they see are princesses.)
I was thinking of this phrase in particular today because it is Mother’s Day, and this Mother’s Day is the first for my big sister, Stephanie. She has the most beautiful 10-month-old son who is the smartest, happiest, smiliest, most perfect baby ever. No, I am not biased. It’s factually true. Trust me. What makes my sister an amazing mom could fill ten blog posts, but what hit home for me was that, for the first time, I could see up close and unpolished what it meant to be a mom. And it blew my mind.
Growing up, my sister and I weren’t really that close. It’s not that we weren’t not close, it’s just that we were in each other’s life like a competitive, annoying fly that just won’t leave you alone. We were the Wallace Sisters – both highly-trained pianists, both math whizzes, both insanely smart and fiercely independent, and often both in matching clothes (thanks, Mom). The difference was that Steph was beautiful and somehow cool and had friends while I was fat and painfully dorky and often ate lunch at the teachers’ table to avoid bullying at school. So of course I both wanted to be her and wanted to make her miserable at the same time. (I believe I succeeded at the latter.) Needless to say, we were not what you might call friends.
In fact, throughout high school and college we led parallel, yet separate lives reinforced by geography, which in turn cemented our emotional distance. We reunited at home in Michigan for requisite holidays, and often reenacted our teenage fights, no doubt triggered by the proverbial land mines hidden throughout our childhood home. And while neither of us particularly liked this setup, it was the way it was. Until December 2008.
Steph had just gotten engaged to a wonderful man earlier that fall while I had been dating a wonderful man who I hoped would someday propose. We had all trekked back to Michigan for Christmas and got to imagine what the future version of our extended family might look like. We all got along, in that let’s-be-nice-because-guests-are-here kind of way. And then we left, and all was well and good until two days before New Year’s when my wonderful boyfriend dropped a huge bomb: he didn’t want to marry me, he wanted to break up. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t complete coherent sentences. My happy little existence fractured into 127 pieces. Right then my sister called, and when she heard she didn’t miss a beat: come to Nashville for a few days.
This was a huge gesture, and it wasn’t a gesture at all; she really meant it. Over the course of the following week she made me tea, watched mindless television with me, and walked in silence with me while I cried. And then, every so often, she said something insightful and comforting and loving that put a piece of me back in place. I guess this is what a lot of sisters do, but it was a first for us. And in that week our relationship took a sharp turn toward friendship. It wasn’t suddenly perfect by any means, but it was a huge shift for us.
The next summer she got married and I stood by her side as her wonderful fiance said his vows to her, and as I teared up I realized that I believed he meant them. I believed that despite their respective flaws, they loved each other unconditionally in a way I had never before seen. I believed they would be together until death. While my parents divorced when I was a baby and I had no other healthy marriages to study growing up, I suddenly could see a strong and healthy relationship up close, and it was extraordinary.
Two years later I got a call on Thanksgiving with the most astonishing news: they were pregnant! I screamed. My sister was pregnant. My sister was going to make a baby and there would be a tiny little human being in our family, who shared at least some of my DNA. It was terrifying and so so exciting. I couldn’t believe the good news, and yet when we hung up I found myself crying. (Yes, I do that a lot. Moving on…)
We didn’t have the easiest childhood, by far, and there were a lot of moments I swore to myself would never happen “when I became a parent.” And while that occasion was still far off in the distance for me, the reality for my sister was at hand. She was going to have a baby: a tiny, perfect creature who had done nothing wrong and had nothing wrong done to him yet. He was a blank slate. Her family — our family — was a blank slate and we could choose what kind of world he knew.
We chose then and there to end the fighting, end the yelling that was so familiar and destructive. We would end the criticism and the passive-aggressive sarcasm and the competition and the insecurity that had perpetuated through generations of our family. I would treat her as I treated my friends and she would do the same. This second shift in our relationship yanked it firmly onto a course of sisterhood.
Over the last ten months Steph has proven herself to be a resilient, fierce, beautiful, strong wife and mother. And even with all of the changes in her life, she has also been my confidant, cheerleader, therapist, and friend through the tumultuous first year of my startup. She has let me see into the challenges and fears and lows of motherhood as well as the bright shining moments of pure joy. It’s overwhelming when you think about it, and she deserves nothing short of superhero status. So on this Mother’s Day I want to publicly thank my sister for being amazing and letting me be part of her life.
You can’t be what you can’t see. Luckily for me, I see someone awesome.