Writer and broadcaster

My sister helped me to escape our family – now she’s abandoned me. The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

I am the youngest of a brood of girls and left home at 17. My father was very strict and my mother lived abroad until my early teens. The intention was for us to have arranged marriages: however, one of my sisters decided to leave and helped me to do so once I was old enough. I did not keep in touch with family and friends.

My sister and I were very close until a few years ago. She married and had children of her own, but I did not. I was in her shadow, living nearby and on hand for babysitting whenever needed, often changing my plans to meet her family’s needs. Over the years, I yearned for a husband and family of my own, but did not meet anyone. Many of my friends dropped hints about how much time I spent with my sister and her family, but I didn’t take any notice as I felt it was my duty to give something back for the freedom she had granted me from potentially living a life in prison.

Then, a great job opportunity came my way that meant working in another country. I decided to take it, despite my sister and her husband trying to dissuade me. I have had a wonderful experience and have come out of my shell. Since I left the fold of my sister’s family, there have been many occasions when she has tried to influence me emotionally to do what she wanted. When I visited, she would make me feel guilty if I saw friends and would call to check where I was and with whom.

It seems she has never forgiven me for moving away. Each time after this when I went home, she would accuse me of being selfish and not being part of the family. We argued a lot.

It has been six years since I left, and I have now met and married someone amazing. My sister and family met him and were bowled over by him as he is really something special. We are now expecting our first child. I really could not be happier.

However, now, my sister and I never speak on the phone, and I yearn for a little contact, especially as I am going to be a mother myself. I wrote her an honest letter asking how she felt about our lack of communication and asked if it was enough for her. She said that life gets in the way and not to take it personally. I am excited to be having my baby. Previously, I didn’t know happiness like I have right now. My sister is not really interested and I feel that it is always me who initiates the calls. She never rings me. I would love to hear what you think.

It sounds as if, despite a complicated and tricky start to life, you have made a real success of things and there is a happy ending, with more happiness to come. When I first read your letter, I thought your sister sounded really overcontrolling; and, indeed, she has been at times – you seemed to swap one controlling environment for another – but then it became apparent that something else was going on and that something else suddenly permeated your whole letter.

“It’s all about mothers,” says the psychoanalytical psychotherapist Jan McGregor Hepburn (bpc.org.uk). And it is. I thought your phrase “children of her own” very telling. You and your sister weren’t mothered properly and your sister became the mother, “and with that”, says McGregor Hepburn, “probably came overwhelming responsibility for your sister, and that may be why she was so overcontrolling. For you, now pregnant, it is natural to think about your own mother.”

This may be why your need to connect is suddenly greater than before: you are expecting, and you want to share that with your mother/sister. I also wonder if perhaps a part of you wanted to contact your actual mother/family and if that made you feel disloyal to your sister?

“Perhaps your need for a mother right now is clouding your relationship with your sibling and your view of what a sister can do/should be,” suggests McGregor Hepburn.

Whatever the reasons, and whatever happened, you are quite rightly looking to the future.

“Instead of asking your sister if she is happy with the amount of contact,” suggests McGregor Hepburn, “it might be more fruitful for both of you if you asked her what her experiences have been in getting away from the family and in supporting you to do the same. What was it like for her? If you have some warm and open conversations, you are both more likely to want to spend more time in contact.

“Your older sister may have taken offence at you leaving, or she may be thinking she has done a good job and you are now, rightly, getting on with your life. The only way forward, the only way to change things if you want to, is to find out by talking to her,” says McGregor Hepburn.

In your longer letter, you hinted that your sister’s life may have stagnated; now you have flown the nest and she is left behind (again: rather child/mother-like), I wonder if that made you feel guilty or as if you had to save her this time.

You and your sister have had a very intense relationship that has at times been inequitable. What you need to do now is reconnect as adult siblings of equal standing.

This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 3 March 2017.