In the Media

My Sister, My Self

Hey, Sisters: Can We Talk?
The Gazette - Montreal

Monday, January 24, 2005

As the younger of two sisters, Vikki Stark always felt like the little sister - no matter who she was with. When the younger of her twentysomething daughters made the same observation one day during a casual conversation, the idea for the Sisters Project was born.

Stark, a longtime Montreal family therapist, and her sister were not close growing up are not close now. But Stark says her role in the family was shaped by sister Nikki, five years her senior, and, increasingly, came to believe her relationship with her sister had shaped her very life.

She set about finding out what other sisters thought.

Through word of mouth, notices in community newspapers and university women’s studies departments worldwide, she publicized the project and ultimately heard from nearly 350 sisters age 91 to 4; she did 140 face-to-face interviews and got more than 200 responses to her e-mail questionnaire.

The project has grown into a book, Big Sister/Little Sister: The Pillow Fights and Power Struggles that Shape Women’s Lives, to be published by McGraw Hill. And on Thursday, Stark will give a workshop under the same name at the Women’s Y.

She is struck by the similarities in responses to some of her questions - including one on how birth order has shaped each woman’s view of herself.

Older sisters responded almost unanimously that they feel a profound sense of responsibility and a need to be in control, and that they strive to please everyone. They said they think of themselves as role models and problem solvers. “It makes me feel I failed if someone else’s life is not perfect,” one said.

Younger sisters also suggested they felt there was always someone to look after them. “I look up at people being more experienced than me, even if they are not,” said one. “I forget how old I really am,” said another. Another: “It’s easier to fall into the role of follower and wait for others to make decisions.”

Among middle sisters, Stark found fewer consistencies in self-image: Some said they feel self-reliant; others said they feel lost. Many said they consider themselves peacemakers and mediators. The most predominant response among middle sisters, she said, resembled this woman’s: “I put myself in different roles at different times.”

As for occupations, Stark found middle sisters were over-represented as professionals - much more likely than older or younger sisters to be engineers, say, or accountants.

And younger sisters were more strongly represented than the others in the healing professions, such as social work, nursing, medicine. There were many therapists among younger sisters, some among older sisters: Interestingly, not one middle identified herself as a therapist.

As Stark completes the analysis of the data she compiled, she is working on possible explanations for her findings. Her book is due out next year.

Copyright 2005 Montreal Gazette

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