Make It Stop: “My Sister Is Pregnant & She’s Stealing My Baby Name”

Like every other person who writes to you seeking wisdom, my story requires so much context and nuance I could write a novel but will try to spare you by giving the broad strokes. I also want to mention that simply having someone to write to about this is in and of itself therapeutic and you are offering a very valuable service to the troubled souls out there. Thank you.

“Rachel,” my sister (25), and I (29) took very different life paths when our parents divorced. (I was 9).  My father remarried a puritanical woman who was very jealous of us and emotionally abusive until we moved out of the house at 18. Before that I devoted myself to my studies vowing to “win at life” to show her I couldn’t be beaten. Based on my personal goals, I have done that. I went to law school, found a good paying job with work-life balance, and have a loving husband. Winning.

My sister chose to rebel – partly due to her abhorrence of living in my shadow and partly against our father’s wife. She cut class, dropped out of high school, and moved to Arizona to live with my mother.  She received her GED and has been working paycheck to paycheck, bouncing from one crappy relationship to another. She moved back to Wisconsin in 2008 and lived with me for a few years before branching off on her own. Now she works part time as a store clerk and bartender/waitress.

Her and I had always been close until about three years ago (2012) when our cousin passed away in a tragic accident and my eyes were opened to how selfish and toxic my sister was. Since then, we have been distant but talk/see each other occasionally without much tension.

In December 2013, she started dating “Alex” while with another guy. Last summer, she mentioned a few times wanting to have a baby which I discouraged knowing her life couldn’t support it financially and her and Alex were always on the rocks. They had broken up a handful of times in the short time they had been together. He has substance abuse problems on top of being a momma’s boy. Rachel has complained regularly that she is a third wheel in her own relationship. Clearly nothing about the situation says “ready to have a baby together.”

In November, she announced she was pregnant. I was devastated – for my own jealous reasons, for the baby, for Rachel’s hard road ahead. I have tried working through these feelings with mixed results. She’s due any day now. I struggled so much with my feelings with regard to the pregnancy in general, but had decided that I would simply be a great aunt to the baby and move on.

All of this context has lead up to my main problem: Rachel, in the context of this very emotional situation, has stolen the name I have chosen for my baby (not yet conceived). I had told her about it years ago and reminded her this past March when she told me it was on her short list. I saw her this past Wednesday and she has confirmed that if it’s a boy she will be using my name. She denies knowing I had chosen it, which I know is a lie.

I feel like this is the last straw. Now just knowing that she would do this to me, even she ends up having a girl, has led me to consider cutting her out of my life completely. I find myself more concerned with others not understanding the break up and possibly taking her side than even missing our relationship. I just feel so betrayed. I want to take the high road but not feel like I am letting her get away with treating me like this.

What would you do?

Your letter broke my heart. If your love for your sister is so paper thin that it could severed for such a meaningless issue as a baby name that may or not be used, then my sympathies side with Rachel. It must really suck to have your older sister’s love be so fragile. It must also suck to have your sister use her education and stability as a measuring stick to determine your worth, and who chooses to use her hard work and good fortune to kick her down instead of offering a hand to pull her up.

You don’t live in a vacuum. The way you see this problem will send ripples through your other relationships because it speaks to who you are on the deepest level. Say you cut her out of your life for considering to use a baby name you had your heart set on. What does this tell your husband about your sense of loyalty? What does it tell your co-workers about your judgment? What does it tell your parents about your maturity level?

Let her have the name. Give it to her freely. Give it to her with love. So much can happen between when Rachel’s child is born and your hypothetical child is born. People change their minds on names all the time, and it seems woefully short-sighted to write your sister off for a scenario that may never even play out.

One of the things that stuck out to me about your letter was your tone and language. The way you tell yourself your story is a huge part of the problem here. You use the words like “steal,” “betrayed” and phrases like “I know is a lie” and “letting her get away with treating me like this.” Your language choice only reinforces your perceived sense of victimization. In other words, you’re winding yourself up by telling the story this way.

You’re focusing on your pain and your betrayal. I don’t hear any sympathy for Rachel. She’s picking a name for her child, she’s not “treating you” like anything. You assigned motivations to her actions without much evidence. You filled in that blanks and assumed the worst about her character.

What would be another way to tell this story of your diverging paths? Let me take a stab at it.

“Despite our parents’ divorce when we were young, I was lucky enough to emerge relatively unscathed. Unfortunately, my younger sister Rachel had a tougher time weathering the storm. She’s struggled to find her place in the world. Now she’s pregnant in a less than ideal situation. She’s taken a liking to a name I’d always been fond of. I’m upset that she’d consider using this name and don’t know how to move past my hurt and disappointment.”

Notice the difference? In this version of your story, you take responsibility for your emotions. Rachel is an adult. She can do anything she likes. You’re the one who decides how you feel about it.

Is this about the baby name? Is it about something deeper? A sense of disrespect? A sense of unfairness? Once you drill down on what emotion is fueling your indignation, you will be closer to finding peace with Rachel. Why are you so hurt? Why are you so hard on her? This is an opportunity to do some serious soul-searching. Whatever it is, whatever she did, forgive her for it so you can move forward. Forgive her for picking lousy guys. Forgive her being unsure of how to move forward in the world. Let it go.

Linda Tirado recently spoke to the Guardian about what living in poverty is like and I encourage you to read it. This part in particular stuck out to me:

Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It’s why you see people with four different babydaddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the pull to feel worthwhile is. It’s more basic than food. You go to these people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that’s all you get. You’re probably not compatible with them for anything long term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable. It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don’t plan long term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.

Do you see Rachel in this essay at all? Does it give you insight into how and why she makes the decisions she makes?

You may not believe it, but you have all the power in this situation. You can choose your reaction here. You could laugh: Ha! This would make a perfect storyline for a sitcom. You could be thrilled that you picked such a great name that others see it as desirable. You could be grateful that you get to be an aunt at all. You’re the one jumping to the interpretation where you end up being the victim.

This is about choosing which place you want to operate from. Do you want to operate from someplace tiny and hard like anger, or somewhere open and warm like love? You make that distinction. You’re the one who has to live with it. How you respond to this situation will build your character, the one you’re so proud of. It’s not about taking a high road, it’s about being the kind of person you want to be, the kind of person you wish she would be should your circumstances be reversed.

She wants the baby name? Let her take it. It costs you nothing but don’t you see? By letting go of Name-gate, you’re poised to gain everything.

You asked what I would do. I’ll be honest – I would embrace the chance to be the best sister I could be, the sister I would want if I were facing such a scary thing as motherhood. That’s it. That’s the deal. I have two sisters. They don’t always act the way I wish they would act, but they mean everything to me. It’s not easy, but they’re part of who I am, and I take the role of being a sister seriously.

If after reading my answer you’re still fuming, I’d consider seeing a therapist to talk about your feelings. Hopefully he or she will offer additional insights and help you manage this emotional burden.

Make It Stop is a weekly column in which Anna Goldfarb — author of “Clearly, I Didn’t Think This Through” and the blogger behind the blog, Shmitten Kitten — tells you what’s up. Want a fresh take on a stinky dilemma? Email anna@annagoldfarb.com with the subject “Make It Stop.” She’ll make it all better, or at least make you laugh. Girl Scout’s honor.