Growing up we were inseparable, but having children nearly tore me and my sister apart

Growing up we were inseparable, but having children nearly tore me and my sister apart



14:27 GMT, 11 September 2012

On holiday in France with my sister and our families, I suggest a game of table tennis to my husband one evening.

But no sooner have we started playing than my sister Catherine suddenly steps in and grabs my husband’s bat from him.

Then, despite the fact I am three months pregnant, she starts furiously pelting me with balls.

‘Ow! That hurts! Stop it!’ I cry, but she won’t stop.

‘What’s your problem’ I shout, before realising that she is shaking with rage.

Catherine (left) is Joanna's only sibling and but they grew apart after she became pregnant with her first child

Catherine (left) is Joanna's only sibling and but they grew apart after she became pregnant with her first child

‘I’m sick to death of you sticking your stomach out and in my face,’ she yells.

Only in this moment do I suddenly realise how deeply Catherine resents the fact I have conceived my second child so easily.

As my sister and I trade insults back and forth across the net, it becomes clear that this argument has been brewing for a long time — in fact, I’d say, ever since I told her I was expecting my first daughter nearly four years earlier.

Traditionally, the received wisdom is that motherhood forges close bonds between women. In my case, though, it came close to driving a permanent wedge between me and my beloved sister.

There was a time when the notion of us screaming abuse at each other would have been unthinkable.

Catherine, who is 2 years older than me and is my only sibling, shone like a bright light in my childhood.

She was intelligent, beautiful and popular, and I was always happy to be the funny, cute one in her shadow.

We had our own friends, of course, but it was my sister with whom I built makeshift camps, played piano duets and chattered incessantly.

Catherine was always kind to me, and as we grew into teenagers and she became fond of make-up and boys, she made a point of never leaving me out, even sneaking me into the pub with her so I could hang out with her and her friends.

Joanna and big sister Catherine were inseparable as children

Joanna and big sister Catherine were inseparable as children

When I started going to parties with Catherine, my parents would insist on coming to pick me up at 11pm.

Because she was older, she was allowed to stay out longer, but she would still grab our coats, fling her arm round my shoulder and leave with me in a show of solidarity. She always put me first.

Mum taught at the local grammar school where Catherine was a star pupil, and she tells the story of how on one English exam paper the essay topic had been to write about your best friend.

My sister had written all about me, which Mum and the staff had found very touching.

A few years later, after graduating from Cambridge University, Catherine went to Leeds to continue her studies.

It was there that she met David, who became her husband and whom I adore.

They married in their early 20s, but my relationship with my sister remained strong. David understood how close we were.

Meanwhile, I’d been to university in London and was working in marketing. I had a hectic social life and lots of female friends.

But Catherine and I still spoke all the time, and if anything went wrong in my life — such as a break-up with a boyfriend — it was to her that I’d run to for some TLC.

When I finally plucked up the courage to write my first novel, It Could Be You, Catherine sent me a copy of Forever Amber, a novel from the Forties which our grandmother had always believed to be outrageously risque.

Catherine sent a note with it, saying that if I made my book as page-turning as Forever Amber, it would be a big success and do the family proud. Her belief in me spurred me on.

It was around this time that I met Emlyn, who was an assistant at the Curtis Brown literary agency in London. We became firm friends, and after It Could Be You was published, we decided to write Come Together — a rom-com about a couple in their 20s dating.

The sisters have five children between them. Here, Joanna Rees' mum is pictured with her grandchildren

The sisters have five children between them. Here, Joanna Rees' mum is pictured with her grandchildren

The book was an instant hit. It was made into a film and translated into 26 languages.

I used some of my advance to help out my sister because she was struggling financially. She was delighted that things were going so well for me, especially when Emlyn and I fell in love.

I wasn’t able to see Catherine as often as I once had, but I still snatched the occasional phone conversation with her from airport departure lounges.

If she was jealous that I was jetting off to do foreign TV interviews and having such a great time, she never showed it.

Emlyn and I had a lavish wedding, and the month after our honeymoon I discovered I was pregnant.

I rang my sister the second I saw the tell-tale line appear on the test. I wanted her to nurse me through my shock and tell me it was all going to be fine, since we hadn’t even been trying for a baby.

But from the tone of her voice, I quickly realised that my pregnancy was a blow to her.

And then it dawned on me: she was cross because she’d wanted to be a mother before me. She told me my news was ‘nice’, but then cut the conversation short.

Joanna Rees dedicated her new book to her sister

Joanna Rees dedicated her new book to her sister

Perhaps if I’d realised then that she’d been trying for a baby for a while, I might have been more sensitive.

From then on, a painful distance developed between us. I couldn’t share the details of my pregnancy with her because I felt I was treading on eggshells the whole time.

Where before she’d always devoured every detail of my life, now she didn’t want to know.

When Tallulah was born in July 2000 after a long, traumatic labour, Catherine came to visit. I wanted to throw myself into her arms and tell her how I felt as if I’d been in a near-miss car-crash, but somehow I couldn’t.

I didn’t want to complain about a situation that she so dearly wanted to be in.

She didn’t say it in so many words, but I knew she thought I was making a fuss. I felt furious that she had no idea what I’d been through.

I was so relieved when Catherine fell pregnant shortly afterwards. I thought things would return to normal as a result, but we couldn’t seem to heal the unspoken rift between us.

She didn’t open up about how she felt about being pregnant, and she didn’t want to hear it when I tried to warn her about the reality of childbirth.

When I heard from Mum that Catherine had gone into labour, I paced nervously for 24 hours and wept bitterly when I learned she’d had an emergency Caesarean.

But when I rang Catherine to tell her how sorry I was that her labour and childbirth had been so hard, and how thrilled I was that she’d had a healthy baby girl, I felt that what she was hearing from me was: ‘I told you so.’

I had expected us to be so close when we each had babies, but she was in Bath and I was in London, and we rarely saw each other.

We also seemed to have different views on everything from breast-feeding to sleep training.

Needing to work on a book, I put Tallulah on a strict routine and put her in her own cot with the lights out at night.

But this was a no-go subject with my sister, who seemed to disapprove of my regimented approach to childcare.

I was ahead of her, my baby being just nine months older, but I never felt that I could give my sister any advice. If she sat at night weeping, as I had, when her baby wouldn’t breast-feed, I didn’t know about it. She seemed keen to present a perfect front — which, I admit, irritated me.

As time passed, I got the impression that anything I said about motherhood annoyed Catherine, and that she knew better — until we got to the point where we hardly spoke about our feelings at all.

Then, during that argument in France in 2003, it all came out. I can hardly remember the details of what we said, only that we were furious with each other and totally over-emotional.

Catherine thought her resentment was justified and that I was being insensitive. And I was outraged that she was making my baby the focus of her feelings.

But it was clear that the rift between us was as painful for her as it was for me, and we each thought it was the other’s fault. In the end, she stormed off in tears.

Afterwards, we tried to make up and our husbands attempted to laugh it off, but we were shaken. Catherine was still upset.

We’d never had an argument before, let alone a stand-up slanging match.

While I was devastated mother-hood had driven a wedge between us — sisters who had been so close — but I’ve since discovered our experience is far from unique.

When I was researching my new novel, A Twist Of Fate, a saga set over 40 years about two sisters separated at birth, I discovered that for many women the process of growing up and becoming a mother puts a serious strain on sisterly relations.

Happy families: Joanna Rees's mother with her grandchildren.

Happy families: Joanna Rees's mother with her grandchildren.

Issues of rivalry, competition and status within the family all come to the fore.

And, as I know, falling out with your sister strikes at your heart in a way that arguments with girlfriends or break-ups with boyfriends never can.

Many women I spoke to during the course of my research feel the dull ache of a distanced sister keenly, no matter how happy the rest of their life.

I’m glad to say that, over time, our sisterly rift has healed. We didn’t know it then, but that argument in France started us on the road to recovery, mainly because of the impact it had on our mother.

Mum had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease several years before, and because she had always been so brave, Catherine and I hadn’t noticed how much her condition had worsened.

But she’d been with us in France, had overheard our row, was devastated that we’d fallen out — and desperate for us to make up.

Patching things up since then has been a gradual process, but Catherine and I have had no choice but to put aside any differences for the sake of our mother.

We’re in our early 40s now. Catherine has two girls and I have three, all aged between five and 12, and we’ve realised with hindsight that those early days of having babies were so intense, and we were so frazzled, that our competitiveness got out of hand.

A few Christmases ago, Catherine gave me a silver pendant inscribed ‘Sisters Make The Best Of Friends’. It inspired A Twist Of Fate, and features in the story.

It seemed only right, when I’d finished the book, that I should dedicate it to my wonderful sister.

A Twist Of Fate by Joanna Rees (Pan Macmillan, 6.99), out in paperback.