Pseudonym note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Sage Lynn” is the pseudonym chosen by the author.
I absolutely love being a big sister. In the darkest times of my life, thinking of my siblings kept me going. I would do anything in the world for them, and they know it.
However, my relationship with my siblings is also complicated.
When, as a kid, I expressed concern that I didn’t get to hang out with kids my own age and wouldn’t know how to do that when I went to college, my mom quickly told me that “if you can get along with your siblings, you can get along with anyone.” Naively believing this, I struggled with the guilt of wishing I had perfect, loving relationships with my siblings (“Making Brothers and Sisters Best Friends,” anyone?) and the reality that we just didn’t get along all the time, even though we loved each other fiercely.
As the oldest of eight siblings—a small family by the standards of the church I grew up in—I grew up with mega responsibility. Early on, I learned that my role was to take care of younger siblings. I babysat, cooked, sewed, cleaned, taught, and filled dozens of other parental roles. My younger siblings would accidentally call me mom, something that landed me in the middle of a fury storm as my mom raged at me for usurping her place before retreating back to her room to try to deal with the depression she refused to seek help for. I was proud that I could run the household.
Luckily, schoolwork was incredibly easy for me (even though the material was comparable to a standard traditional school education), so I managed to get a great education even though my time was full with chores and housework. I would often get installed in the kitchen, doing schoolwork at the table while I watched several of the youngest children so my mom could teach the middle ones. From the age of seven, I took on making breakfast and lunch every day—by the time I was nine, I was making dinner as well. I have a knack for involving kids in whatever activity I happened to be doing, something that was honed in my years at home. Some of my happiest sibling memories involve making meals in the kitchen. My mom never had much patience with them, but I loved nothing better than to find something for them to do and have some company while I worked.
Our bond was not always nurtured under such happy circumstances, though.
My mom had anger issues and could flare up at short notice. My dad’s way of dealing with it was to ignore it, leaving for work early and coming home late. We had an unspoken rule of covering for each other as much as we could. Any animosity we felt was laid aside in the event of an anger outburst.
Walking on eggshells is the best way to describe what our life felt like.
When my mom was fine, our normal sibling arguments and jealousies sprang up. We loved each other, and we also fought; this was when life felt the most normal. When my mom was angry, though, we worked like a well-oiled machine. Each older child took a younger one under their wing, and even the babies seemed to realize they needed to be quiet and keep sweet. We came to look forward to when my mom would leave the house for hours or days on end—although we never knew if she was ok or not, we were able to have fun. We didn’t have to worry that any laughter would be shushed and any argument would incur violent punishment. We’d clean the house, make meals, and care for our younger siblings under and unspoken agreement that delegated certain jobs to each of us. It worked, and it provided the most security and schedule we ever had.
Sure, we were acting more like adults than kids, but we also got to tease each other and come up with goofy rituals that made the chores seem easier. For example, my next older siblings and I often cleaned up dinner together. We split the jobs into three main parts and each took one. While we cleaned, we’d tell jokes, sing songs, have arm wrestling matches, and talk about our days. When my mom was home, however, we were expected to do our work in silence.
It was easier with my younger siblings. I left home for college out of state when they were still fairly young. While it tore my heart apart to leave them, since I was their surrogate mom, it was the best thing for me and them. I still have good relationships with them—I feel more like I’m their aunt than their big sister. When I’m at home, we will do activities, go out to eat, and have fun. My parents have loosened up some with them, and I am no longer afraid of my parents, so things go much better. Even though I still have a lot of anxiety about leaving them and feel more responsibility than most older siblings probably do, I know that I am no longer responsible for them.
I also know that I don’t have to get along with any of my siblings perfectly.
In fact, socialization is an entirely different thing altogether. My older siblings still believe a great deal of the fundamentalist teachings we grew up with, but they are also all still living at home. When I’m at home, I walk the fine line of not disagreeing with my parents’ worldview, principles, and positions in front of my siblings while simultaneously believing that their attitudes are often dangerous and harmful. If I want to continue to interact with my siblings, I have to keep up this balancing act. At the same time, as my siblings get older, I hope that they see me as a safe person who will accept them for whoever they are and whatever they believe.
Gradually, perhaps, they will see that the girls have other options than being wives and mothers, although that is perfectly fine if that is what they truly want. They may see that women and men are inherently equal, and that neither needs to conform to traditional expectations of gender from any source.
I will always love being a big sister. For most of my life, though, I did not know what being a sister meant.
Today, I am truly a sister, not a parent. And I love it.