I am a big sister.
It’s a contract I never signed, yet one I will perform duties for…for the rest of my life.
I am the eldest of a handful of children, which automatically makes me a big sister, I suppose.
At first, I resented it intensely. I didn’t want tiny children taking my parents’ attention, nor did I want to be responsible for people I never invited into my life.
I was punished for their poor behaviour, rewarded for their good behaviour, and sacrificed happiness so that they might have it instead. They broke things that meant a lot to me, harassed people that meant a lot to me, and interrupted the sleep that meant a lot to me. They became the reason I was denied things that I could have had in their absence. I was constantly on the lookout for the ‘little ones’.
I had to be a role model, a guide, and a patient spectator. As we grew I became a silent guardian, a brooding figure, a snappy family member. I was always irritated but I was always there. More and more, especially when my parents were absent, I was there.
I never had, and never will have, control over what they say or do. Yet, their losses are my sadness and their success is my pride.
I showed my sisters different cultures, and I took my brother to his first pub when he turned 18. I showed my siblings what hard work looks like. What study looks like. What unfairness looks like.
After a violent row with our parents, I was the one who chased them in the dark. After a dangerous confrontation with their brother, I was the one who showed them how to nurse their bruises. When their friends were being cruel I was the one they came to for kindness. When they locked themselves out of their locker, I was the one who called security with a bolt-cutter. When they didn’t have lunch, I was the one who bought them a meal. When they left their books at home, I was the one who brought them to school.
I showed them how to endure and how to walk away. I showed them how to be themselves against the pressure of conformity and how to keep going even if their first attempts aren’t great.
I kept them accountable for their mistakes, reminded them of their responsibilities, and stood in for them when they couldn’t meet their responsibilities personally. I was the unbending will that didn’t flinch in the face of their rage, the infuriatingly unruffled person listening to their wildest dramas, and the instant retribution for avoidable mistakes.
I showed them, with greater skill as I got older, what patience looks like.
It looks like me. Their big sister.
Now we are mostly adults and I’m on the other side of the country on the brink of starting my own family. I still watch for my siblings. I always remember them.
Especially when my parents are absent, I’m there.
When they’re homesick and need someone to talk to, they don’t call mum and dad – they call their Big Sister.
When they need help and don’t know where to turn, they don’t call mum and dad – they call their Big Sister.
When they want advice on a problem that their friends can’t fix, they call their Big Sister.
And, as time goes on, I’ve become better at the job. More accepting of the role. More proud of what I can achieve.
Being a big sister is a lot like being a mother. More so in my case, considering how many times I’ve stepped in when my own mother was absent.
It means looking after the ‘little ones’ even when you’d rather be doing something else. Late nights with toddlers because they refuse to sleep and your parents are at the other end of the house.
Learning to manage tantrums, discourage maladaptive behaviour, and cook a quick meal that will feed 5 hungry mouths at short notice.
It meant remembering birthdays, anniversaries, and the things that make them happy even when everyone else has forgotten.
It means small acts of kindness in the middle of the year when everything gets hard and there’s no reprieve in sight.
It means taking time out of your own workload to help a younger student write their notes so they can pass their exam in a month’s time.
It means being woken up in the middle of the night so a heartbroken child can join you in bed and cry somewhere safe.
It means having your clothes taken, your makeup disappear, and your food mysteriously vanished because whatever it is that you have is intensely more appealing.
It means holding their hand through a new and scary experience. Providing advice that you know will be ignored…until one day it isn’t and it was your advice they used.
It means that I’m the one doing everything on my own for the first time, because that’s how it always goes. I move out of home first, figure out life from scratch, then tell my siblings how I did it. It’s been that way since I started School, High School, University…it’s happened too often to count.
It’s been over 20 years since I first became a Big Sister and I’m OK with it now. I’m proud of my role – it’s become part of my identity. First and foremost, I will always be a Big Sister. Better than my parents, and even better than my sibling’s partners, I know how to comfort, motivate and direct these people. I’ve known them since the day they were born, and watched them develop their personalities with first-hand experience. We might be completely different people – families are one of those unique places where an Academic, a Sporty-type and a Fashionista can intermingle equally – yet we all have so much in common. Our values, our desires for success, and our sense of self. An unyielding stubbornness to achieve our goals, and an affection that keeps us returning to each other no matter how far away we roam.