No longer mothering my sister



Sister time is something to celebrate and cherish—but sometimes there are old patterns we need to abandon. © Thinkstock

I pulled up in front of the high school to pick up my younger sister. Kids sat in pairs and circles, quizzing each other on French verbs or memorizing the periodic table. Kristelle, on the other hand, stood by herself practicing Eiffel Tower and Split the Atom with her Duncan yo-yo. Seriously?

As soon as she got in the car, I let her have it. Why wasn’t she doing her homework like the other kids? Why would she even bring her yo-yo to school? Didn’t she have a geography quiz on Friday? It never occurred to me to ask who she sat with at lunch or whether anyone showed up for her Yo-Yo Club. I was nagging my baby sister, as usual.

On December 15, 1999, I became an older sister. After eight years as an only child, it was like getting Disneyland for Christmas. Other kids felt jealous of their newborn sibling or neglected by their parents, but I was ecstatic. I’d always wanted a younger sister and envied my friends and cousins who had siblings as sidekicks. For me, a sister meant a playmate and partner in crime—we’d build pillow forts and read books about girls who owned horses. But when it took her a year just to say her first word, I realized those fantasies would have to wait. She was too young to play hide-and-seek and Chinese jump rope. Instead, she spat up on me, offered me soggy Cheerios and screeched till I changed her diapers.

By the time she was old enough for Harry Potter, I was collecting college viewbooks and studying for the SAT. I no longer wanted to play with my sister the way I’d always hoped I would. Instead, I was focused on being responsible. I made sure she picked good friends and she didn’t get lost at Costco. Since my parents were busy with the bakery, I took on some of their responsibilities. I made her Nutella toast, bathed her, quizzed her in spelling and filled in for my parents any way I could. As she got older, I let her practice her magic tricks on me. I’d host her sleepovers, go to her open houses and even encouraged her to try out for Oxford Academy. Little by little, these responsibilities made me obsessive, even controlling—I became her “other” mom.

Little by little, these responsibilities made me obsessive, even controlling—I became her “other” mom.

Because I was so invested in my sister’s life, she came to me for permission. If she wanted to grab an Otter Pop from the freezer, go to a friend’s house or play Poptropica online, I was the one she asked. I became her authority figure, even more than our mom. Mom on the other hand, became oddly permissive. She’d forced me to practice Chopin on the piano for hours and never let me watch “American Idol” on school nights. Suddenly she was the mom who let my sister bring friends home unannounced, stay up past 9 p.m. and eat Cocoa Puffs right out of the box. She’d jumped from the strict mom I knew to a doting and indulgent grandma. I hardly recognized her, and for good reason—I’d taken her place. As I lectured my sister about bringing a yo-yo to school when she’d left her math book on her dresser, I realized I sounded a lot like my mom, which I thought would never happen until I had kids of my own.

I also realized while I had a mom, my sister had two—and one was scarier than the other. I was the one she was frightened to tell when she lost her Abercrombie jacket at the mall. She told my mom first, so I wouldn’t have a chance to lecture her. That made me feel controlling and fearsome—not at all what a sister should be. She never showed me her poems about recycling. She never described her crush on Artemis Fowl. She couldn’t confide in me at all because she saw me as tyrannical. I had to stop parenting.

It’s hard to purge old habits, but I remind myself that I’m not her mother. It’s not my job to make sure my sister gets first chair in violin or medals in figure skating. I simply need to be her unwavering friend, encouraging her to be strong and optimistic, listening to her dreams and disappointments, and laughing with her when she gets silly. It doesn’t matter that she smuggled her iPod into school or snuck a Snickers without asking. I need to understand her and see her as a human being—just like me—racked with flaws, full of love and always in need of grace. And in doing so, I am able to step down from the pedestal I’d built and be her sister.

SWANICE CHATAGNEAU is an English Major at Biola University and a lover of American Literature. She spends most of her time practicing headstands, baking kale chips and having random dance sessions with her sister.


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