My brother, who is ten years younger than I am, FaceTimes with me every day. He is the one who calls me. I am the one on the other end who is excited to receive his calls, his big sister, ready to give advice, Venmo him a few extra dollars because he’s still learning money management skills, or just talk about life. I am, in some ways, the only parent he has.
No, I did not give birth to him (duh!), but we have the same mother who died thirteen years ago, and before her death, she wasn’t the ideal mother. She was absent emotionally and physically from our lives, hopping from jail to prison to halfway house and back again. This role of caretaker is familiar to me. It’s what I know, and it is extremely difficult for me to take that hat off, especially for my siblings — but it is also exhausting.
Growing up, I felt a responsibility to my siblings, Ciara and Danny, that no sibling should ever have to face. I felt like I needed to protect them from our absent mother. I had to be the one who showed up for them. I had to figure out how to play with them, how to love them, how to be both their big sister and the person who could explain to them why our mother never tucked them in at night.
A simple Google search of “siblings taking care of siblings,” does not yield much — okay, anything — by way of hard data. This is something rarely discussed, and research on the topic isn’t available. It’s a shame I carried, my dirty little secret of sorts, that I was the “go-to” for my siblings. Over the years we had stand-in parents, because our mother could never do her job of parenting us; she was emotionally, mentally, and physically unavailable to us because she was in prison or dealing with her drug addiction. What we knew for sure, is that she could not give us what we needed … but we knew that I could.
I am grateful, though. Because over the years, the things my mother put me through, from visiting her in jail to paying her bail money to get her out of jail, to lying about where she was to my little brother to protect him, made me into the woman I am today. It’s shaped who I am. It colors every single part of my life. I’ve learned how to masterfully piece together a response to a question to others before the words leave my lips: a response sure not to offend or hurt their feelings. Doing so, however, has caused others to perceive my response as ungenuine — when really, it’s an honest effort to make sure I didn’t say something to hurt their feelings. I never wanted my words to hurt my siblings’ feelings, so I learned how to say what I needed to say in the most colorful way I could, so that when all was said and done, they would feel okay.
There are millions of caretakers in the world. As moms, we are caretakers, and most often, it’s a job we wanted; a job we signed up for. But when you’re caring for a sibling simply because your mother could not, there is a whole different kind of dynamic you must work through. Boundaries must be determined, what is shared and not shared between one another, what asks can be made and which are off-limits, how to handle the shame that comes with it all. What I do know for sure, and a lesson I learned after adopting my son, is this: we all need someone who can be there for us, who can show up for us. For my siblings, that person is me. And yes, just like parenting my own three kids, I can complain and I can hit decline on my cell phone when their number appears on my caller ID, but love is what binds us all together.
Being a sibling and being their caretaker, I am grateful that I get to see their growth and be a part of it. It can be exhausting, yes. And I can complain, that’s only fair. But what I will never do is leave them, just as I would never do with the children I gave birth to. Being their caregiver has shaped every single relationship I’ve had in my life, from personal to professional.
In an article in The Atlantic, writer Cindy Lahe shares, “While there is a large body of literature that focuses on the neglect children experience from their parents, there’s less examination of how this neglect puts kids in roles of parenting each other. And there is virtually no empirical research on how this affects relationship dynamics later in life—both with siblings and others. Scholars agree that there are gaps in sibling research—primarily an incomplete understanding of how these relationships and roles are affected by abusive family environments.”
Funny thing is, I never thought our mother neglected me; she wasn’t present, so how could she? I only know that her absence made me stronger, and ultimately a better mother when I chose to become one.
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