The year before my brother went off to uni, he grew 10 inches taller than me. It was the year he started walking slightly ahead of me when we went on our evening walks. It was also the year he would look left and then right before holding my purse in the supermarket. When I think of the year my brother went off to college, I think of it as the year that I lost him. It was the year I would try and then fail to reach him, to talk to him or listen like I ought to. It would be the year I failed to be a sister to him, because all I have ever been was a mother.
Years down the line, it would finally register that my very existence was hinged upon this fact. I have had to give up a large chunk of my life to parent my siblings, setting aside the complexities and nuances that exist within me as a person to cater to theirs. It was the year I reconciled with the fact that although I loved my siblings, I did not want my entire life to be an aside while theirs took center stage. Yet that was how parenting them made me feel. I counted the days until they, or I, would fly the nest. Once that happened, I decided that parenting was not a thing I wanted to do again.
My brother was born when I was 8, in the middle of my parents' separation, the year my father became an absentee dad, which is just a fancy way of saying "deadbeat." This meant that my mother had to take on an extra job to be able to afford to care for the pink, wrinkly baby and all of our rapidly increasing expenses. I remember, like it was yesterday, the day my mother started her new job, simultaneously tying the baby's diaper while making breakfast and dressing up for work. I remember thinking that my mother seemed to have grown extra hands. And then the week after, I remember how tired my mother looked.
"Let me help you, Mom," I offered and tried to tie my brother's diaper like I had seen her do over and over. I didn't know it then, but that would be the first of many diapers I would tie. Less than five years later, my sister was born and by the time I was 13, I was already a mother by default.
I had woven my experiences, my very existence, so tightly to that of my siblings that I was a secondary character in all of my own stories and they were the protagonists.
I attended my first parent-teacher meeting the year I turned 15. When I raised my hand to speak, the principal’s brow furrowed. "This meeting is for people with children at the school," she said. But I am a parent, I thought incredulously. Who else was going to be here? I looked at my sister's teacher, waiting for her to tell them that it was me who dropped her off at school and picked her up every day. It was me who helped with her assignments, who packed her lunches. It was me the school nurse called to ask about her medical history when her allergies flared up. It was me cheering her on at every school race and smiling proudly at every recital. Of course I was a parent.
I was 20 the first time I went on a real date. He was a nice boy and I thought the stars reflected in his eyes when he laughed. "What was your childhood like?" he asked, while we waited for our dessert.
"My brother was born when I was 8," I would start. "He was a big child and weighed almost a whole stone. It didn't help that I had to carry him at least 10 hours every day because he was so fussy. By the time he was 2, he weighed almost as much as I did; it was difficult to tell who was carrying the other. My sister was smaller, though. Or perhaps it was because I was a lot bigger when she came along. My brother's—"
When he laughed and cut me short, saying he was on a date with me, not my brother or sister, I realized it: I had woven my experiences, my very existence, so tightly to that of my siblings that I was a secondary character in all of my own stories and they were the protagonists.
At 11, my sister's biggest worry was keeping up with schoolwork, deciding what after-school activities to engage in, wondering whether she should take French or Spanish, whether she should play basketball or tennis.
At 11, I had a steady ache on my hip from carrying my brother around. I worried about whether he was eating, about his homework. I worried when he cried and I squirmed when he was sick.
I don’t actually like peanut butter, I’ve realized — all this time, I only ate it because my sister does.
The week my brother took his A-level exams, I was in the middle of a fallout with a boy I liked, I had problems at work and was well on my way down the slippery slope of depression. When the schedule of my brother's exams found its way to my email, I just knew that I had no time to lie on my bed and cry like I really wanted to. There were reading timetables to be created and school runs to be done, so I wore my problems like an armor and soldiered on. Not because I wanted to, but because I had to.
I have spent the best part and then some of my late teens and early 20s being "Fari's sister" at my little sister's school and "Mo's big sister" to my brother's friends and their families, my own name folding itself beneath those of my siblings.
At 22, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure, and I joked that it was because of all the things I had to worry about on my siblings' behalf.
Parenting, such as it is, feels like a prison to me, one that the independence of my siblings has freed me from. With my brother off in uni and my sister already a self-sufficient teenager, I have had to learn a lot about who I am as an individual, for the first time, at 25. I do not actually like peanut butter, I’ve realized — all this time, I only ate it because my sister does.
I’ve been able to learn, recently, that I do like my name being called, that I love existing as my own self and not as an extension of someone else. I have decided rather staunchly that parenthood is not a prison yard I am remotely interested in returning to. And while it’s not that I blame my mother for the journey that led me here — if anything, I’m grateful to be able to experience a facet of parenthood and understand that it is not for me — but my decision is not a conversation I intend to have with her, either. Parental guilt, the kind that overwhelms you, is an emotion I’m all too familiar with. I don’t want to give my mother any more of it.