Feb 14, 2013 0 Share

The Older Sister

Photo of girl leaning down to hug younger brother.

I tiptoed out of the living room, hoping to switch my laundry from washer to dryer without the two children noticing my brief absence. I was babysitting at a friend’s home, watching a 3-year-old and 1-year-old in exchange for use of the laundry facilities. Eliza, the 3-year-old, was looking through a book, and her younger brother, Mitchell, was avidly watching her. It seemed an opportune moment to slip away and into the next room. 

But alas, my plan didn’t work. Before I’d so much as opened the door to the dryer, Eliza appeared beside me. Predictably, Mitchell started wailing; he hates to be left alone, and now he had neither babysitter nor sister nearby. He’d probably start crawling toward us momentarily. 

I stood next to the washing machine and sighed. Should I run back to comfort Mitchell, or just transfer the clothes as quickly as possible? I chose the latter, moving my arms as fast as I could. Eliza helped me load the damp clothes into the dryer as she had in the past. I knew that she liked to help her mom with household tasks, so I included her in my laundry. But Mitchell’s cries grew louder and more frantic. He didn’t want to be left alone, and I didn’t want a meltdown. 

As though reading my mind, Eliza said, “Why’s Mitchell crying?” 

“Well, honey,” I said, “He doesn’t want to be by himself. And since we’re both over here by the laundry, he can’t see us, and he’s upset that he isn’t with us.” 

Eliza’s face was focused, concentrating on my words. “Oh,” she said. 

An idea sprang to mind. “Thank you for helping me, Eliza. You’re such a good helper. Do you think maybe you could go play with your brother now? I think that would help him to feel calm.” 

It was a good idea, but I hesitated to voice it. I’m accustomed to asking adults for help, but it felt strange to be asking a 3-year-old to assist me. Was it too much to ask of her? Would she resent the request? 

In the past, I’d seen her get upset when Mitchell took her toys or invaded her space, so I wondered if she’d react negatively to this request. But as it turned out, I needn’t have worried. She replied with a cheerful “Okay,” taking the suggestion in stride. In fact, she (literally) ran with it. Dashing around the corner to the living room, she disappeared from sight. As she vanished, I felt a sense of solidarity with her. I felt like I was standing in my mother’s shoes, asking my younger self to help my younger brother Willie

As I saw Eliza run over to Mitchell, I could imagine myself racing toward Willie at that age. Even then, I knew what Eliza knew: that when my younger brother needed me, I went. Whether your sibling has special needs or not, being the oldest means stepping up. It means that you know early on how much your sibling needs you, though you may not yet realize how much you need them. So, although I knew she couldn’t fully understand my words, I wanted to tell her, “Honey, welcome to the club. Welcome to a thousand more requests just like this one. Welcome to the rest of your life. You will never stop being the oldest; it is part of who you are. And no matter what, a part of you will always want to take care of your brother, and a part of him will always look up to you. Even if you live 1000 miles apart, even if you fight and argue and resent each other sometimes. Deep down, none of that matters. You’ll always be connected.” 

From where I stood, I could hear Eliza’s voice in the next room. She spoke to her brother gently, saying, “Hey buddy, what’s wrong?” Within seconds, Mitchell’s sobbing ceased; now I was the one with tears pricking my eyes. I peeked around the corner to check on them; they were playing together contentedly. I finished tossing my clothes into the dryer. “With great power comes great responsibility,” I murmured. And I knew it to be true.