We do many things in the name of protecting our young, but the most dangerous thing we do is disallowing them from growing up. In a country where the mechanisms of control and moral-policing as so vast and pervasive, the “protective” older sibling is sometimes an enforcement mechanism, but what do we lose when sibling-relationships are governed by that sentiment? We discuss, in our latest piece.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
I used to say that my sisters are like my children but they’ve since grown up into adults and it feels a bit odd to refer to them as children now. Regardless, I am the oldest, and the two of them are four and ten years younger than I am, and as a result, our relationships when we were growing up were governed by that hierarchy. I took care of them. I helped them with homework and projects. I drove them to birthday parties and took them for ice cream. I spent hours of my life playing “fashion show” with the youngest and she still hasn’t stopped playing that game, she just plays it in real-life now. Being the older sibling automatically means you have to take more household and familial responsibility from a younger age. When your siblings are still children, it also means taking on the responsibility of protection. You know the song ‘Dumb Ways To Die”? My younger sister could actually be the subject of that song, and it takes more than just parents to stop a creature like her from accidentally killing herself. You have to protect your young.
However, there is a danger to that sentiment as well.
Let me tell you a different story. I know a woman. Well, I don’t know her, as much as we existed in the same social settings for a period of time. When she was twenty-three, her younger sister moved to the city she was living in for college. Her sister wanted to live in the hostel and then later move into a flat with the friends she would make there, but her parents (and sister) insisted that she live with her sister for her “safety”. This wasn’t a financial concern at all, these people are rich, they didn’t want their young out and too free. I met the younger sister several times and then one evening I was in my neighborhood cafe, getting coffee to take with me while I ran my errands, and I saw her sitting with a man at a table outside. I went up to her and said hello. She was a little awkward but I was only planning to stay a few seconds. I was just about to take my leave when she asked me to step aside with het for me moment.
“Please don’t tell didi that I was here,” she explained in a sorry tone of voice, “She won’t let me go out if she knows I am with..a guy.”
I assured her I wouldn’t say anything but I was very disturbed by the event. A nineteen year old girl in college in a big city shouldn’t be disallowed from leaving a house because she was seen with a boy. No one should. And therein lies the problem with the protective older sibling. Before you know it, they become agents for control and moral policing. Protection morphs into control and suddenly the girl who used to take you for ice cream and sneak you candy becomes an object of fear. Protection doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t allow our young to grow up.
And I acknowledge the struggle.
When my sisters were younger, our relationship was different. I had to take care of them and sometimes that involved telling them what to do. However when they started to grow up, two clear yet divergent paths appeared before me: I could start controlling them (by telling them not to go out, see boys, have sex, drink alcohol) or I could be there for their growth and participate in their lives. I remember the first time I realised my younger sister was growing up. She was sixteen, I was home from college for winter break, I had just arrived with my luggage and I was going upstairs to my room to put it away, and when I opened my door, she was inside with her boyfriend and they were kissing. They were freaked out, and they jumped apart, and I immediately told them it was okay, but they were still a little uncomfortable. Honestly, I was a little uncomfortable too. It’s not that I have an issue with sexual expression, at all, it’s that when you have known someone as the tiny creature with the terrible haircut who only cares about chocolate and playtime, it’s a little bit jarring when you see them embody a grown woman’s body for the first time. It’s not even that we hadn’t talked about it. In my family we rally the responsibility of having “the talk”. My mom talked to me about sex and sexuality, I talked to my younger sister about it, and my younger sister talked to the youngest one about it, but it’s different when you talk about it, and when you see them/know of them acting on the talk.
However, that’s not what was important. What was important was what came after that. For a moment I may have been surprised, but once it passed, I realised she was growing up and it was okay. That’s what kids do, they grow up, and they change. Their needs change, their priorities change, their emotions change and their bodies change. My sister and I talked about how our relationship would change as a result of that as well. One of the first changes was that instead of being the presence in her life that always asked about her and took care of her needs, I needed to become a presence in her life that was equally communicative about herself. She demanded it. She demanded that I share my life with her as well and that was fair, because when she was younger there may have been things I couldn’t talk to her about just yet, but once she became an adult, the adult world was as much her purview as it was mine. She demanded that I share my life, my stresses, my feelings and my thoughts with her as well. Once I started to do that, we became equals, and that process was extremely important.
That didn’t mean that she wouldn’t come to me for help or advice, she still does that, but it meant that I could go to her as well. It didn’t mean that when shit hit the fan I wouldn’t take care of it for her, it meant that I recognised that her journey was not mine and I could not dictate actions to her. I could not condemn her. I could not use “protection” as an excuse to stop her from doing things that made me uncomfortable. Instead, I was just there for her life. I was there for her first drink, and shortly afterwards her first thorough projectile vomiting. I was there for her first kiss, her first heartbreak, her first cigarette, her first interview, her first move, her first apartment, the first time she had sex. I wasn’t there to tell her what to do, I wasn’t even there to clean up the mess when it inevitably all went wrong (because it didn’t and it doesn’t), I was just there to do it with her. And the alarmingly positive consequence of that was that I rediscovered her as complete person. An amazing person. A person whose presence in my life is vital, entertaining, positive, inspiring and loving. Between the five years from when she was sixteen to twenty-one, our relationship changed completely and it was a great thing that it did. She is no longer my child, she is my peer and that’s a wonderful thing.
Because of that experience, it was much easier when the youngest one started to grow up. Given that she is ten-years younger than I am, it should have been harder but by then I had learnt that there is a time for protection, and a time to take a backseat and allow them to grow up. With her it started the day she stopped calling me “didi” (a respectful title for an older sister). I told her very early on that she didn’t need to call her that, but respect titles are a deep part of Indian culture and she continued to do it for many years. One day, on her own, she addressed me by my name. She was fourteen. I remember it quite clearly, she said my name, she watched my face to see if I would say something, and when I didn’t, she just went on with her day. She never called me “didi” again. It was her way of telling me that she was ready to grow up a little, and start a new relationship with me. We did. A relationship where she could discuss her accomplishments, her growth, her relationships and her budding interest in boys with judgement, condemnation or disapproval. I had to let her do that, because the alternative would be to not have her be honest with me about her life and the things that excite her, and that is unacceptable to me.
This year she turned twenty and she told me I shouldn’t be at her “entire” party because I (and my 40-year old husband) would scare her friends (and I’m never letting her live it down) but deep inside that seemingly bitchy request (it’s not, they’re kids, they want to be sloppy drunk and I’m too old for that shit) was a comfort. She’s comfortable telling me when she needs space for her own life that doesn’t need to be chaperoned and it shouldn’t be. If we continue to chaperone and coddle adults, we end up with grown ups who cannot handle themselves, and we have a lot of those already. Adults who are codependent on their families and cannot make independent decisions, and it’s, sad. Ultimately seeing my sister’s flourish as independent and dependable members of society was far more important than controlling them in the name of protection. I am not responsible for their protection anymore and accepting that change in roles was necessary to sustaining our relationship. I will always be there for them, but not to tell them what to do, just to listen and share my life experience should it be relevant.
The result of that? My sisters and I have excellent relationships with each other. Unfiltered and open relationships in which we can say anything, and more importantly, we enjoy each other’s company tremendously. We love spending time with each other. We look forward to seeing each other. We help each other tear down our boundaries and develop further. It also means that they are wonderful human being who contribute to society and inspire other women around them, and they do it by being distinctive, authentic individuals. We are not all the same person, all three of us are very different from one another, but it doesn’t matter at all. We don’t have to have the same views or personalities to enjoy each other, and it’s very important to learn that in life. And all it took was for me to shed the connotations of being “older”. It doesn’t matter that I am older, all that really means now is that my knees will give out sooner than theirs (and that I am not allowed at the parties of 20-year olds who need me to roll for them still). It doesn’t matter because I am not their protector. I am an active spectator in their journey and that is a much better thing because it allows me to love my sisters without controlling them, and it’s glorious.
Sisters can be an amazing thing, but you have to let them grow up.