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My mother always said that after two kids, every subsequent child makes raising them a bit easier. So she had four. I am the first.
As a child I didn’t know what she meant. I now understand her logic. The more children she had, the more we came to rely on each other and reduce her overall responsibility. Perhaps that wouldn’t be the case in every big family, but the oldest child in most families is at least expected to set an example for his or her younger siblings, to behave to a higher standard, and endure stricter rules and punishments. Then, years later, to watch in dismay as their brothers and sisters slip under the radar of once watchful parents, getting away with later curfews, more screen time…
This is a common trend I’ve heard reported from friends throughout my life, and it’s probably not that harmful overall. But in some cases, like when a mother is incapable of mothering due to ambivalence, or mental illness, the oldest child bears more responsibility than most.
There were several factors that made parenting a struggle for my mother, all of which I’m sure were more painful for her than for me. But what mattered to me and my younger sisters was how her struggle manifested, what it felt like. It felt like walking on eggshells. It felt like worrying she might not come home tonight, or tomorrow, or the next day. Since she raised us alone, this concern was terrifying. It felt like a wondrously good afternoon could be destroyed by a single wrong word. It felt like not getting the Mother’s Day card exactly right could lead to weeks of being ignored.
As a child I felt responsible, but as a teenager her failures filled me with resentment. In my twenties, my mother’s struggle shifted to an impossibility. She decided to exit my life, and my anger turned to a general sense of angst. As I near forty, my feelings are a delicate balance of sadness and acceptance. I don’t know how she feels, and probably never will.
Yet I do not think about my mother anywhere close to as much as my younger sisters occupy my thoughts. Growing up ever fearful of stepping on emotional landmines bonded me to my sisters in a way I don’t think would have otherwise been possible.
Several years after my sisters and I were born, my father had two daughters with my stepmother. At the age of twenty, I counted five younger sisters, and that aforementioned, typical “oldest child” animosity was borne out in the first four of us – the OG (Original Girls) as we’re known – when we saw our baby sisters raised by a pair of loving, happy, capable parents, who asked almost nothing of them. Their lives looked entirely carefree. There were no money worries or any fear of abusive mood swings for those two little girls. They had reliable, consistent support at home. They had their own laptops and iPads. They had annual family vacations. And they had the later bedtimes, the lax rules. To the OG, they were spoiled.
Of course, that judgement was rooted in jealousy. Today I can see that we longed for the stability we saw in our extended family, but then, we didn’t know the feeling as desire. It never occurred to us that kind of family life was a possibility. That it was normal. Our father had offered it: He told us, one by one, to come live with him. But we didn’t want to be coddled. We wanted our mother because she was familiar; her unpredictability was home. And, perhaps, because it’s more complicated to move as four than as one. Separating was an impossibility.
I’ve always resisted the term “half-sister” for my youngest siblings because it implies they are not part of the whole. True, they are not part of the OG. A bond forged through shared trauma cannot be matched by blood alone. The OG require each other, but my youngest sisters don’t need me. They have a mother, and because of this they have given me a traditional sibling relationship. We cheer each other on, commiserate together over our failures, laugh at our father. We love and support each other.
My mother depended on her daughters to take care of each other. I’ve changed the OG’s diapers and tied their shoes. I have helped with homework, cooked meals, folded laundry. I’ve provided shelter and loans. I’ve given sex talks and health reminders and relationship advice. I’ve proofread college papers and donated first pieces of furniture and reviewed lease agreements. I have never blamed my sisters for coming to me for these things, as they would a mother. My mother shepherded them toward me, and she believed in me. I have lain awake countless nights with a pressure on my chest and a pit in my stomach, with worry for these people I did not make but who are a part of me. I did not birth them, but they are mine.
But all my sisters’ playful criticism has made me self-aware. Their vastly different personalities provide an endless sense of wonder (which is very useful to me as a writer). I still find myself making choices based on what will serve as the best example for my sisters: leaving bad romantic relationships, being kinder than I’d like to be, feigning (at times) greater resilience and faith than I feel. And then when I see their generosity and bravery, I feel a flutter of pride for them and for myself.
Maybe having four children didn’t make parenting easier for my mother, but her theory gave me a different kind of family. More than my mother, my sisters – the youngest who love me and the OG who both love and need me – made me whole.
About Monica Cardenas
Monica Cardenas is a writer, visiting tutor and PhD researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she also completed an MA in Creative Writing. Originally from Washington, D.C., she earned a BA in English from Wilkes University, Pennsylvania. Her novel-in-progress The Marriage Amendment was longlisted for the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize and runner-up in the Borough Press open submission competition. Her writing appears in Litro and Catatonic Daughters.
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