How Not to Be a Big Sister

Looking back, I realized that because I had tried to be the perfect long-distance sibling, I had turned myself into someone unrelatable and distant. I thought that because they looked up to me, I should only show the parts of myself that were worth admiring. Instead, I wondered if the best thing I could do for them was to be totally honest.


{shortcode-21cc3534b02e5a90dd1b6e61be0fe28423896a7e}ren’t you ready for church?” my mom called through the door on a Sunday morning during winter break. I had returned home just a few days prior and had spent most of the last 72 hours asleep.

“Honestly, Mom, I wasn’t planning on going,” I said, opening the door, bleary-eyed and wearing an old set of Christmas pajamas. “That’s okay, right?”

“No, not really. What will your siblings think?” she responded. “I’ll be waiting in the car.”

Ninety seconds later, unshowered and uncomfortable in a dress I hadn’t worn in months, I sat fuming in the passenger seat. As my mom drove, I silently applied mascara in the car mirror, bracing myself to return to the church I had deliberately separated myself from when I left for college.

Although we arrived late, I was immediately greeted by the community that had watched me grow up, receiving tight hugs, warm smiles, and what felt like a hundred iterations of the questions, “How’s Harvard?” and “Aren’t you loving church on the East Coast?” I stuttered my way through one non-answer after another, feeling the distance grow between who I was and who I was willing to let them see.

Finally, I slid into a pew beside my siblings. Even if I wasn’t directly lying to them, my presence felt similarly deceptive, suggesting I believed in something I didn’t.

I have four younger siblings and two older, and they are unquestionably the most important people in my life. When I lived at home, I felt close to my siblings by proximity — I was around to witness the fights, get glimpses of the school projects, and overhear the friend drama.

Once I left for college, it became more difficult to keep up with their lives beyond the updates my parents sent in the family group chat. Trying to make regular phone calls with six siblings who live thousands of miles away sometimes felt like a monumental task, especially when life at Harvard was so hectic I might go days without speaking more than a few words to my own suitemates.

Throughout the church service, I tried to understand why the image of me sitting in these pews was so important to my mom. I had been away for so many weeks – why would my siblings even notice if I didn’t go to church with them?

Then again, growing up I would have certainly noticed these details about my own big siblings. As a child, I became obsessed with whatever I saw them doing. When one of them declared a new favorite book, I immediately picked up a copy. If my big siblings said they didn’t like our dinner, I suddenly lost my taste for it as well. Whether I thought deeply about something or not, my opinions were mimicry of what my big siblings thought.

Even the start of my ‘faith crisis’ was prompted in part by my oldest sibling leaving the church. Their frustration at the religion made me conscious of its flaws for the first time.

Fortunately, once I was older and able to explore my personal beliefs outside of this controlling influence, my relationship with my siblings became less about imitation and more about genuine communication. Now, I lean on them for moral support on the journey to becoming my own person, instead of observing them to define myself.

However, my little siblings are still young enough that our relationship is mostly mimicry. They look up to me — to an uncomfortable degree. Whenever I introduce my 11-year-old sister to a new song, she immediately adds it to her “favorites” list. And my little brother designed his first semester of high school classes with all my suggested courses in mind. Because they admire me, my example disproportionately influences them.

Maybe my mom was right that the hour I spent (or didn’t spend) next to them at church that week would impact their religious faith. Being dragged out of the house that morning had made me recognize just how much the things I said or did around them could sway their opinions or goals.

Although I was uncomfortable that my mom was capitalizing on this dynamic to influence my siblings in a way that was inauthentic to me, I was also humbled by the realization that my example as a big sister was far from perfect.

When I returned to college after the break, I felt an overwhelming pressure to live up to my sibling’s admiration. On every phone call, I tried to make sure they knew I was strong and brave and kind so they would want to be the same. When we talked, I carefully showed off my optimism, not wanting them to worry or get the wrong impression of college. Constantly considering the stakes of the conversation made the already daunting task of calling my siblings feel overwhelming, and I started checking in less and less.

Then, a few weeks ago, the illusion I had created began to break.

I was crying on the phone with my mom, sharing the truths of college I wouldn’t want my siblings to hear. “Mom, I can’t get out of bed. I skipped all my classes. I’m sick of problem sets and essays, but I’m behind. There’s so much to do and I’m totally freaked out.”

My mom was gentle, offering support and advice. But our conversation was cut short when I heard a soft “Bye, mom!” and the slam of the car door through the phone. A shock ran through me as I realized my mom had me on speaker phone while driving, and my little sister had been in the car.

I was terrified. This might be the only time my sister heard from me this week, and I immediately started wondering how it might impact her. What if my sister thought back to this when applying for college and decided not to go to a challenging school? What if she assumed I was completely failing? What if she decided to skip class too?

I had no control over whether this moment would be significant to my sister or how she might derive meaning from it. While that lack of control was terrifying, it also relieved the pressure.

What if by hearing me at a low point, my sister learned that it was okay to have bad days? What if she decided to ask my mom for help because she had seen me do it?

Looking back, I realized that because I had tried to be the perfect long-distance sibling, I had turned myself into someone unrelatable and distant. I thought that because they looked up to me, I should only show the parts of myself that were worth admiring. Instead, I wondered if the best thing I could do for them was to be totally honest.

As I head home this summer, my first priority is to get to know my siblings again, and to let them get to know me – in all my flaws and shortcomings. Now might not be the time to fully share my religious disaffiliation with them – I don’t want to instigate mimicry where it may be harmful – but I hope that by focusing on authenticity, I can foster relationships that will allow them to come to me with their beliefs and struggles when they’re ready.

These relationships won’t be perfect, but I’m learning that a “perfect” sibling isn’t what they need.