scorecardMy little sister is 16 years younger than me. I'm old enough to be her mom.
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My little sister is 16 years younger than me. I'm old enough to be her mom.

Tommie Brown   

My little sister is 16 years younger than me. I'm old enough to be her mom.
LifeScience3 min read
The author, right, and her younger sister.    Courtesy of the author
  • When I was 16 years old, my mom got pregnant with my little sister.
  • I spent my 20s avoiding any responsibility of being an older sibling.

I was 16 years old when my mom told me she was pregnant.

Our come-and-go dad had just left the picture, and my two older siblings were already in their 20s and on the brink of living their own lives. I was only a teenager, but I knew at that moment that whatever I thought my life was going to look like had drastically changed.

I didn't know yet that this new life was going to be exactly what I needed — a mix of a grounded life spending time in my garden in the town where I grew up while also knowing every lyric on Olivia Rodrigo's album and screaming at concerts with girls half my age.

My older siblings and I took care of each other

Having grown up with only one parent, my siblings and I were very important to one another. Instead of just growing up side by side, we also felt the need to raise each other. We thought we could make up for what we lacked from the absent parent.

That's why I struggled with fear and anger about my newfound responsibility as a big sister at first. It wasn't just that I felt a duty to help raise her — I was old enough to have to do it.

I tried to ignore my little sister

I tried to ignore it. I went through my teens behind a locked bedroom door, pretending that my sister wasn't right outside. When college came, I moved to New York City, the farthest place I could get from my California hometown. I left with hopes of being a writer, but there was a part of me that craved distance from my new familial role. I longed to be the girl who wasn't setting an example in someone's watchful eyes.

But at college, I was surrounded by peers who didn't seem to carry the weight I did. I tiptoed around their youthful freedoms that came with answering to no one. For me, I did answer someone — a 5-year-old whose life I was watching play out over FaceTime.

I didn't want her to grow up without what I had

My older siblings were married, and it was clear my sister was growing up in a completely different environment than we did. I was raised with siblings who held my hand as we navigated everything from boredom to feelings of abandonment. But my sister was facing life as an only child. Greater than my indignation was my heartache that she would grow up feeling like she'd been left by nearly everyone she loved. So at 25, with my degree in hand, I packed my bags and moved back home into the room I grew up in.

"Where is my sister!?" her voice would ring through our halls, coming to tell me about the hot Disney starlet gossip. In those moments, it hit me that just like my other siblings, I didn't need to have everything in common with her or even understand her. I simply had to be there to yell back an annoyed, "What do you want?"

I spent a lot of time awkwardly trying to relate to my sister by acting younger, which was unsustainable. Or, in contrast, I'd try to act too old, like a father teaching life lessons I hadn't learned yet myself. I thought our age gap would keep us distant from one another our whole lives. But once I could feel my commitment to her as love, rather than obligation, I learned that it would be what held us together; after all, I have the credit-card numbers for the Ticketmaster queue lines.