Dear Fiona: On Being a Sister

Dear Fiona,

I’ve written a lot in my last several letters about love. In my most recent letter, I wrote about learning to love yourself.

In the next couple of letters, I’d like to share some thoughts about the people who love you the very most in the world, starting with your big brother, Tristan.

We’ve had a lot of conversations with Tristan, starting before you were born, about what it means to be a big brother. In this letter I’d like to share a few thoughts about what it means to be a little sister.

First, I think it’s important to talk about what that does not mean:

It does not mean Tristan is our favorite – or that you are. We’ve made the same commitment to him that I’ve made to you in these letters. We will always love you both with our entire hearts, and there is nothing you can do to make us love you more, and nothing you can do to make us love you less.

It does not mean Tristan is superior to you. There will be times when he has things to teach you, and I hope you learn from him eagerly (as, in fact, you already do on a daily basis). But there will also be times when you have things to teach him, and I hope he learns from you just as willingly.

It does not mean Tristan is a “co-parent.” Tristan loves you dearly, and as such he worries about you when he sees you doing something he’s not sure is safe. In those times, he frequently will let us know very emphatically. Sometimes we agree with him and stop you. Other times we reassure him that what you’re doing is ok. We don’t want to discourage him from looking out for you . . . but we also want to make sure you both grow up with the ability and the knowledge that you are powerful people who can, first and foremost, take care of yourselves. Tristan may be your big brother, but he is not “the boss of you.” We want him to grow up with the knowledge that his role is to protect those weaker than himself . . . but we also want you to grow up with the knowledge that you are a powerful person who is capable of looking out for yourself. There is a fine line between protection and paternalism . . . and we want to make sure not to cross it.

It does not mean that we have a certain role in mind for you. We want to make sure both you and Tristan are capable of meeting your own needs, beyond the stereotypical roles our culture tends to assign to your gender. For example, I am not comfortable finding my way around the kitchen without a great deal of help from Heidi (or at the very least, an incredibly detailed recipe). Heidi, by contrast, isn’t comfortable taking the cars into the repair shop because she doesn’t know the right questions to ask. We never planned for Heidi to do nearly all of the cooking and me to do nearly all of the car maintenance. That’s just how things have worked out because that’s what our culture and our respective interests have subtly encouraged, so that’s what each of us knows more about and is more comfortable doing.

Our hope is to intentionally, diligently, work with you and your brother toward something different.

You both love so very much to be helpful – helping us with cleaning tasks is one of Tristan’s very favorite things, and you’ve already shown that you feel the same by toddling up and tossing toys into their proper bins when we’re having cleaning time. But you do not live in a household where you will have chores that revolve around things like laundry and vacuuming while Tristan’s revolve around things like mowing the lawn. Your mom will not have you in the kitchen learning to cook while I take Tristan to the mechanic to watch the car being repaired.

I want you to learn how to cook and how to change the oil in the car. I want you to be familiar with vacuuming and lawn-mowing. And I want the same for your brother.

So those are several things that it does not mean to be a little sister . . . at least not in this family.

What, then, does it mean to be a little sister? Well, to be honest, it means much of what we’ve already discussed in these letters. It means giving your brother the benefit of the doubt even when he does something you don’t like. And he will. It means taking on his perspective when the two of you disagree. It means loving him the way you love yourself.

It means encouraging him to do all of these things, as well.

And I’ll be honest with you . . . the reason this one needs its own special letter is not because there are a lot of special things you need to do just because he’s your brother. It’s because the fact that he’s your brother will, at times, make it especially hard to do them.

There are times when showing love and empathy for your big brother will be a whole lot harder than doing so for some random stranger. You don’t have to live with a random stranger every single day. You don’t have to see that person at their very worst and weakest. You don’t have to try to empathize with that person even when they can’t or won’t do so for you. You never have to live with the knowledge that the person whose opinion and affection you value more than nearly anyone else’s is someone you can’t stand to be in the same room with right now.

You don’t have to do all of these things . . . and then try your very hardest to love them unconditionally anyway.

It’s hard. I’ve been there (well, on the big brother side of things, anyway) . . . and there have been plenty of times I’ve made a complete mess of it. There are times when I thought my job of being a big brother meant protecting my little sister from herself . . . which in turn gave me some sort of right to dictate her own choices to her, or at the very least try to influence my parents to choose what I wanted for her rather than what she wanted for herself.

I was wrong, and it harmed my relationship with my sister in ways that took a very long time and a lot of hard work to rebuild.

So as I’m trying to help Tristan learn how to be a big brother, I’m still learning how to be a better big brother myself. And as I try to help you learn how to be a little sister, my hope is that we can all become better and better at caring for each other, empathizing with each other, and loving each other as we grow together.


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