I am the youngest child of a large family. The baby that was brought home from the hospital by a weary mother to four older siblings who looked down at me with curiosity and a little nonchalance, gathered around for one picture, and moved off to resume their daily activities.
And because I was innocent and oblivious at the time, I was completely unaware that I had just been introduced to two humans who would completely shape the type of mother I would become thirty years later: my two older sisters.
Growing up, the memories I have of my older sisters are kind of hazy and limited. Because they are a dozen, and a decade years older than I am, I was too young to “hang out” with them and be anything close to their contemporary. The clearest flashbacks I have are scenes like sitting in the cramped bathroom that we shared watching them put make up on or of lying in bed at night and having to turn my back to the desk lamp that stayed on so late while one did her high school homework.
I remember thinking one of them was so mean when she babysat my brothers and I, enforcing a strict bedtime and escorting us to our rooms as we loudly complained. I had yet to enter my own angst-filled teen years and just thought my oldest sister was cranky a lot for no good reason.
I spent much more of my day-to-day free time with my brothers, who were closer in age, and seemed more fun anyway. They were the ones playing Kick the Can with the big group of neighborhood kids we hung with, and I’d furiously try to keep up with them on my bicycle as they headed off to the local park.
To my eyes, my sisters’ later teen years were just kaleidoscopic glimpses of them heading off to a prom in a colorful, long dress, or sneaking a kiss with their boyfriend next to the ping-pong table in our basement. Their presence in my life was peripheral and slightly secretive.
And when I myself reached the later years of high school, they had begun having children. My nieces and nephew became these entertaining, little creatures who would visit our house frequently, and I would find myself fascinated, like an anthropologist discovering a new tribe in the depths of a rainforest, watching my sisters “mother” them.
Once again, in a state of ignorance – this time surrounding parenthood – I began to take in and absorb the truths of motherhood. The lessons I had been too young to fully comprehend as my own mother raised me, and without any younger siblings, started to sink in and make me realize what a daunting task it was to raise another human.
I learned that babies and toddlers were not only cute, but loud and messy, and sometimes stunk to high heaven as they crawled past with a loaded diaper. That they were sticky and squirmy and oftentimes did very strange things like shovel sand into their mouths at the beach or try to tug each other’s wispy hair out of their heads.
I watched scenes, where my sisters amazed me with their calm and unflappable patience, like when one niece lost her tooth at the table in a very crowded restaurant and began screaming so loudly at the sight of her own bloodied hand, that the entire restaurant came to a silent standstill.
I learned that being the mother of young children is utterly exhausting and enjoyable, all at the same time. I learned that taking a nap in the afternoon whenever you can is vital for a mom’s sanity. I learned that kids fight fiercely with their siblings and cousins, but at the end of the day, still want to snuggle close together to listen to that bedtime story.
And as my nieces and nephews grew older, the lessons got more fraught and more valuable.
I realized some significant truths. Even “good” kids lie to their parents sometimes, and they end up being great adults. Kids and teens both can go through rocky and rude periods, where the adults around them seriously wonder and worry about the future, and they come back around to being people you love to spend time with.
I have been beyond lucky to be able to watch my sisters navigate the high school, college, and young adult stages with their children, a decade before I ever had to grapple with each of those.
I’ve come to realize that I have been blessed with the mothering equivalent of “insider trading” my entire adult life. Years before I reached so many of these challenges, I had living proof that kids – and parents – do survive middle school, that high school romances rarely last past high school, that college admissions is a big game where “Fairness” is not a section in the rule book, and that where a child goes to college is not correlated with future life success and happiness.
But even more important than those Mom lessons, I’ve learned some of the toughest life lessons from my older sisters as well. With them, I’ve experienced a few of those intense instances in life, where you will never forget where you were, what you were doing, or how their voices sounded on the phone that day.
From one sister I learned that you can be told your child has been diagnosed with a brain tumor and needs emergency surgery. And that modern medicine is miraculous and calls like that don’t always end in tragedy. A mother can survive that shock and immense fear, and things can turn out OK.
But from my other sister I learned that sadly, sometimes you are handed the worst news you can get. A spouse can die young and unexpectedly, and your grief is overwhelming and all-consuming. But the love and support from family and friends lifts you up and carries you through your anguish. And with faith and grace, you can carry your children through that with you, as well. And joy and good times can return, as you learn to live your new normal.
I know with a solid and unwavering certainty, that I would not be the mother I am today, without the examples that have been set for me by my sisters throughout my lifetime.
They say you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. I am thankful each and every day of my life that I would choose my sisters to be my friends, even if they were not my flesh and blood. I thank them (and my brothers, too) for giving me nieces and nephews that I cherish, and for helping me raise kids who are pretty wonderful themselves.
My sisters morphed from being two mysterious, older people who lived in my house for a while as I grew up, to be my very best friends in the world.
Happy Mother’s Day to every mom, and to every sister who helped mold a great mom by their example.
[P & T, I love you.]
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