As I made my daily Facebook rounds one morning, I noticed utterly adorable photos in my news feed of my 5-year-old sister Jill. She was all suited up in a school uniform, clutching a Tinker Bell backpack. My mom posted the pictures, like all parents do, to document her first day of kindergarten.
I know what you're (probably) thinking. How old are you to have a 5-year-old sister? How old is your mom? It's okay. I'll let the questions go -- I hear them a lot.
The simple version of the story is that my mom had me in 1991. She was 21 and married to my father. They ended up divorcing, and she remarried my wonderful stepfather 14 years later, creating her own version of the Brady Brunch. My mom, stepdad, brother, new stepbrother and I all moved into a new home in the suburbs. But in her late 30s, my mom didn't feel that our family was complete. Enter Jillian.
It's typical to have love and pride for your siblings, but the sixteen year age gap between my sister and me has created an entirely new kind of bond -- a pseudo-parent/sibling relationship. It's the kind of attachment that makes a post-grad millennial cry when she sees pictures of her little sister off to her first day of school.
We may not be able to share friends or clothes or college stories yet. But Jill has given me things that are infinitely better. She may not realize it, but the life lessons I learned from her are ones that I'll always cherish:
I Learned How To Be A Kid Again
It's not often that a 20-something can take time to appreciate the little things in life. After all, between college, working full-time or indulging in the best happy hours, we hardly have a moment to stop being "grown-ups." When I come home for a visit, I know I'll be cajoled into playing Barbies, MC'ing a one-woman fashion show or watching the Disney Channel. Most young adults would love an excuse to indulge in childhood again. Jillian is mine.
I Appreciate My Family More
Going away to college with a 1-year-old sister at home was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. Most kids my age worried about making friends and finding their classes, but I had an added fear: Would my baby sister forget me? I've always been close to my family, but Jillian made me realize that time doesn't wait around for big sisters to come home from school. Because of this, I constantly called my parents and Skyped when we could. Going home for a holiday or summer meant so much more.
And surprisingly, she didn't forget me. When I walked through the doors that first Thanksgiving break, she greeted me with a smile and open arms.
I Get To See My Mother In Action
I had an amazing childhood. But the kind of parent my mom was with me is different from the one she is now. I've always said that I hope to be half the mother that she is, and seeing her raise Jill gives me first-hand knowledge how. I'll still need her when I have a panic attack the first day home from the hospital, but I'll be that much more confident that I learned from the best.
I Care About The Future A Lot
It's easy to brush off the "future" when you don't have anyone else to worry about. Some young adults live like they're invincible, but I can't -- and won't. I see so much potential in Jillian and I want to help create a world for her that's even better than mine.
I Watch What I Say
I consider myself a feminist. Much of my advocating has to do with wanting a better and more equal world for me, but the rest of it has to do with wanting a better and more equal world for Jill. Lately, I've found myself trying very hard to watch what messages I send her. When she asked recently why I was doing my makeup, I said because it is fun, not because it makes me more beautiful. When she comes downstairs with a fresh dress, I try to say how happy she looks in it -- not how pretty she looks.
The way we frame the elements in our culture affects the way we think about them. Jill has encouraged me to think about that, always.
I'm The Big Sister I've Always Wanted
As the oldest, I'll perpetually wonder what it would be like to have a big sister. I won't ever have that question answered, but Jill helps me channel that wonder into action. I try to be the big sister I never had. One day, I won't have a 5-year-old sister; I'll have a 20-year-old sister and although I'll be older, I know we'll have the relationship that age delayed us from having.
I've Discovered A New Kind Of Love, And It's Incredible
The best thing about having an age gap between my sister and me is that I have an idea of what being a parent is like. I know that it's a completely different and selfless kind of unconditional love, and I'll never understand it completely until I care for a child of my own. But I have a taste of this kind of love that makes you keep going even after the worst of days. I've gotten through many bad times by knowing that Jill is in my life.
It's not very often that 20-somethings get to have a front row seat to childrearing without being parents themselves. I consider myself one of the lucky ones.