Sibling relationships are always complex. While they have their fair share of 'ups' and 'downs', there is a uniquely intimate bond that exists with a brother or sister, which is unparalleled to any other relationship that we have in our life. Zaynah Akhtar shares her own personal experiences about growing up with four siblings, and how these relationships still greatly affect her mental health and well-being today.
“Wait, how many siblings do you have?” is a question I frequently get asked after mentioning my family in casual conversation. Growing up with four siblings was something I never gave much thought to before; but in retrospect I realised they heavily shaped who I’ve become today. Siblings share a unique relationship: you can be as horrible as you want, tease and even fight each other (sometimes physically), yet have little to no fear of losing your bond with them. My friends would often relay me unpleasant stories about their siblings and found it almost strange that I’m very close to my siblings and get along with them (most of the time) – I count myself lucky, but admittedly it isn’t always smooth sailing.
When you grow up with so many siblings in close proximity, it doesn’t allow for much privacy, personal space or alone time. You’re forced to share pretty much everything: rooms, clothes and your parents’ attention. Many of your belongings are “borrowed” and usually end up broken because they shouldn’t have been borrowed in the first place. You have to wait ages to use the shared bathroom; you steal each other’s leftovers in the fridge and you have to put up with each other’s messes left around the house. It’s pretty much a warzone most of the time.
While our different personalities definitely clash when sharing rooms, this dynamic also inevitably leads to some of the silliest, funniest stories and deep late-night conversations. And despite how often we get on each other’s nerves, you begin to miss each other after a long time apart.
Though it’s rarely admitted, your older siblings are your heroes and the people you look up to. As the second youngest sibling, it was very common for me to mimic both the positive and negative behaviours of my older sister and brothers. A lot of your music taste, sense of humour and interests can be influenced by them. Although over time, as they begin to take you more seriously, it’s nice to see how your interests influence them as well.
Older siblings pass on more than hand-me-downs; they also provide you with many life lessons. By watching them journey through life and make mistakes, they teach you to avoid these downfalls yourself. They can become your life coaches, your biggest supporters and the greatest teachers - whether they mean to be or not. One piece of advice my older brother gave me, which was extremely comforting to hear was, “don’t worry if you’ve done something bad, you can always tell us, because chances are we’ve probably done something worse”. While the stress of being a role model as an older sibling seems daunting to me, these small acts of help can really make a difference. For instance, in my experience, it could be as simple as advising me about which classes I shouldn’t bother taking or how to convince our parents to let me go out with friends.
Siblings are people you can confide in and vent to. When you’re embarrassed to tell others about something or show anyone how bad your new haircut is, your siblings may tease you for a long time about it first, but they usually find ways to help - because they hate seeing you upset. And when your parents are being utterly embarrassing, they’re the only people that share the same pain and can laugh with you about it. It doesn’t matter how much a relative has annoyed you, how much your friends have upset you or how difficult life feels because when you feel like you have no one, they’re always there to help you feel loved and less lonely. Because when you think about it, your siblings will often share the same concerns about life, the same background and the same fear of letting your parents down.
Comparisons are unavoidable when it comes to siblings. Friends and strangers alike will gush about how, even though neither of you see it, you and your sibling look so alike. Meanwhile, teachers and parents compare your potential against each other constantly, adding to the pressure of being as successful as each other. However, if anyone ever said a bad word about your sibling, you’d immediately jump to their defence and you know they’d do the same for you. That’s something I especially love about sibling relationships - you can fight over the smallest things like stealing their chair or changing the TV channel, but in serious situations they always have your back.
Personally, growing up with three older siblings meant that I always had someone to hold my hand and lead me through everything. But once I started university and had to take charge of my life, everything seemed extremely daunting: I never had to do anything significant on my own before and my siblings couldn't advise me on everything I wanted to venture into. All of a sudden I had to make my own important decisions, be responsible for myself and learn through my own experience. Yet, leaving the boundaries of my comfort zone and not following in my siblings’ footsteps, has allowed me to grow as a person and taught me that I am capable of standing on my own.
From another point of view, having a younger sibling has also helped me mature and has led to us, ‘older siblings’, taking on more responsibilities than people our age usually would. When my brother was born, I was no longer the ‘baby’ of the family and had to give up all the attention. But it was worth it. At a young age, I observed the daily tasks and effort needed to take care of a child and we all quickly became protective over him. This is because we’re called on frequently to care for our youngest sibling - after all, a ‘free’ babysitter is an offer parents can’t resist. Though watching ‘Peppa Pig’ on repeat can be tedious, and having friends over is difficult when your younger sibling is creating chaos everywhere, taking care of my younger brother is extremely gratifying.
In hindsight, one of the longest-lasting relationships you have in life is the one you share with your siblings. My life wouldn’t be the same without my siblings - after experiencing many ups and downs together and anticipating many more to come, we’ve shaped each other’s lives for the better. I know that when I’ll be older, I’ll miss the times when we all lived in the same house and I could share their company every day. Family is often overlooked and can be taken for granted by most of us, so maybe calling home a little more often couldn’t hurt, could it?
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