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As an Older Sibling, I Became a Secondary Parent During the Pandemic

With the semester drawing to a close, I find myself looking back at this past year — particularly the sudden transition from regular school to having to learn exclusively online. While it has been undeniably difficult for people in high school and college, I can’t help but think about the younger students who were suddenly thrust into this relatively new realm of learning. 

I myself am an older sibling to two kids. I was 10 years old when my middle sister was born, and three years later, my youngest sister arrived. My family and I were under the guise that in-person classes would return within the first few weeks of COVID-19 and, obviously, we were very wrong. 

As my siblings and I settled into online learning, it became clear that this was our new reality. My family and I became concerned over who would be able to monitor the kids in class and help them with their homework, since my parents still had to work. Fortunately for them, I had lost my part-time job — like a handful of other people during the pandemic — and so I had the extra time to help my sisters with school.

But in spite of the extra time, I realized that juggling both my school responsibilities and my sisters’ responsibilities is no walk in the park. I had to relearn lessons I hadn’t done in years in order to teach them properly. I was pulled back and forth between lectures because one sister was missing art materials while the other one needed to print an assignment. I requested deadline extensions from my professors, who thankfully understood my situation.

It’s been very difficult, but I can definitely say that I’ve learned to be more patient and empathetic. I feel an enormous amount of guilt for my sisters, who have had to endure COVID stripping away their fun school experiences and social interactions with their friends. Although technology has made connecting with others easier, talking to classmates through Zoom or FaceTime definitely isn’t the same as getting to play in the schoolyard during recess. Having these kinds of experiences as a kid is important because, as morbid as it sounds, life does get harder. 


woman and girl talking while lying in bed
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

When my sisters were born, I was just transitioning from childhood into early adolescence. Most 13- to 14-year-olds are typically excited about going into high school. They get to make new friends, join sports teams and clubs, hang out at the mall after school and learn new things about themselves. 

But when I was entering high school, I was worrying everyday about getting home on time to care for my two sisters. By the time I was 16, my classmates had part-time jobs and had joined multiple after-school clubs. I had changed hundreds of diapers and was spat up on more times than I can count. I’m sure that every person with much younger siblings can relate.

There’s no doubt that the relationship between siblings can benefit all parties in the long-term. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Calgary, Université Laval, Tel Aviv University and the University of Toronto revealed that both older and younger siblings can positively influence each other’s empathy during early childhood.

However, siblings with significantly large age differences between them can result in more unique circumstances. A generational gap can lead to older siblings taking on a more parental role in the lives of their younger siblings, being there to help parents raise them, teach them, and lead by example. 

There are moments I look back upon, specifically the “normal” teenage experiences I missed out on because I had a responsibility to care for two children. Of course, my parents tried their best to make sure that I wouldn’t be completely devoid of the things my friends were experiencing, and for that I am grateful. Still, it wasn’t easy. 

There are certain elements to being my sisters’ secondary parent that have taught me a lot. I’ve been very disciplined. I’ve learned the value of patience. In a way, caring for my sisters throughout my adolescence was a blessing in disguise. The maternal instincts I developed super early on have been instrumental in shaping me into  who I am today, from becoming the “mom friend” in my close circle of friends, to actually feeling somewhat prepared for future motherhood. 

This pandemic has struck all of us in many different ways, but I don’t necessarily see everything that has happened with my sisters and I as a fluke experience. If anything, it was another challenge I’ve had to face with my responsibilities as an older sibling. But with in-person learning returning soon, I don’t doubt that a huge weight will be lifted from my shoulders. 

I’ll admit that sometimes I look forward to the future, when my sisters become teenagers and will possibly want nothing to do with me. But I know that when that time comes, I’ll most likely miss the days when they were tiny, cute, and needed me for everything.

Alyssa/Ally is a third-year journalism student at Ryerson. She was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, and enjoys movies, sports, and travel.
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