It’s tough being the only sister… – Maleeha Mirnotyourwife1214
Being the youngest and only daughter of a South Asian household, meant I would never be as important as my older brothers. But I don’t mean that our parents purposely made me feel smaller and less important compared to my siblings. On the contrary, in my case, it was a combination of our Desi culture and my brothers simply needing more support and attention than I did. Although, I still find it strange that sibling relationships and the complexity of maintaining these bonds aren’t discussed in South Asian families, instead everyone pretends to know nothing and not fret over any issues bubbling beneath the surface. But ignoring problems only makes it worse for those involved.
Since the beginning, I knew my siblings and I had a very unique dynamic compared to other desi households because each of my brother’s carried their own set of needs that I had to accept as the youngest – my eldest brother, ‘Bhaijaan’ was sent away to boarding school on an academic scholarship from a young age, so he essentially wasn’t around when I needed him but I felt constantly compared to him, and my middle brother, ‘Bhaiya’ was born with a severe case of autism, which deeply impacted his ability to communicate and understand us, and so it was hard for me to build relationship with him with such limited communication. So, the ‘normal’ rules of sibling interaction are somewhat lost on us all. Although this doesn’t mean that we don’t squabble about food or who gets the TV remote like a ‘regular’ set of siblings – it means that we’re still working out the core of what our relationship is and how to interact with each other ‘normally’. But after so many years of not being able to lean on my brothers for support or really get close to them, I feel a strange sense of forced independence because I was always alone when I younger and learned to do things in my own way. At the same time, I feel a strong sense of ‘duty’ to do my best as I help my Mum look after Bhaiya without hesitation when he has a violent tantrum at home or not feel disheartened after talking to Bhaijaan about my future. Ultimately, I prefer to keep a safe distance between me and them because I didn’t grow up being able to talk to either of them about anything of importance or have the chance to bond with them on a deep emotional level – it almost feels too personal to share my thoughts and feelings now that I’m in my early 20’s. One brother will never be able to understand me and the other seems to disappear every time I need him.
If that wasn’t hard enough, by being born the only girl in a South Asian family, I had to live under the cultural and social rules of our traditional desi customs – rules that were intrinsically different and much more controlled than that of my siblings, despite their unique circumstances. For me, the difference between us was clear – I saw their freedom to wear what they wanted, and they lack responsibility at home, and knew that our parents expected different things from them, not only because of they were essentially ‘different’ but because they were boys. I had to accept that my Bhaijaan would always away ‘studying’ and therefore, not a part of our regular family movement, and that my Bhaiya couldn’t be given any responsibility. This left me alone with my thoughts, almost feeling like an ‘only child’ growing up with the heavy responsibility of being constantly available to help at home while I study hard, work, plan for the future and fulfil the expectations of our parents without complaint.
Being the sibling of an autistic brother also meant that complaining made no difference. The social rules enforced on me, simply didn’t exist for him. Bhaiya could jump on the bed, accidently break a glass and wear English clothes at family gatherings, and my mum would have to talk to him softly and tell him not to do that again, in an attempt to calm him down and avoid a tantrum in public. But if I tried to do the same, I would be punished immediately and given a stern telling-off. Is that fair? Probably not,but essentially Bhaiya’s needs were and continue to be, more important and ‘more necessary’ than mine. For most of my childhood, I felt a need to fill the gap my autistic brother had left in the family dynamic – the gap left by child who doesn’t understand the conventions of our culture or society. In his ignorant bliss of being constantly fed, clothed and loved beyond reproach – I felt a pressure to be both the middle and youngest sibling for my parents– and then be a strange ‘pseudo-older sibling having to ‘baby’ my Bhaiya when he’d make a mess or felt upset, especially if our Mum was unwell or not present, while at the same time, show him respect and give him the first plate of food at dinner (if our Dad wasn’t there) because he was my elder brother. But this was a relationship I had to navigate on my own with no one to understand my challenges, apart from an elder brother that was not physically there to support me.
The reality of sibling relationships are complex, especially as familial resentments inevitably build up over the years. My Bhaijaan is six years older than me but I could not help but compare myself to him and his academic achievements growing up, and put huge pressure on myself to achieve in the same way. A pressure that might have been dumbed down and shared if my Bhaiya was able to take the same exams or aspire to the same qualifications. But the truth is, I’ve always felt that Bhaijaan was a distant parental figure rather than a reliable older brother because of his lack of presence in my everyday life. Even now, I find it hard to relate to him, talk to him freely and not feel a sense of being ‘judged’ when I achieve something or share good news with him. Is it my own in security? I’m not sure. But I ask you this – what is an older brother? And what is his duty to me as his younger sister? Should he not try and bridge the gap between us and find ways connect with me on his own? Afterall, it shouldn’t be too hard – we share the same parents and a middle brother who will never be able bridge the gap for us. Yet, I always feel the pressure to maintain our relationship, and thinkthat Bhaijaan takes advantage of that part of me because he knows I will try my utmost to fulfil my duty as a younger sibling.
But the fear of not being able to fill the gaps in my relationship with my brothers or understand them becomes more apparent to me as I grow older. I think it will be long process before we can openly talk about the resentments and sorrows in our lives that connect us to each other. In the end, they are my brothers and I want them to be a part of my life because I don’t want to miss out on having these bonds, and I know how lucky I am to have siblings of any kind – but that doesn’t mean I forgive them for not being the brothers I needed while growing up.
By Maleeha Mir