what do people do without elder siblings?

My sisters are the best. I love them both so much, and I don’t know what I’d do without them. They really are the best – they help me with everything, they love me, they support me, they advise me, they look out for me. They also nag me, chide me, scold me, occasionally hit me. They do all the things that awesome elder sisters do. They’re not saints, but they are my moral/life compass and unfailingly help me gain perspective and direction when I need.

It’s sometimes hard to open up to my sisters. We haven’t always been super close, but since leaving home six-and-a-half years ago (!) I’ve been relying on them to ground me and to provide that bedrock of unwavering love and support that few people but family can provide. But it can still be hard to be honest about my fears, insecurities and loneliness. Partly because, as I recently admitted to an old friend, I find honest reflection really difficult, preferring to ignore or bury my feelings. But it’s also partly because I don’t want them to worry about me, or to feel my pain as their pain.

It’s actually been a pretty stressful six months. Not by most people’s standards, I think. But it’s sort of a stressful accumulation of issues in my life that haven’t and aren’t resolved, and which I haven’t taken the time or effort to examine and unpack. I fool even myself most of the time; on the surface, I have a great life: I’m healthy and able, I have an interesting and paying job, I have a sweet apartment, I’m livin’ the life abroad, I’m all but nominally finished my master’s degree, I have a good relationship with my parents and sisters, I have friends.

If we look a little deeper, we notice cracks in all of these things.

Don’t get me wrong: I count my blessings almost every day. But though I am incredibly privileged, I also have the right to feel lost and alone, insecure and scared.

Today at work I did something stupid (well, two things), and while it wasn’t the end of the world it made me feel really crummy about myself. So I talked about it with the best person I could think of: my eldest sister. As I explained the incident from work and why it was a problem, it became clear that it wasn’t an isolated issue but part of a larger net of insecurity, uncertainty and unsustainable unhappiness. This ‘net’ covers my work life, but also widens to cover my whole life. My sister was amazing as usual and took me through the problem(s), offered options, explained everything, assured me that everyone makes mistakes, and advised me not to overthink it.

It’s not about the booboo you make, it’s about how you handle it.

Yes, her words (yes, a spliced comma from a linguist! She is no pedant). So I am going to try to handle this like a grown-up.

I haven’t been this upset in a while, though. When I got home I let out a surprising howl of upset-ness, punched a wall (lightly), and paced up and down long enough to likely annoy my downstairs neighbour. As I wracked my brain trying to think of whom I could talk to about it, I realised I needed to talk to someone in real-time and not just write an email. I am so lucky to have someone who’ll stop to listen to me no matter how busy she is. She is just so… wise, and reliable, and comforting.

I have major baby-of-the-family syndrome. Having two elder sisters is one of my favourite things in my life, but it has also given me certain attributes and qualities. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have these attributes and qualities if I was the middle child, or eldest, or only child. It’s just pretty easy to trace them back to being the youngest – the Nesthäkchen, or nestling – that’s all. These traits are surfacing at work like they’ve never surfaced amongst friends or classmates before. They include inability and unwillingness to make decisions because of fear of responsibility for those decisions. They include not speaking up unless absolutely necessary. They include letting others ask the questions, provide the answers, and give the opinions. They include an ever-present layer of dissent simmering beneath the surface, and an attitude to reflect it. But they also include conflict aversion or challenging the opinions or decisions of anyone – not just anyone in a higher position, but anyone.

And, most indicative of all, they include a painful and painfully obvious desire-bordering-on-craving to be mentored. As the youngest, I really, really want someone to teach and lead me, to take my hand and guide me, to shape me. It’s actually been this way since high school. It’s because I recognise the wisdom of others and wish to learn from it. More precisely, I wish them to impart it on me.

So it’s been really hard leaping straight from uni to a job that seems to expect so much and for which I am grossly underqualified. My lack of experience in work in general and this work specifically brings me misery every damned day of the week, including weekends! I can’t fall asleep at night because of it, and I have fitful dreams because of it. At this point in my life, it would seem that I require more support than what’s there at work. I’m really sorry that I’m not quite ready to work as independently and competently as it seems like should be the case. My supervisor/line manager is not the mentoring type. Back in December when I took the job, I asked him to describe his expectations, and his expectations for this position is someone who can campaign and lobby independently and on her own initiative, with him intervening only when necessary. That had me worried then, and the past two-and-a-half months have justified the fear.

My colleague, on the other hand, is a very good mentor. She is three years older than me and has a wealth of poise and experience and professionalism I can only dream of. Thing is… she’s so caring and loving that some days I have trouble remembering that she’s a colleague, not a sister! Incidentally, she’s the eldest of five children, and there’s a fifteen year gap between her and the little one. So she fills this eldest sister role extremely well because she is one, and I, fortunate as I am to actually be the youngest in my family, struggle against the role of youngest sister at work.

Anyway, to wrap up… as I was talking with my sister on skype about the work thing today I actually cried, and it – felt – so – good. I haven’t felt/allowed myself to feel or express emotion in what feels like forever. It felt really good to let at least a bit of it out instead of pushing it down like I usually do. Soon I will need to address the other cracks in my life that I’ve hinted at – the homesickness, the feeling of not belonging, the tiredness, the intense loneliness – but for today, I think this will do.

Thanks very much if you took the time to read even a part of this.

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One thought on “what do people do without elder siblings?

  1. I think everyone needed a mentor no matter where you work and when you started working. If you’re at a new environment, you need someone there to get least let you know where the toilet is! I understand how you feel though, regarding the having no mentor at work feeling. It was hard for me when I started this job because my supervisor was, well, crazy, and the only other coworker on my team was already dying under his workload so I didn’t want to bother her. It was hard, not even knowing how to fill in simple forms. but it turns out all you need to do is ask and people will help (or that they took pity on me for being under the crazy boss, haha).

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