You’re like a mother to me

When my wife was young and she was first learning to talk, she called two other women “mom” in addition to her mother. Polygamous family? No. The other women were her then-teenage sisters. Given the often large families that Mormons have, I suspect her experience of being well over a decade younger than some of her siblings is not uncommon. I’m interested in how these large age differences affect sibling relationships when everyone is grown.

I’m at the older end of my family of origin. I’m closest to my sisters who are closest to me in age, I think largely because we shared more age-specific experiences growing up. Certainly we fought and argued, but I think the fact that we were close in age meant that similar things were important to us at the same time. We were (largely) going to the same schools at the same time, for example. We even had overlapping sets of friends and sometimes went to the same parties. So given our shared experience, it’s been fairly easy to maintain our relationships into adulthood.

But with my younger sisters, it’s been more difficult. We were far enough apart that we didn’t care about the same things at the same times. When I was a teenager, they were in elementary school. My interests were almost always different from theirs. Sure, I sometimes indulged them and played with toys with them, or they indulged me and tried chess and basketball, but we didn’t connect in the same way that I did with my similarly-aged sisters. And now that we’re all adults, I’m not as close to my younger sisters.

A major obstacle to my getting to know my younger sisters better has been my not taking them seriously as adults. I didn’t even realize this was the case until my wife pointed it out to me. Coming from the younger end of her family, she has had that struggle with her older siblings as she has gotten older. fMhLisa expressed a similar concern when we were chatting about family relationships recently at Sunstone. She said that as the youngest of eight (I think) she’s found it difficult as an adult to have her older siblings take her thoughts or concerns seriously.

Assuming that this is a common issue, and I would guess that it probably is, the cause seems pretty straightforward: old patterns of interaction, learned when one sibling is 20 and the other is 5, for example, can be difficult to unlearn later when a decade plus age gap doesn’t mean as much.

So what I’m interested in is how other people have worked through this obstacle. How have you gotten to know your much older or much younger siblings better once you’ve all reached adulthood? As my title suggests, I wonder if the process is similar to parents and their children having to learn new ways of interacting once the children are grown. I’d love to hear any thoughts or ideas from that situation too.


  1. I’m 19 years older than my youngest sibling and yet I’m probably closer to her than my other five brothers and sisters. I think some of that has to do with our personalities, we’re quite a bit alike. I also had returned home (same town, not same house!) by the time she was in school and as a result watched her grow up. I regret not bonding more with my siblings just younger than me, but I had “friends” I spent most of my time with and I left home at 18 for mission, school, etc and so missed out on a lot during that time.

  2. .

    Now that we’re all adults, I find it easiest to be close to the sibling furthest from me in age. No doubt because, as with John, we are so very similar.

  3. I come from a combined family of 5 children (2 from my mum, and three from my step-dad). There was 4 years between the oldest and the youngest. Unsurprisingly, we did not experience the problem you listed above.

    As a result, I am interested in further comments from readers.

    Mary and I don’t have a large family, but because Mary takes a while to get pregnant, our children are not close together. Our oldest (1st) and youngest (4th) are 10 years apart.

  4. I will be really interested in what people say, because I have this exact problem. I am second of ten. We refer to the younger half as the 80s kids and basically find them ridiculous. Part of the problem is that we grew up in very different families. The older half WORKED for the family much of our time at home: babysitting, chores, etc. all expected, no allowance.

    The 80s kids were totally coddled. They also benefited from living with my parents when they had significantly more money so they got to go on trips, play string instruments, take any kind of lesson they felt like, etc. They are still very much indulged. They have never served us–even when we are all home for holidays, it is the older kids who work and the younger kids who ask my parents for money to go to movies.

    Clearly, I need some serious help to be a better sister!

  5. I’m the oldest of three girls, and am 11 years older than my youngest sister. It’s still quite a big gap, since she’s starting 7th grade and I’ve been out of college and married for a year. She was only 7 when I left for college, which was part of the reason I chose a college close to home. I saw a lot of her during college, and moved back to my hometown after I graduated. My DH and I are currently watching past seasons of “Lost” with her on DVD.

    I’m really glad I’ve been able to see her grow up. I feel like we know each other pretty well, although she is definitely closer to my middle sister, and sometimes it seems like she likes my DH more than she likes me! I hope that we’ll stay close, and I think we’re headed in the right direction for that to happen, but it’s impossible to tell at this point.

  6. My siblings are too close in age for me to have personal experience, but I’ve wondered about this in one family of nieces (10) and nephews (2), where the youngest is 20 years younger than the oldest.

    Very soon after the youngest was born, the oldest became a quadriplegic. He liked to have the baby lie on his hospital bed and keep him company, and the nurses usually assumed she was his daughter. The two of them learned to hold up their heads at the same time, to roll over at the same time, and to sit up at the same time, and they even took their first steps together with the baby hanging on to her brother’s walker. I wonder what their relationship would have been over time, but the brother died a couple of years later so we didn’t have a chance to watch that.

    In normal times, the older ones watched out for and dressed and brushed the younger ones. I haven’t been around them at all in the recent past as the oldest have married and begun their own families (I do know they refer to their family of origin as the Aunt Colony) and don’t know what their relationships are to each other now.

  7. My sister is 9 years older than me, and we are best buds, or at least have been since I went to college. She treats me like an adult. I call her every week and plan annual trips to see her. My brother is 4 years older than me and we rarely talk.

    My Wife’s little Brother is 14 years younger than her and just went to college last week. Since we are in the same ward as them, I was his YM President. We got along good and she and he got along well.

    Maybe It’s just you.

  8. I’m about ten years older than my only sibling. We’ve always been pretty close, I think in part because there weren’t any other kids between us in age. (It probably also helps that I was enough of an introvert not to go out with friends much, so I was often around and willing to play with him.)

    He’s had very different interests and strengths from me from a young age, which I think helps me respect his intellect and judgment, since he’s not just a less advanced carbon copy of me. 🙂

    I probably don’t treat him like an adult to the extent that I worry about him a lot — not so much because I don’t think he’s capable of making his way in the world but more because I still feel like it’s my job to look out for him and take care of him, if that makes any sense.

    For his part, he had a hard time grasping the extent of the age difference when he was younger. (In first grade, he asked our mom why I didn’t go to his elementary school.)

  9. I’m the youngest of six and there was a five year gap between me and my closest sister. The oldest five were all spaced about 2 years apart.

    I think the biggest problem is that you remember your sibling best as they were when you last lived together, so my oldest brother left home when I was about 4 and that’s how he knew me best. My only memory of him was going to pick him up from the airport after his mission. We just haven’t spent enough time together to be close. We’re practically strangers.

    One thing that disinclines me to try to be close to my siblings is the story differential. I’m so much younger that I cannot remember embarrassing stories about them, but they know every single story about me. So when we’re all together and stories start being told for memories and laughs I can’t participate in that conversation on level ground.
    My sister will (often) bring up the story about me pooping in a ditch, fully expecting me to laugh it off and bring up the time she did something embarrassing, but as far as I know my sisters were blinked into existence as cool, beautiful, savvy, talented teenagers that I would have done anything to be like.
    They do that in an effort to treat me the same as they treat each other. But I think the thing is, our relationships can’t be the same. We can have good relationships but in order to be good it will have to be different than the easy relationships they grew into from being children together. We have to meet each other as adults and grow together from there.

  10. You totally made a lightbulb go off for me Starfoxy. My youngest sister is 10 years younger than me, and she went through a period where she would adopt the attitude my mom had toward me and parrot stories that she wasn’t around for. My mom and I have always had a very tense relationship so these stories always portrayed me in the least flattering light and I took it personally that my sister would tell things in this way.

    Now I see, it was about the story differential. She was just participating in whatever way she could.

    We have a pretty great relationship now and from my end it’s come about through a conscious choice. She’s 21 and deep in the middle of dramatic young adulthood, full of youthful nonsense and knowitallism, but I make a concerted effort to never ever ever roll my eyes at her. From my older perspective I am aware that the choices she’s making now are not all going to be choices that she will stand behind when she’s older, but I know that if we’re going to be close I have to grant her the respect to figure all that on her own and not look down on her as she’s learning.

  11. There are only eight years age difference between the 5 kids in my family, and so in theory we should be close. But I moved out to go to college on the opposite side of the country when my little brothers were 12 and 14 and so have never been very close to them. There are a lot of other factors involved as well and we live far away from each other still.

    Interestingly, I don’t see that distance in my husband’s family. He’s the youngest of 7, and his oldest sister is 15 years older than him. I think part of it is the fact that his older sisters all were somewhat delayed in marrying; the oldest has never married and the next oldest didn’t marry until the year after we did. So even though she is nearly 14 years older than my husband, she has a child the same age as ours and is in a similar stage of marriage as well. They just also have a much healthier family dynamic among siblings for a lot of reasons. The hardest thing for me is being married to the ‘baby’, especially the ‘baby’ with five older sisters. During the first few years of marriage I had to work hard not to be offended when his older sister would cook dinner for us or buy my husband clothes or do things like that. I think it took everyone a few years to adjust to the fact that he was an adult, and he had a wife who could ‘take care’ of him (not that he really needed it, but still). It was also interesting for everyone to add a sister-in-law rather than a brother-in-law.

  12. I think the important thing is something several people have already pointed out. The best way to have a relationship as an adult is to create a relationship. Sorry If that sounds cheesy. 🙂

    I am actually the fifth of the Zelophehad children meaning I probably fall into Ziff’s definition of “younger” sibling, so I may see things from a different point of view. It’s true that I had very unique relationships as a child with most of my siblings but as I’ve grown up (or older), I’ve realized that having relationships with all my adult siblings is more important to me.

    What I think is that there are really two parts to having a good relationship even when you aren’t that close in age.

    The first is letting go of any standard assumptions about how people will act based on how they acted as a child. We were all idiots as children and all did stupid things and I would bet that everyone with a journal has pages of stories about how mean their siblings were. I sometimes think this may be harder when building a relationship with a younger sibling. Older siblings always seemed like adults even when they were only ten whereas younger siblings always seemed…well…younger.

    The other thing has to do with communication and finding common topics of conversation. I visited Kiskilili a few years back and made her follow the entire Freedom Trail (I am a bit of a history nut). Along the way, we discovered a shared interest in (and got into a long discussion about) why we build monuments and memorials and why we favor some historical figures over others. (My favorite conversation was when we discussed why someone built a Greek Temple over Plymouth Rock.) We had so much fun but before that trip, I would never have guessed Kiskilili and I would have shared that common interest.

    What I have loved about being a part of the Zelophehad family is that we do seem to keep in contact with each other through groups, blogs, Skype, and many many visits. I feel like I have much better relationships with my adult siblings simply because we are always talking. (In fact, when we’re together, we never shut up.)

  13. Growing up, I felt closest to my Irish Twin sister and our older brother, for the reasons you mentioned — shared interests and experiences, overlapping friends, a different set of parents than what the younger ones got (they were too tired by then to fight some of the battles they would have with us), etc.

    That changed — though I have good relationships with all of my siblings — when my older brother and sister got married (at 21 and 20, respectively — it was within about six months of each other, I think) and started having kids while I remained single for a loooooong time (by Mormon standards). We no longer had the same experiences to talk about; I loved my nieces and nephews, but wasn’t super interested in potty training stories and couldn’t commiserate over the horror that was Barney.

    Meanwhile, my youngest sisters (born 6, 8, and 9 years after me) were entering adolescence, crushing on boys, needing help with homework, discovering their interests and talents. We could swap dating horror stories; they listened to and appreciated my advice about boys (though thinking back, maybe they shouldn’t have — I was the least successful one in the family when it came to dating, lol!); I enjoyed helping them with school and it turns out we have lots of common interests. I took a long time coming into myself, and I felt like — despite the difference in our ages — we all grew into adults together.

    I love my older sibs, and feel like we have a good relationship and solid friendship, but I am closer to the others — despite the fact that we’re in the same boat now. I finally did get married, and I have kids close in age to their youngest ones. But still…. For me, the critical time seems to have been my single early adulthood when the youngest ones were my peers, rather than all the growing up years. I do remember them as little kids who had nothing in common with me (but hey, they were adorable and they IDOLIZED me and I could get them to do pretty much anything I asked, so there wasn’t much down side), but all the important grown-uppy stuff we did together.

    I guess that’s not such a helpful reply if you didn’t have that experience with your much [older / younger] siblings — but if it’s simply a lack of closeness (as opposed to lingering resentments) you hope to overcome, there’s no time like the present to get to know them better! When I lived near-ish to my family, I used to have “hot dates” (like, um, lunch) with my sisters every couple of months, sometimes doubling with husbands / kids, but more often just us girls…. As with any friendship, the basic ingredients are time and attention.

  14. I am the 2nd of 9 and while I have been able to develop fairly good relationships with some of my younger siblings, I find the biggest challenge is keeping in touch and close to all of them. There are some siblings that I have more of a connection with so I call them on a regular basis and others that I only know what is going on in their lives based on what my mom tells me. It is hard to keep a close relationship with 8 different people (plus my parents) long distance. Sometimes I wonder if I should make more of an effort, but I figure that one of the blessings (and curses) of having a big family is that you can all find someone who you connect with and stay especially close to. Most of my siblings seem to have one or two other siblings that they are especially close to.

  15. I think part of the problem is that you have created a false dichotomy between children (where age differences matter a lot) and adults (where age difference should not matter). In reality, a 15 or 20 year age difference is still a huge age difference when both have become adults. It really isn’t that uncommon for 40 year olds to be somewhat dismissive of the ideas of 20 year olds. Add this to everything else that has been mentioned above.

  16. There are three kids in my family. We’re all about 4 years apart, and our birth order is GBG (I’m the oldest). My sister and I weren’t really very close until I was out of college and she was pretty much a grownup. I wonder how much of it is due to the fact that the only other kid in the family is a different gender.

  17. In reality, a 15 or 20 year age difference is still a huge age difference when both have become adults.

    For adults, though, almost more important than biological age is what stage your family is at. When I had a newborn baby, the younger moms could relate to me, even though I was in my late 30’s. We were in play group together, and that was a connection that wold not have existed has I (more sensibly, perhaps) had all my children in my 20s and was an empty nester by that point in time.

    Similarly, I have a dear friend who is 13 years older than me, but we became grandparents about the same time. Again, a commonality there despite the gap in actual years.

  18. I am the oldest of four. One sis is 2 years younger, the next is 10 years younger, and my only brother is only 15.

    It’s been easier staying close to the younger ones because my husband and I live nearby.

    But for years I’ve mostly struggled with the relationship with my closest sister. Our personalities are just so different, there’s always drama. She just had her first child and that has helped a lot at leveling the playing field (my oldest is 7).
    We seem to get along better now.

    I also appreciated Reece’s comment because my 10 year younger sis is making some pretty crazy life choices right now and I want to shake her. But, he’s right about not criticizing her while she’s learning. Thanks for reminding me. I wasn’t my best self at 19, either.

    BTW, great topic, Ziff.

  19. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I appreciate that several of you made points about how this isn’t just an issue of age separation, but of personality similarity, stage in life, gender, etc. And RCH, you make a good point that now is the best time to change past patterns. That’s probably the most important point, regardless of what has gone before.

    Elbereth, I particularly appreciate you weighing in on this. I think you make excellent points. Particularly looking for topics of common interest. Really, as your comments kind of implied, building relationships with adult siblings could be approached in some ways just like building a relationship with anyone else, particularly if as you said we set aside the weird things we did as children. (What? Who, me? Do weird things? I’ll give it up next week, I promise!)

  20. Okay, I’m getting to this thread late, and now everyone is off arguing about giftedness, but this is an interesting question and I’ve been thinking about it since I read the post. (For obvious reasons, I was particularly interested to hear what Ziff, number two in my family, and Elbereth, number five, had to say.)

    I’m a more middling child, though I’m on the older end–third of seven. And the “older” category is probably reinforced by the fact that in our family the younger kids are spaced further apart than the older ones. I do think an advantage of being in the middle is that none of the age gaps are quite as large; I feel like being closer to the middle gave me more of an opportunity to know the siblings at both the older and younger ends.

    I also think that particular family dynamics can play a strong role in this. In our family, my sense was that there were at least two ways in which the kids fell out–one was “older” vs. “younger” kids. I was definitely in the “older” camp, and that undeniably shaped my identity and relationships. But there was another split in that my four younger sisters and I played a lot of games together, in which the two older ones weren’t involved. Because of that second set of groupings, I actually feel like growing up I was more connected to my youngest sister–nine years younger–than to Eve, who was only three years older. Though the fact that Eve and I were not on the best of terms (that’s an understatement!) doubtless contributed to that as well. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t have pretty tumultuous relationships with the ones younger than me, but we did at least regularly interact.

    I also agree that it’s really hard to get out of those family roles as adults. I hate being this way, but I sometimes still find myself threatened when a younger sibling seems to be getting “ahead” of me in some way. I genuinely like all my siblings (yeah, I know, I’d better say that since they read this blog!–but it’s actually true)–and yet they can also bring out the worst in me, especially if I’m feeling insecure or competitive. That’s one way in which I find old dynamics difficult. As one who wasn’t in the younger half of the family, I don’t know firsthand what it’s like to be in the position of not being taken seriously, but I can definitely see how that could happen, and be frustrating.

    And as an adult, I do find that I’m closest to the ones closest to me in age. I think in some cases it has to do with having gone through similar experiences as kids–but I think being in similar life phases as adults has made a difference as well; as I said, Eve and I were definitely not close growing up, but now we talk all the time, and I think our getting closer was facilitated by dealing with similar life challenges at the same time (starting grad school, moving). Like Elbereth said, having common interests can also really be helpful.

    I think one of the biggest challenges of maintaining relationships is the one mentioned by Beatrice–with a large family scattered across the country, it’s really hard to keep up with everyone, and it seems that there are inevitably going to be groups of siblings that are closer to each other. Though I do like it when all seven of us manage to do something like get together online and have a nearly incoherent conversation on Skype.

  21. Part of it may have to do with personality.

    It’s been pretty easy for me, the oldest of 7 with an age range of 12 years, to accept the younger kids becoming adults. I actually enjoy watching them mature, and it’s fun to know them as adults.

    I have a few siblings who just refuse to let “the little boys” be adults, and try really hard to reenact old behavior patterns now, with great frustrations all around.

    My husband is 20 years younger than his brother, and six years younger than his sister. My MIL managed to raise three only children–they are *not* a sibling set. On the other hand, we have two older kids, three years apart, then a gap of six years (several disappointments in the middle), and then two little girls, three years apart. Even though we have the big gap, we definitely have a set of siblings, not two different groups of two.

  22. My wife is the oldest of 7 and there is 13 years between her and the youngest. While civil with all her closest relationships are with number 2(sister), 4 (brother), and 6 (sister). The other strange thing is her mom is the middle of three sisters where there is a big gap between the first two and the third. My wife’s closest relationship is probably with her Aunt who is only 12 years older than her.

    I on;y have the one sister who is 6 years older. We aren’t terribly close but she was a senior while I was a 6th grader – close enough to have a screwed up social dynamic (11 years in the same house). Now we are 40 & 46 most (but not all) of that has faded away.

    My 5 are only 10 years apart and they fight like crazy – but I have high hopes for them as adults.

  23. the oldest of 7 with an age range of 12 years

    Liz, that’s exactly my position in my family–same number of kids, same age range.


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