I have one little sister, but I’ve been the big sister to more kids than I can count. From the time I was 9 years old, I had a posse of toddlers following me around. At every neighborhood party, I was the go-to child wrangler despite still very much being one myself. My seven-year-younger sister’s friends all called me their big sister, and half the neighborhood kids took their first step or said their first word to me.
It was therefore natural that when I was of (official) babysitting age, I became the resident sitter for about 10 different kids. Their parents knew me, the kids loved me — and I them. They behaved for me when they wouldn’t for their parents because I treated them like people and not superfluous children. They’d seek me out even when I wasn’t watching them, and there were many a snow day in which my door was being banged on by a gaggle of kids asking if I could come out to play.
In high school and college, the babysitting became something more than a few hours over the weekend and turned into regular nannying positions. I was with the kids every day after school, helping with homework, dealing with hormonal tweenager mood swings and even taking on the role of disciplinarian, not just the fun babysitter. There were times I had cell phones thrown at my head when I wouldn’t let them skip their chores to text with friends. I was cursed out, locked out of rooms and left to clean up the fallout of messy divorces and distant parents. During the summers, I was with them from sunrise to sunset, taking them to camp, shopping, lunch and everything in between. I was confidant, caretaker, tutor and big sister rolled into one.
It’s an odd position to be a key caregiver for a bunch of kids while still a teenager. It ages you, makes you sit at the parents’ table to share diaper stories and complain about middle school bullies when you should be thinking about your own future. It plays havoc with your already unbalanced hormonal state and sends you into a confusing tizzy.
For years I had vivid dreams of having a baby, and I’d wake up crying, still feeling the weight of it in my arms and devastated by its loss. From age 16 to 20, my biological clock was in overdrive, ticking like a bad rom-com plot, making me desperate for children. My body was capable, my nurturing instincts were engaged, and I was a 17-year-old virgin sinking into depression because I didn’t have a baby.
Around that same time, my mother became chronically ill, and with my dad traveling for a living, it was up to me to take on a major parenting role in my own sister’s life. Suddenly, I was driving carpool, talking with teachers and chaperoning field trips all while taking care of my mother and going to school. On top of this, I was nannying and tutoring, and it left me with a childcare overload. I had the responsibilities of someone twice my age and was rapidly burning out on my ability to nurture. I couldn’t relate to my peers, who were partying and living carefree existences. I had responsibilities and kids relying on me, and everything else seemed frivolous.
It eventually became so overwhelming that by the time I was 25 I more or less couldn’t stand kids — I had spent 17 years of my life taking care of them. I’d seen my sister off to college, and the kids I watched take their first steps were now well beyond needing me. I was exhausted, and while I couldn’t say I didn’t still want kids, I knew I didn’t want them anytime soon. I figured there was time and that one day I’d wake up and say, “I want kids now.”
Yet now, as I hit 30, that day still hasn’t come. I see my friends starting to have children, and though I enjoy them, it doesn’t inspire a similar need in me. I don’t dream of babies anymore, and my dogs give me something to nurture when I feel the urge. I tell my parents I’m sure I’ll have kids someday, that I’m not saying I don’t want any, it just won’t be anytime soon.
There’s a long line of kids I helped raise, whose knees I patched up and who cried on my shoulder. And while I certainly never gave birth to them or went through what their mothers (or my own) have, I’ve given away a lot of myself over the years, and I’m just not sure what’s left for my own potential children. So, until the time comes that I feel like I have something to give, I’ll sleep easier without that nonstop tick tick tick of my biological clock.