Learning To Let Go

When I think about my childhood, I picture running through the woods in northern California with my three younger siblings, our plastic sleds in tow as we drag them across a snowy forest floor. Summers are shaded with simplicity: my sister and me tacking up boyband posters in the treehouse, untangling the garden hose and turning the hot tub into a “swimming pool.” Also the petty fights: over clothes, over hair clips, over who gets to use the phone first.

In my memory, I was always in the lead, my troop safe and close in my footsteps.

My fondest memory though is a recurring one. Every Christmas Eve, my brother and my two sisters would pile into my bed, a nest of blankets and pillows holding us together. I’d wake them in the middle of the night once I was certain Santa had come and gone. We’d tiptoe down the hallway to peek at our new toys, the hem of our Christmas pajamas dusting the hardwood floors. Four tiny pairs of feet, growing larger each year. In my memory, I was always in the lead, my troop safe and close in my footsteps. 

As the oldest sister, I’ve always felt responsible for my younger siblings—I still do. It wasn’t that my parents weren’t wonderful caretakers, but for 10 years of our lives, at least one child was in diapers. I was expected to help—with dishes, with math homework, with running my baby sister’s bath. My birth order also meant I was first in line for most experiences, from riding in the front seat of the car to being the one driving it, and then for the bumps and bruises, the broken hearts. 

Facing these nuances of life before the others often meant smothering my siblings with a bossy and controlling demeanor, especially during those earlier years. I wanted to protect them from pain but also share with them the magic of the world as seen through my eyes. More than anything, I wanted my siblings to trust me, to need me, to feel loved and safe, and like they could always come to me with their problems.

It feels intuitive for us older children to impose our wisdom, perceived as it may be.

I think it feels intuitive for us older children to impose our wisdom, perceived as it may be. Perhaps this is how we make sense and meaning of our own experiences, which are sometimes scary as we’re navigating uncharted waters first, without a big brother or sister to go before us. If we can tell our siblings what we’ve learned, maybe our lives matter just a bit more—maybe we matter more. 

Can I tell you something I struggle with? I still spend moments worried about my brother and sisters; I feel a void in my chest when it’s been too long since we’ve last spoken. It’s been 30 years, and my siblings and I live in different states and time zones, all of us with jobs, partners, and pets. Yet, while I’ve learned to tame the big sis/bossy energy (though they may disagree), I continue to feel a deep sense of responsibility for them. I struggle with letting them go.

Even still, my brother and sisters are their own people now; they always have been. They are not mini-me’s, as much as 10-year-old Kayti (okay, sometimes 31-year-old Kayti) would have liked that to be true. It’s important and necessary to release my grip, as well as my expectations. This is a gift I can offer to them, but it’s also a gift for me. 

To help with this transition, I recently wrote a meditation to guide myself into this next season of life, one where I am still the big sister but have released any need for control. Perhaps it can serve you too and help with releasing any fears or worries you still have for your younger siblings.

Together, we can learn to soften our grip while still offering our support and love. xx

A Meditation For Older Siblings

Dear Oldest Sibling,   

For all your years and many roles, your title as oldest sibling has always felt most sacred to you. How lucky you’ve been to witness the birth and subsequent lives of your younger brothers or sisters, to help usher them in, to bestow your wisdom in real-time, as you too were learning to navigate the world.  

You have been both protector and leader for a long time now—also likely antagonizer and a grade-A tattle tale! Yet, despite the bickering and “hands on hip” stance you’ve perfected, you were always fiercely devoted to the ones who looked up to you. You still are.

It’s okay to soften your grip, to let your siblings create their own lives outside of the one you all shared as children.

Your siblings are grown now though. And adult sibling relationships can present their own challenges, one of which you’ve discovered is releasing that “oldest child” control. You still want to protect, to be in the know, to be the first phone call for every heartbreak and every bruise.

May this be an assertion of your role: It is okay to be the leader, to guide younger pairs of feet down the hall on Christmas Eve to peek at the toys. To maintain the magic long after you’ve all left the nest. But also: It’s okay to soften your grip, to let your siblings create their own lives outside of the one you all shared as children. They have wisdom aplenty—but first, you must welcome it, create space for it, learn to listen to their stories and tales and experiences, to ask for their advice.

They want to hear your affirmations—and not always as their older sibling, but as their peer and friend. Be proud of them, and tell them such. They are so much more than their label as “little brother”, as “little sister”; address them by name and respect their autonomy, acknowledging that they too are individuals moving through the world—as they need to and as works best for them. 

Also, learn to love the people they love. This one can be difficult, but it’s important: Open your arms to your siblings’ friends; invite their partners in as you would want them to with your own. Be inquisitive and caring, ask questions and let these strangers in on family jokes and quips. 

Love your people fiercely and always be the first to call, the first to listen, the first to show up.

Will there be times your siblings love people who don’t seem quite right? Yes. But that’s not for you to decide. They’ve likely felt this way about you, too. Let them pave their own paths and make judgments about people on their own timing. If they see something magical in someone, look for that magic too.

Oh, and say you’re sorry when you are wrong. Set an example by being first to step up and admit your failures and shortcomings. Be honest and vulnerable, kind and loyal. You don’t always have to lead by inserting your opinions or asserting your role. Instead, love your people fiercely and always be the first to call, the first to listen, the first to show up. 

You are the oldest after all, “firsts” are kind of your thing. You can still be the first one to check in, to send texts, to get on a plane when feasible. There doesn’t have to be a significant reason. Facetime just because; go on trips for no other reason than spending more time together. 

Welcome this new season of adult sibling relationships by reminiscing on old memories and also by making new ones. Swap your stories, whether you share the experience or not. Remind them what it was like to be little together. Make sibling playlists you can share on Spotify to bridge the distance; use that big sib energy to plan trips, especially as you all create new families and they grow.

Don’t forget to laugh either! You can still poke fun and tease! Be youthful again, playful, mischievous and rebellious—let the youngest sibling teach you how to get away with things! Fill up the hot tub with hose water, go sledding in the forest with your kids, with their kids. 

Let them teach you and celebrate you and boss you around in the moments you need it most.

Finally, let your siblings lead and take care of you—yes, you. Let them teach you and celebrate you and boss you around in the moments you need it most. Allow them to host you, to rub your back, to Venmo you money for a coffee when your spirits or bank account are running low. Let them feel what you often feel: the pride that comes with caring for others and keeping them safe. 

Someday, you may just find yourself dancing at your youngest sister’s wedding. It will be a late October night, and rain will fall as your brother holds his girlfriend close, as your other sister snuggles her sleeping baby. When this happens, you’ll take every moment in, allowing it to wash over you until the music stops, until everyone gets in separate cars and drives their separate ways. Then, you will wave farewell, as you’ve discovered how to, and whisper into the night:

“I will always be here.”

Release your control by releasing your expectations, your fears, and the titles that box us all in. You are still the oldest, and so much more—life just looks a bit different now that we’re all grown. And that, my dear fellow oldest sibling, is such a beautiful thing.

Sending love to you and yours.

An oldest sibling xx

P.S. If you’re reading this and don’t feel these things, that’s okay too. If you’ve been hurt, if you’re estranged from your siblings, or if you’ve lost one too soon—my heart goes out to you as you mourn, feel a sense of loss, or even feel nothing at all. Relationships are complicated and sometimes messy; may we be gentle with one another wherever we’re at.


Kayti Christian (she/her) is a Senior Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for sensitive people.