My brother was born thirteen years after me. The two of us have the same brown skin, the same curly black hair, the same deep-set eyes. But that’s where our similarities end. He is six feet three inches tall, athletic and long-limbed, capable of engulfing me in a single embrace. He’s gentle yet fearless, by far the boldest in our family. He stubbornly pursues what he wants in ways more ingenious than I could ever devise.
I had cousins, friends, and neighbors as playmates before he was born, but I longed for a little sister. When my mother announced she was pregnant, I was ecstatic. She had spent over five years working overseas as a nurse. With another child on the way, she decided it was time to come home to the Philippines. We were all so happy, so hopeful. Our family was complete again.
My brother was born on a Saturday afternoon in February. I remember how I felt when my mother carefully guided him into my arms for the first time. His cheeks were rosy red, his fists tightly balled; he kicked his feet vigorously under his blanket. True, he wasn’t the little sister I had been hoping for, but I still thought he was perfect. I felt content just holding him. His name, I learned, meant shield wolf— we all hoped he would one day be our strength, our protector.
Finding a trustworthy yaya proved difficult, so my mother gave me the responsibility of caring for my brother when she was busy or working. I learned to change his diaper and burp him after meals. I took him outside so he could get some sun. I helped bathe and change him. I often put him to sleep, swaying from side to side and humming lullabies.
I was the one who proudly witnessed my baby brother’s first real smile, heard his first laugh, and watched him take his first steps. I taught him nursery rhymes and helped him learn his numbers, letters, and colors. Still practically a child myself, I played hide-and-seek and other silly childhood games with him that made us both laugh with delight. I remember watching him neatly line up his small toy cars, roll them up and down the furniture and make little rumbling noises—and then he’d look at me with a mischievous glint in his eyes, jump to his feet, and toddle away, scattering toys everywhere.
Some of the tasks of caregiving came instinctively; others took practice, requiring me to feel my way along. As my brother grew, so did his curiosity. It was my job to try and answer all of his little questions about things that could be seen, all of his big questions about things that could not. “See that orange fish? It can swim just like you,” I said when we came across a small pond on one of our afternoon walks.
“I can see it!” my brother said. He asked me how fish could swim underwater, and I explained that their gills allowed them to breathe. “I want to have gills,” he told me. “I want to be a fish so I can swim fast under the water!”
On another of our walks, my brother said he felt sad about the death of our puppy. “Why did Tiny have to die?” When I said our puppy was sick and we couldn’t cure him, my brother was quiet for a while. Then he looked at me and asked, “When will I die?”
“I don’t know,” I told him, taken aback. “But you don’t need to think about that now. All you have to do is live your life and enjoy it.”
I was in my final year of college when my little brother started school. On many days I would drop off his lunch before I went to my own classes. I would wait with the other students’ mothers, making awkward small talk as if I were one of them. When the lunch bell rang, my brother would come running out of his classroom, eager to share everything that had happened to him that morning and ask what our mother had sent him for lunch. Then he’d throw his arms around me, give me a quick kiss, and wave goodbye.
I knew I was too young to be caring for a child. At times—especially when I was a teenager—I felt bitter about the responsibilities heaped on my shoulders. But whenever I tried to convince my parents to hire a nanny or a babysitter, they would always say, “You know it’s difficult to find someone reliable! We don’t want strangers taking care of your brother.”
“I’ve got other things to do,” I told them. “There’s schoolwork. And I want to go out with my friends.”
“School always comes first, but your friends can wait. As the older sister, we expect you to take care of your brother. Didn’t we raise you to be responsible?”
We were raised not to argue, not to question. No matter what I said, I knew my parents would continue to expect me to watch my brother. Some nights I came home as late as possible to avoid looking after him, telling my parents that I had study groups or project meetings when, in truth, I had seized the opportunity to go out with friends.
One day, when he was five or six years old, I took my brother to a fast food restaurant. Usually I made sure to seat him at a nearby table so I could watch him while placing our order, but this time no seats were available near the counter, so we had to look for a vacant table downstairs. “Don’t go anywhere,” I told him, once he was seated. “I’ll order upstairs and be back in a minute.”
“Okay,” he said, bobbing his head and kicking his legs. The same way he had as a baby.
I went back upstairs and got in line, fretting as I waited to place our order. I should have taken him with me, I thought. I shouldn’t have left him alone. I should have thought of his safety first.
Finally I got our order and hurried back to where I had left my brother. The relief was overwhelming when I saw him staring out the window, still happily kicking his legs, oblivious to all my fears. In that instant, I knew I could not escape my responsibility to him. It was expected of me as his older sister, yes—but now, after so many years of caring for him, it was in my nature to nurture others instead of worrying about myself.
One afternoon during my college years, I told my then-boyfriend about all the time I spent caring for my brother. “I have to study, do chores, then look after him,” I said. “It’s exhausting. I don’t want to do it anymore.”
He was silent for a while. Finally he looked at me and said, “You know what? I don’t really understand you or your life. But I know you love deeply.”
It was true. I might not like caring for my brother in every moment. I might resent the expectation that I would be a third parent without complaint. But that didn’t make me love my brother any less.
I continued looking after for my brother all through college, until I graduated and found work in a city six hours from home. I relished my time away; my newfound freedom from caregiving, from responsibility—all that mattered now was living my own life as a college instructor and a Master’s student. My weekends were spent sleeping in, shopping, and going on dates with my boyfriend. I had lunch with new friends and dinner with old ones.
I found inspiration and solace in that chaotic city, many hours and miles away from the role that had always been expected of me. At first, I seldom visited home. I called and sent messages only when it seemed most important. I knew I was being selfish, far removed from the ever-dependable daughter I had always been; still, I reveled in the chance to do whatever I wanted.
My brother, then seven years old, sent me letters—carefully penciled, words often misspelled—asking me when I would be home. He told me how much he missed me. I was so busy that I didn’t realize how much I missed him, too.
Then one day my mother called to tell me he had walked home from school by himself for the first time. With a shock, I found that I was crying. For the first time in his life, I hadn’t been there to witness one of his milestones. I cried because I was proud of him, and then I cried for all the moments I would miss. Just like a mother would.
My husband and I have been married for over a year now. Every time we meet relatives and friends we haven’t seen for a while, they ask us the same question: “When are you having kids?” And I always give the same answer. “We don’t know yet.”
Often, this baffles them. “Rina, surely you want kids? You’ve been so great with your little brother!”
It does seem as if it would follow naturally—after being a caregiver all my life, of course I would want children of my own. But I don’t feel that sense of longing. My husband and I have talked about having a baby, and he knows I don’t want to—at least not right now. It’s possible I’ll change my mind next year, five years from now. It’s possible I’ll never want any kids at all. Though I’ve yet to carry or birth my own child, I already understand some of the beauty and the sacrifice of caring for one day in and day out. And I know that I’m just not ready to go through it again.
My brother is in college now, and the two of us remain close. He still shares his good news and bad news with me; he asks for my advice, and I always give it. I worry about him—I will for as long as we both live—but I’m also learning how to let him go a little. If this is what it’s like to have loved and raised a child, I know I’m fortunate to have experienced it. For now, though, I’m still learning what it means to live my life for me.