This past Thanksgiving, I made it a priority to spend more quality time with my younger brother. We had a pretty confusing sibling relationship when we were both much younger, and I really want to build a better connection with him. He is a good, kind person, and in a lot of ways I always felt he was a lot better person than I was (which I resented when I was younger). And while I think he is doing really well, he lives solely with my mother right now, and I can’t help but want to provide another outlet for him, especially with regards to certain topics.
One of the goals of my trip home for the holiday was to create the opportunity to talk about sex with him. This opportunity was actually facilitated by my mother, who worried about not being able to talk to her son so frankly. She approached me and asked if I would be willing to send him some resources or talk with him, and I quickly agreed. I could not be happier that she felt comfortable asking me to talk to my brother about sex!
I bought him S.E.X., by Heather Corinna, and we spent a little time just skimming through the book together. I also showed him the It Gets Better Project and talked to him a little about bullying. My strongest memories of high school are of being miserable and having suicidal ideation, and while I don’t know at all if my brother feels similarly, he doesn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about school, and he’s getting a lot of pressure, both from teachers and from my mother, to perform better academically. I know this created a lot of stress and tension for me.
It has been a difficult balancing act, not wanting to project onto him my own history and my feelings about my mother, while at the same time wanting him to know that the world is a much bigger place than the small rural town he’s in. He knows some of this already, having traveled quite a bit now and having spent a summer taking classes at a university in a major city. And God knows he’s probably already been influenced by me through all the mischief I got into, which my mother has undoubtedly vented about to him (much as she used to vent about my father to me).
The other topic my mother stressed that I needed to address with my brother was the SATs. She has continuously prodded me to help my brother better prepare for the SATs, to give him tips, help him with practice problems, and encourage him to study the many prep books she’s bought.
And I was loathe to do any of this, waiting until the night before I left to grudgingly take a look at a book with him. I felt badly about being so reluctant, but that reluctance was not because I was lazy or didn’t want my brother to do well. I have a very strong opinion of the standardized testing, and while I’ve done SAT tutoring, I absolutely hate the test and think it’s an unfortunate standard to have in our education system. All that said, I did pretty well on the test myself, and I actually tend to do well on tests like this. But I also tried to make the point to my mother that I never even studied before I took the test the first time, and that was only the end of my sophomore year. My brother is currently a sophomore. I personally think he has plenty of time to prepare.
So when we sat down together with the 2-inch thick prep book, I instead spent the entire time explaining how to study the test itself – its format, the way points are tallied, how to guess and eliminate choices. I told him he has plenty of time to study the actual content of the test.
And when my mother asked how our study session went, I assured her that he would be fine. She seemed unconvinced and still worried about him. The conversation we had around this has left me feeling frustrated ever since. She explained all the ways my brother wasn’t prepared for college, from his lack of awards from competitions to his lack of leadership roles in any organizations. She lamented about him not being competitive or aggressive enough in seeking these things out.
And then she told me I needed to help him. She related a story of a friend’s daughter, who was very self-motivated and got into MIT without needing outside help. But her younger brother was the complete opposite, with his parents assigning him private tutors and consultants to prep him for college, and still he wasn’t accepted to MIT. His sister intervened, using her legacy status and asking the admissions office what he needed to get in. They told her, and he was able to get in.
So, my mother concluded, it behooved me to help my brother reach his goals, because he simply wasn’t like me, self-motivated and a self-starter. I’m not quite sure where my mother got this opinion of me, because I don’t remember ever being called that before. Regardless, I left for San Francisco the next day, feeling guilty for not being more supportive (what a horrible sister am I?) while simultaneously still believing that he is the only person who can decide how to form his life, and that I should not be so involved as to direct the path he should take.
I always downplay my own educational background to my brother, where my mother likes to ask him if he wants to get into my alma mater. I tell him it doesn’t matter, there are so many great schools – and great programs – and that he shouldn’t focus on the Ivy brand name. My mother used to tell me I’d never get into anything better than the local state university when I got a less than stellar grade.
So there is this constant back and forth, with my brother unfortunately caught in the middle. I’m not sure what step to take – if I should take any at all. We don’t speak often when I’m in San Francisco – partially my own aversion to phone calls, partially because he almost never has his cellphone on him anyway. I do think I should be more intentional in being a part of his life; I’m just not sure what role I should play.
Of course, while I am sorting all this out in my head (and agonizing over it in conversations with Max), my brother’s life continues to play out. He’s already grown up so quickly without me there a lot of the time. I feel an almost maternal guilt for not being around more.