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Who's the Mother Here?

Michal Eisikowitz

Mommy is overwhelmed or ill or out of touch. Older Sister wants her younger siblings to be properly nurtured, so she steps in to fill the void. Where does such an arrangement leave the parent? The older sister? The younger siblings?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Twenty-year-old Gitty, due to be married in a few weeks, slipped into a magnificent cloud of chiffon — all the while trying to keep her two-year-old sister’s grubby hands off the pristine white fabric.

“People were so confused,” Gitty remembers.

“You’re not the baby’s mother, you’re a kallah?” they asked, bewildered.

“I’m her second mother,” Gitty replied with a smile.

She wasn’t joking. For Gitty, the gown-fitting scene typified a long-standing reality that was her life: Gitty was her sister’s pseudo-mother. And she still is, 17 years later. “My parents — while mentally stable and totally functional — are not really there emotionally for my younger sister,” she explains. “I took it upon myself to fill that need.”

Like Gitty, many older siblings today take on parental roles, stepping in for parents who are perceived as absentee on some level.


Why More than One Mommy?

For many families, asserts Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW-R, director of operations at OHEL and president of Nefesh International, with aNew Yorkprivate practice for high-conflict families, this hierarchy twist is not inherently negative: It can be a natural development.

“In large families that span generations, it’s bound to happen on some level. The setup only turns pathological if family members are unhappy, resentful, or being taken advantage of.”

A family, explains Rabbi Feuerman, is a system, and systems adapt as needed. When you have two parents and a large number of children, that’s practically an ecosystem — there’s no way parents can fully attend to every child’s emotional needs on a daily basis. Younger siblings are expected to turn to their older counterparts.

But it’s a slippery slope: When an older child helps out so extensively — and unceasingly — the line between “Big Sister” and “Mommy” can get fuzzy.

“In the frum community, you’ll often see girls who become indispensable to parents in need of extra hands,” asserts Dr. Aviva Biberfeld, a Brooklyn-based psychologist with a private practice. “If parents don’t make it clear that the older children are just helpers — and Mommy and Tatty are alive, well, and capable — they run the risk of creating parentified children [children who are forced to act as parents].”  

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