‘I can’t believe you have so many siblings. You never talk about them, and I always thought you were an only child’.
These words came from a friend at university who was amazed when I spoke at length about my brother and sisters, one day over a coffee date in our final year.
At the time, I thought it was funny. I assumed she was exaggerating — I felt I’d always spoken about them. However, on my journey home, I started to feel shame and embarrassment.
How could I have ever talked about my siblings? What would I even say?
My sisters and I had unconventional relationships through my teenage and early adult years. My parents separated when I was nine, and this caused a split between my siblings and I: both figuratively and literally.
Together with my dad and oldest sister, I left Namibia in 2006. My mother, two sisters — one older and one younger — and younger brother stayed behind.
My sisters and I had been close — but now, it felt like our relationship had changed completely overnight. I couldn’t understand my feelings about this until I became a teenager — it made me feel very lonely.
I didn’t really speak to my sisters while I was growing up — except for special days and the odd occasions when my dad remembered to send me to the shop to buy international calling cards like Talk Home.
Given the expense of calling abroad and the limited minutes these cards had, my siblings and I never got past initial greetings. It would frustrate me because I always wanted to say more. I wanted them to not only update me on the latest gossip surrounding my old home and childhood friends, but also their lives.
I also wanted to tell them things about me — what it was really like living here, the friends I made. I could never say any of these things because I had very rushed conversations with them, in the presence of my dad. There was never enough time.
One especially weird dynamic of our relationship was that we were living through the gradual explosion of social media. We were all connected via Facebook, but it never made interacting with each other any easier.
I can’t speak for my siblings, but seeing their lives unfold on Facebook felt worse than not seeing them at all.
I watched my sisters experience new things with their friends and grow into versions of themselves I no longer recognised. I read all their posts with a keen interest, trying to note what they liked and disliked.
I was an outsider, watching my siblings in their formative years without being a part of them.
Looking back, I missed them so much. There were so many things I went through — like the first time I got sectioned and diagnosed with depression — that I’m convinced wouldn’t have been as bad, had I had my siblings around me.
I was always envious when I saw people out with their siblings — because mine only existed in memories of the past.
I realised I needed a shift in my approach — in how I could depend on my siblings, and how they could depend on me — and I realised this when I started watching This is Us.
In this show, we witness three siblings — Kate, Randall and Kevin — navigate the legacy of their adolescent frostiness in their adult relationships, which still hasn’t melted.
Through their key moments such as career changes, starting families and mental health struggles, they manage to get to the core of sibling love.
Watching This Is Us, I was struck by how normal it is for adult sibling relationships to continuously evolve.
Slowly but surely, I started to apply intention to my relationships with my siblings. I started to make more of an effort to speak to them weekly and call them. I would update them first about changes in my life, such as getting a new job, so they would not have to find this out with everyone else on my social media platforms.
Although we never addressed it, my siblings and I all felt a shift in how we acted towards each other. We started calling each other more and laughing in a way that said more than our words ever could.
My siblings are such complex but wonderful people and, now, I love how bespoke my relationships are with each of them. I regret not getting to know them in this way sooner.
For anyone estranged from their siblings, I know how hard it is to be honest with yourself and recognise the part you may have played in your relationship. The best advice I can give is to make sure your approach is intentional.
Start by making time to talk to your siblings; initiate conversations by sending old pictures of you all as kids. Try and build a routine of regular and constant phone calls so they know you’re thinking about them. Ask for their opinions on things when making life changes — big or small. Should I wear this to dinner tomorrow? Do you think this plant fits the theme of my flat? Make plans to meet up spontaneously, outside of visiting your parents.
And when the time is right, slowly broach the issue(s) that may have strained your relationship with them — but do so with an open mind. Try and avoid being defensive because you can never tell someone how to feel about what you have said and done — even if it was not your intention.
These days, my phone rings every Friday as soon as I close my laptop after work. It’s my youngest sister calling for our weekly WhatsApp video catch up.
The conversation starts with our usual teasing and laughter as we ease into gossiping about the latest chaotic events in our lives. We may get serious for about three minutes: whether that’s sharing our hopes for the future (like me opting to do a PhD) or sharing fashion tips (she shares, I ignore) for what I plan to wear to my fancy lunch with my best friends on Saturday.
‘Don’t embarrass me with your big jeans’, she laughs, making fun of my beloved mom jeans.
My Friday night continues. My oldest sister calls to check in on me and give me updates on my nephew, who seems to grow half an inch taller with every call. My other sister and I talk about all the weird and wonderful activities we’ve been up to and share book and Netflix recommendations.
The night ends when I call my mother and chat with my younger brother, hovering in the background. He often shows me what he did that day before running off to play on his phone, but he’ll keep popping up as I chat with my mum.
My Friday nights end with my heart feeling full, because this is what I’ve always envisioned my sibling relationships to be like.
It was not always the case. But now, I look forward to Friday, not because it’s the start of the weekend, but because it’s the day I speak to my favourite people in the world: my siblings.
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