Nothing shapes us quite like our family of origin. In my book, The Sweeney Sisters, I recreate some of the interaction that I experienced with my siblings, both the good stuff and the tough stuff. In the fictional Sweeney household, there were three sisters, but I grew up as the youngest of eight siblings, born thirteen years apart. I took a lot of teasing, a lot of mocking and a lot of notes. There were life lessons to be learned growing up in a big family, ones I use every day as an adult.  

The Sweeney Sisters - Lian Dolan

The Sweeney Sisters - Lian Dolan

As the youngest of eight siblings, born thirteen years apart, I took a lot of teasing, a lot of mocking and a lot of notes. There were life lessons to be learned growing up in a big family, ones I use every day as an adult.

#1 You are not the Center of the Universe.

It was so helpful to learn this early on in life! Imagine thinking that life revolved around your schedule, your needs and your desires. It must be quite a shocker to get to your twenties and discover that life, in fact, cares about none of those things. When you’re part of a big brood, it’s clear on Day One that your individual status matters much less than the group’s success. Accepting that you’re a small part of big enterprise nurtures responsibility and humility.

#2 No one cares about your math test.

Or what you shared at Show and Tell. Or the name of your best friend. Maybe if you are part of a small family gathered around the dinner table, an older sibling might take the time to inquire about how your day went. But by the time I was born, everybody in the family had already taken the same math test so there was zero interest in my math test. But that’s okay, because then you look around and find bigger, more interesting stories to tell. And you listen to the voices around the table talking about the news or books or politics and you learn your math test is pretty mundane.

#3 Everything can be funny. 

Even the math test story can be turned into a winner if you trip on your way up to the front of the class to turn it in. That’s the thing about a big family, a funny tale gets you more attention.  As a result, you learn early on that everything can be funny if it’s framed right. There’s no story of personal humiliation or a broken heart or a life-changing disappointed that can’t be made more entertaining if viewed through the prism of humor. My brothers and sisters taught me the importance of perspective and the value of a good laugh, skills we used decades later when caring for our aging parents.

#4 Someday the porkchop will be yours.

Eight kids, one extra porkchop. There’s no way my mother was going to cut that chop into 8 pieces. Nothing about doling out the last pork chop was going to be fair, but it would be even- eventually. I see in small families that pork chops or parental attention or the number of birthday gifts per child can be measured out with precision, giving the impression that down the line, life will be fair. But not in family with 8 kids. No one is keeping track of the percentages, but every once in a while, you’ll score the extra pork chop because you set the table that night or helped in the kitchen. And that’s the way the world works: every once in a while, you’re rewarded for good work. But not always.

#5 You can go anywhere if you can get there under your own steam.

My mother rarely drove us anywhere—school, sports practice, medical appointments, college orientation. She believed in bikes, buses, and trains, encouraging us to “get there under your own steam.” Fortunately, this also applied this rule to the fun stuff, too. My brother went to Woodstock at 14 “under his own steam.” We all set out for travel abroad, weekends in New York City, college in California, places that other parents may not have allowed, because we got there on our own. The “Under Your Own Steam” rule breeds confidence, capability and a sense of adventure.

#6 You are not alone.

As a child, this was literally true. We always shared rooms, played together, went to school or camp together. As adults, it’s true on another level. Having a lot of siblings means there is always someone to call when the going gets tough. It may not be the same sibling every time, but you always feel like someone has your back.

#7 The sense of connection is what gives meaning to our lives. 

Growing up in our large extended family meant that you were always known as “Sheila’s sister” or “Brendan’s brother” or “Tommy’s cousin.” Now, it’s those connections to other people that give meaning to our lives. Being someone’s mother or sister or cousin or aunt connects us to the world at large through people, not things. And that’s a better way to go.

Lian Dolan
Lian Dolan

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

Lian Dolan is a writer and podcaster. She is the host of Satellite Sisters, a podcast she created with her four real sisters. She is the author of two bestselling novels, Helen of Pasadena and Elizabeth the First Wife and the co-author of two collections of essays, Satellite Sisters UnCommon Senses and You’re The Best: A Celebration of Friendship. She has written columns for O, The Oprah Magazine and Working Mother and is currently a columnist for Pasadena Magazine. A graduate of Pomona College, she lives in Pasadena, California, with her husband, two sons and a big German shepherd. 

 

 


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