The Older Sister Who Wasn’t

I miss my mother’s best friend’s children.

Does that sound complicated? It doesn’t make a lot of sense when I phrase it that way. What do I have to do with the children of someone my mother spends time with? How could I possibly miss them?

In the world of quiverfull and patriarchal Christianity, in the world of the Message of the Hour, it’s easier to see. In the Message, the village raises its children. You can be a sister and a mother to someone you aren’t related to by blood: you share a deeper, spiritual lineage. You are their sister or brother in Christ. That’s not just a phrase: it’s the way you live.

My mother’s best friend had five children. The eldest was four years my junior, and the rest descended in age by two years until the youngest was just a baby. They were three boys and two girls, in that order.

At around age 12 or 13, I was apprenticed to the family as a “mother’s helper.” This was part of the “Beautiful Girlhood” training program from Vision Forum. Girls were supposed to practice their homemaking skills at all opportunities. Since I didn’t have any younger siblings to practice on, and my mother didn’t actually need any help, I had to be contracted out to fulfill this expectation. The arrangement wasn’t very formal. I was paid for the housework, which mostly involved occupying the children, doing the laundry, cleaning the house and washing the permanent stack of dishes.

The mother was something of a freethinker, so the boys did household chores, played with baby dolls and were actually encouraged in their pursuits of art and writing. My homemaking there was mostly an “all hands on deck!” situation: I was an older daughter who could do more than the younger kids could. When I wasn’t there, the eldest boys bore some responsibility. In that regard, things could have been much worse – many patriarchal Christian families won’t allow boys to even learn to do housework, reasoning that it’s “women’s work.”

I became a sister to those children. I went with the family to shop for groceries and to supervise field trips. I read drafts of the eldest’s writing (he was a good friend in his own right, despite our age gap). I was at their house nearly every week, if not more often. I swam in their pool. I picked eggs from their chicken coop. I didn’t change diapers, but I soothed the young ones when they were hurt and played with them in their imaginary worlds. They fell asleep on my lap. They told me secrets. They rushed toward me every Sunday, smiling, yelling my name.

I loved them like a sister would. And then I left.

Love and abandonment aren’t compatible. What could I tell them? I chose to leave behind a living death, but in doing so I carved them out of my life. “If I hadn’t done so, I would not have made it out alive,” I could say. What would that mean to a child who acutely felt the sting of rejection when I suddenly stopped coming to their house or to church, when I stopped being visible at all? All my words are empty noise. They scream like the siren of an ambulance speeding away from you when you’re dying. “I have to save someone,” they say, “and it isn’t you.”

I know that I can’t save anyone. I can’t even help people unless they want to be helped. Yet I’m haunted by the simple fact that I left them. I am no longer part of their lives, and I hate what that makes me to them.

Will they ever understand why I made the decision to leave the Message? I don’t know. I am writing my story for No Longer Quivering in part out of the hope that one day they’ll contact me and I’ll  be able to show them why I left. I’m not asking for their forgiveness; they owe me nothing. I was not wrong to leave the Message, but there is nothing I can do about the hurt that meant for them.

In the meantime, I just miss them. I wish I could have taken them with me. I weep for the terrible things the Message is teaching them about themselves, their minds and their bodies. I wish I could visit them, take them for ice cream and talk to them.

I hope they find friends who take joy in who they are. I hope they find mentors who encourage them to chart their own courses. I hope they find their way to spiritual freedom, whether that means they take Branham’s words with a grain of salt or go all the way to atheism.

I hope that they have the chance to take their lives in their own hands and to hell with everybody else’s expectations, including mine. I hope we meet again someday, if only so that I can hear them tell me, “I’m fine. I’m happy now. I’m living my life on my own terms,” even if the next thing they say is, “and I never needed you.”

Daughter of the Patriarchy, epilogue: What does leaving fundamentalism look like?
Nature’s God
Activism fatigue and the work of changing minds
We are not the enemies of our best selves
  • lambiskunk

    I have 11 younger siblings…10 of which were cut off from me (one of my brothers is married) when I moved out last July. I wanted to wait until September, when my littlest sister’s birthday was (she and I were especially close), but in July my dad said “are you going or not? this is your Last Chance” and I said I was going. I just missed her 4th birthday too. I was “the mother who wasn’t”, I guess.

    • Sierra

      I’m so sorry. :( Your father should not have given you an ultimatum like that.

  • Arthur

    A good religion should encourage family relationships, whether all of the family remains in the religion or not. To do otherwise says “We love you when you’re on our side, but we want nothing to do with you when you’re not.” That type of love is conditional. It depends on your ability and willingness to meet their expectations. This is not scriptural. It’s not even moral.

    I feel for your plight. And I can relate from personal experience. I have two brothers I barely know at all. When I left the cult, er, I mean the Message, I made my choice. I hope one day I can have a relationship with them. But as anyone living in the Message can tell you, there is very little common ground on which to build a relationship with someone who isn’t in that lifestyle. They have taken the doctrine of separation to such an extreme that normal family ties are strained to the max, and mere friendships stand no chance whatsoever.

    The choice you made had repercussions, and you knew the results of your actions when you left. I’m not blaming you; you made the only decision you could: self-preservation. It’s a sad situation, but one not of your making. You need bear no guilt. Pray for them. Although I do not believe in the Message, nor in Branham, I do believe in God. And God can work things out if you, *ahem* only believe.

    • Sierra

      Thanks for your encouragement and sharing some of your experience. It is indeed very hard to communicate across the “in/out” border. It’s like a language barrier, but worse.

  • Libby Anne

    Ack. This is an issue I didn’t completely address in my post. For the younger kids, as young as two or three years old, I simply disappeared. They had no idea what was happening. My parents didn’t tell them anything (to my knowledge), and I didn’t feel like I could tell them anything either. The tension in the house, the anger, the pain – they could tell something was going on but they didn’t understand it. And then I was gone. I have learned since that one of them, the one I specifically raised from a baby, felt abandoned and rejected. She even asked me, “was I not good enough? why did I stop being your baby? did you find someone else?” That hurt me more than anything, because I had hurt her.

    • Sierra

      That’s so incredibly sad. :( This is exactly why it’s so wrong to make older siblings take on the roles of parents. Not only do they miss their own childhoods, but they can’t actually grow up and become independent adults without younger children feeling as though they’ve lost a parent.

      This is so much more like “preparing for divorce” than dating. We shouldn’t have to feel like deadbeat parents for moving out and having our own lives!


      Ahhh I’m going to feel terrible >< My littlest sister was my baby too…I missed both her last birthdays. I have dreams that she forgets me and stuff. She was almost 3 when I left. I don't know if she will remember me…or for how long…or how much I loved her. I have no idea what my parents told her, if anything. Knowing them, probably something to the effect of "Anne was a bad girl and had to leave".

  • tostand1

    This one made me cry. There are so many loved ones that I just don’t know what to say to anymore. I do see healing taking place, but it has been a long road.

  • Amber Hawkes

    Having grown up in the message from the age of 4, and leaving at the age of 25…I can totally relate to this post. My church “family” felt the need to overpower me with Love in order to convert me back to the message, my blood family loved me regardless…yet there were (and still are) many conditions. Now that I am 32 and have not gone back to the message the church has turned its back on me…..which is fine, but what I’m saddest about are the people that I have known my whole life that have turned their back on me, those PEOPLE whom I called my family. They were my Uncles and Aunts, Grandparents, Sisters, Brothers… gone. I had the hardest time with this between the ages of 25-30…but am now grateful and thankful for the true family I have now…the friends and people I have met that have been a true support with an unconditional love. OH and I’m gay…so I can pretty much kiss my past and upbringing goodbye, because there is NO WAY that I will ever be excepted by the message or the church, nor will I be allowed near them or around their children due to the fear that my gayness might just rub off on one of them (or evil spirit I should say). Fundamentalists churches are hard enough when you are gay, but the message church I feel is a very unique one. The fact that I cut my hair and wear pants now…means I’m a sinner and am going to hell in a message believers eyes. So you can imagine how it feels to be where I am now. But I am happy with my life outside of the message, and will keep moving forward with my head held high towards the happiness that I deserve and am striving for.

    • Sierra

      Haha, oh, “love bombing.” What a mess!

      It is a real loss, made worse by the fact that it’s so hard to explain to others who didn’t grow up in such close-knit communities. It’s affirming to know there are others who understand the feeling, whether they had real siblings they had to leave behind or an “extended family” in their churches.

      Coming out of the Message taught me a lot about how harsh evangelicals and fundamentalists can be to LGBT folks. I won’t claim to understand everything that you and others have gone through, but I definitely know the feeling that there was part of me that I could not change but was totally unacceptable to the Message (in my case, it was having no desire for kids or a homemaker’s life). People said I was rebelling against God’s calling, but I knew better: my desires were part of who I was, and the only way to get rid of them would be to get rid of me. I’m so glad that you managed to get out and find a community who accepts you for who you are. Keep being kind to yourself!