Growing up as one of six siblings—the third oldest, and the second of three girls—Carlita Gay loved the distinction of a big family and that everyone was exposed to so many personalities. Though she saw her family less after moving away from her hometown, going to therapy as an adult helped Gay, now 33 and an executive assistant in New York, understand “how much of a refuge my siblings can still be” because of their deep context and shared history. In particular, they were some of the few people who could understand her experience of growing up biracial in a “mainly white” part of Minnesota. “I had a perspective of ‘Maybe I’m alone’” in trying to make sense of how her racial identity developed, Gay told me, but over time she realized that her siblings could relate to both that general experience and how it played out within their family. “If anyone could understand my experience the most,” she said, “it might be them.”
Not many people have five siblings like Gay does, but 82 percent of American kids do have at least one. The prototypical sibling relationship has two distinct phases. First, the kids’ connection is embedded within the family system and shaped by their parents. Then they start becoming independent, eventually leaving home and building their own lives. In these later years, the sibling bond is an intriguing mix of involuntary (nobody chooses their siblings) and voluntary (drifting apart from a sibling is generally considered less concerning than divorce or estrangement from a parent).