Names have been changed.
“Valentina, stop crying!” I said, frustrated. I was trying to do my homework, but my newborn sister was fussing. “I don’t know what to do with you anymore!”
I was 12 years old, and it was my job to take care of her, even though I didn’t know anything about babies. My 10-year-old brother was doing his homework. My mom was at her English class. My dad had just gotten home from work, but he was tired and I knew he wouldn’t help. I didn’t know what my baby sister wanted, so I called my aunt.
“I just finished changing her diaper and feeding her, so I don’t think she’s hungry,” I said.
“You should burp her every time you finish giving her a bottle,” she told me.
It worked. Valentina fell asleep and I tried to finish my homework.
As the oldest of three children, I had been doing grown-up things like cooking, cleaning, and laundry for a while.
I always wanted a sister when I was younger. I was the only girl around my age in the family. At family gatherings, my brother played with our boy cousins and I was bored.
I thought that if I had a sister, I could play with her and she would help me clean the house. My brother wasn’t asked to help out with the chores because in my family, boys don’t do the “women’s jobs.”
But having a sister wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be. Valentina was born on Christmas Eve, and I spent most of my winter break helping my mom.
Two weeks later it was my 13th birthday. I didn’t get a party like usual, just a small cake that we shared with my aunts and grandparents. I was grateful, but I also felt hurt.
“Mom, can I go out with my friends since it’s my birthday?” I asked.
“Who else will help me out here at home?” she said. So I had to stay in.
Not My Daughter
When my sister was five months old, I spent the summer taking care of her while my mom and dad worked until late at night. Gradually, I got the hang of it. I started to love Valentina and I learned how to keep her happy. For example, I found out that she could not stand the heat and needed the air conditioner on to fall asleep.
I took her to the park and I carried her whenever we went out. People sometimes asked if she was my daughter or gave me looks like they were thinking, There goes another teen mom.
My mom stopped working after that summer to stay home with my sister, but I still had to help her a lot. On weekends, I cleaned the house, did laundry, cooked meals, and watched Valentina whenever we went to family events.
Anger built up in me little by little. Even though I loved Valentina, I’d had enough of changing diapers, preparing bottles, and doing the dishes.
My acrylic nails never lasted longer than two weeks because I was doing so many chores.
I rarely got permission to hang out with my friends. When I did, I had to bring my brother along.
By 8th grade I was tired of the pressure of maintaining good grades while also helping my mom.
I started hanging out with the wrong crowd. My friends smoked weed and cut class.
One day, they invited me to smoke with them. They said it would help me distance myself from my problems. I was so tired of everything that I thought, Why not?
Smoking and cutting class made me feel better, but only for a few hours. My mom and I started arguing a lot. My worsening behavior also caused arguments between my parents. My dad was usually tired from work. He drank a lot because he was stressed about paying the bills, and now I was giving him more problems.
One night after dinner, my mom’s phone rang. She put it on speaker so the whole family could hear. It was an automated message from my school saying I was absent that day.
“How many times do I have to tell you to do your best in school? Do you want to work for minimum wage like us?” my dad said, angry.
“I know, but….” He cut me off.
“If you know, then why do you continue to do things like this? What example are you setting for your brother and sister?”
“You guys don’t understand the pressure I’m under,” I said. I started to cry.
I’m a Kid, Not a Mom
“What pressure? All you have to do is go to school, do your best, and help out with your sister,” my mom said.
“You get mad when I ask you to clean something or watch her for a few hours. I have been doing that my whole life!” she yelled.
My mom is the oldest of five siblings. When she was about 12, her parents came to America to work and all the kids stayed in Mexico. In most Mexican families like hers, the oldest female child takes care of the younger kids, so I can see why my mom thinks me helping so much is normal.
But she didn’t have to balance school on top of chores and taking care of her siblings. My parents only went to school until the 6th grade. They don’t understand that while I’m babysitting, my classmates are going to after school clubs and other fun things.
My parents expect me to get into a good college, but they don’t allow me the time to do volunteer work and other extracurricular activities that I need to do to get in. It feels like the whole family is counting on me. If I get my degree, I’ll be the first one in my family to graduate from college.
Studying for My Sister
By freshman year, things at home were getting worse. I was 14, and my parents said they were not going to throw me a quinceañera party when I turned 15. They wanted to do it the following year instead to combine it with my sister’s third birthday and baptism. I was mad because even though I love Valentina, I wanted my quinceañera all to myself.
My parents also didn’t want to have my quinceañera yet because I was not skinny. “You won’t look pretty enough, and you need to lose weight so you can fit in your dress,” they said. “How will your chambelanes be able to carry you if you don’t lose weight?” Chambelanes are the boys who dance with you as part of the celebration, lift you up, and present you to the crowd like a princess. Those words hurt.
I skipped school to hang out with friends since I didn’t have permission to go out after school. Sometimes I left school early because I didn’t want to go to gym class. My parents were body-shaming me and I worried my peers would body-shame me too. I didn’t tell any of my friends what was going on at home because I felt like they wouldn’t understand.
Becoming a Role Model
My sister was almost 2 years old and learning to speak. One morning she asked me, “Mala go to school?” Mala is a nickname she gave me.
I said yes, but I was lying. I was actually meeting a friend to go shopping.
“OK, good. Bye Mala,” she said. My sister’s words made me feel different for the rest of the day. I wondered what she meant by “good.” Did Valentina know what was really going on, that I wasn’t going to school to do dumb things instead?
I was like another parent to Valentina. Teachers sometimes saw my phone lock screen, which has a picture of my sister, and assumed she was my kid. “You need to focus on school for your daughter,” they said.
It was awkward because I had to explain that Valentina wasn’t my child. But it also hurt because I knew they were right—I needed to be a better role model. It got me thinking: if I didn’t do my best to give myself a better future, then my siblings wouldn’t do their best for themselves either.
My parents were right. I needed to set a good example, especially for my sister, who looked up to me and copied everything I did.
Choosing My Future
By the end of my sophomore year, I decided to get back on track. I made new friends who help motivate me to stay in school.
They tell me that I’m smart, and that gives me confidence. Encouraging words from my teachers help too: “Don’t throw away your future, you are brighter than you think.” I did not end the year how I wanted to with grades above 80s, but I will try hard junior year so I can graduate on time.
If I go to college and get a high-paying job, I can help my parents with the bills. I hope then my dad won’t be drinking and stressing about money.
Things at home are calmer now. Valentina is almost four and needs less care. Mostly I play with her after I’m finished with my homework. When she calls me her best friend, it melts my heart.
I want to become an immigration lawyer, but I want to study for another career first. I need to start making money since it’ll be another decade before I graduate from law school. Maybe I’ll start my own business creating a makeup line.
I’m still mad at my parents sometimes for making me assume so many of their responsibilities. But when I recently turned 16 they gave me a belated quinceañera party and that meant a lot to me.
Still, it is hard knowing my mom is pregnant and I might have to go through this again. But this time, I will communicate with my mother better. I will help her when I have time, but I am going to be busy working, going to school, taking extracurriculars, and otherwise getting prepared for college and my own future.