I Thought Adulthood Meant Separating From My Sisters. My Nieces Brought Me Back.

By starting a new generation, my nieces made my sisters and I feel the contours of our own.

The Aunties Issue

Over the course of 18 completely unremarkable months of my personal life, one of my younger sisters got married, gave birth, finally finished her college degree, and announced that she was pregnant again. Between us, we exemplified the city/suburb divide: I live in a place where any mom under 30 is a teen mom, and she lived in Connecticut. One weekend, I took the train out to see her. Three years earlier, if you suggested I voluntarily spend a weekend with one of my sisters, sleeping on her couch and complimenting her bath towels and using her Peacock login, I would've wrenched up my face, all suspicious. I barely know the girl. The idea that I might've, in that same optional repeated sister bonding time, given her a compliment would've made me think you had mistaken me for someone else.

But that day, I couldn’t stop myself: "So, uh, I have to tell you that I'm… proud of you?" I told her I couldn't believe how gracefully she had carried herself throughout the past months, that she was an exceptional mother and that her children were very lucky, and that I — her older sister — had been learning so much from watching her. She thanked me, and in the awkward silence that followed I imagine we were thinking about how far we’d come since we first met, babies fighting for the same boob.

I'd always gotten along with my four sisters, but I treated them more like co-workers or neighbors than real friends. We have to share the same space, might as well make the best of it. Because there are so many of us — five babbling, brown-skinned girls with the same face and first initial — we were regarded as a single entity, like a girl group or delegates from a small, war-torn country. We'd dress similarly, handing down or swapping up clothes in the order we needed them; to make drop-offs and pickups easier, we had the same extracurricular activities, often from the same school. Erasing the distinctions made it easier for everyone else to deal with the enormity of us.

Of course, this made me furious. I spent so much of my adolescence brooding about this that I didn't realize I was gay until I was in my 20s. I yearned for anything that would mark the borders where one of us ended and the other began. One Christmas, when Jermane and I unwrapped identical iPod minis, I threw a teenage fit. Why didn't you get her an iPod Nano or something? She doesn't even care about music! I was sent to my room — which is to say our room, where she had gotten the better real estate deal because her bed was closest to the window, a fact I never forgave her for — and I stewed. I didn't want her to have less — just something different than me, proof that we weren't just a double. I had worked so hard to create something of my own that even a toe into my territory was a complete affront. I left for college as soon as I could, at 16, thrilled to be the only person with my face on campus.

My sisters continued to live together for six years, the four of them fingers tightening together into a fist, a development made plain during our first annual Sister Weekend. (Weekend is doing a lot of work here — we were together for 36 hours of chaotic bonding, which was enough.) They all crammed into my one-bedroom apartment and took in my city, walking the streets with their phone flashlights on to dissuade oncoming rats and asking if, because I kept no food in my refrigerator, did that mean I was poor. On the D train home, gliding over the Manhattan bridge on an icy afternoon, we looked out of the window at the river crystallizing beneath us. "I don't understand how you can live here," one of my sisters stated, in a firm, adult way I still find comical. A tourist's chorus of complaints ran down the line: It's ugly, it's dirty, there are rats, it's expensive, you can't drive. "It's just so… sad."

After many individual moves, they've all settled down close to each other: Two of them ended up 15 minutes away from each other in North Carolina, and the other two live together in Los Angeles, a decision I supported in part because I knew I would never make it for myself. I was the thumb poking out, sticking straight in the air, ready for connection or a ride on the side of the highway. Once, I joked that I was nobody's favorite sister but everybody's second favorite sister, and was surprised at how readily they all agreed.

And then, three years ago, one of them proved herself useful and finally had a baby: L, and suddenly, I had the best friend I had been waiting for. L is funny as a bone, spending last Christmas with me repeating "what tha–" even though she doesn't know what it means, but she knew it made me laugh. She thinks I am on every airplane she sees, because she knows that's how I get to her house. When we read books together, or when we play games together, or when we go for one of our patented, deadeningly slow walks around the yard together, I feel the universe expand, doors and windows of possibilities of where she will go, who she will be. I wonder how anyone could ever be so pure and good, how such a tiny person could have flung open the chambers of my heart and turned me into someone much bigger and braver.

I miss my kids is the text that I send to my sister when I'm in the mood for an update. They're not the only ones I miss.

My niece was the first finger on a new hand, a girl who started her generation, and in doing so she made my sisters and I feel the contours of our own. We were no longer the kids — our sister had a kid, and eventually another, we were all grown up in a way that we never thought would actually happen. We were united in our desire to care for the next round, hulking out with our newfound powers of protection and advocacy for their own space and rights, buying them toys and outfits they didn't need, sending memes about being a loud-and-proud auntie. We approach the kids differently, but we all approach, as active as we possibly could be, each mutually obsessed. "I miss my kids" is the text that I send to my sister when I'm in the mood for an update. They're not the only ones I miss.

Since my nieces were born, Sister Weekends have gone deluxe. Last year, three of us — and L and her little sister, N — flew to Los Angeles to visit the two who live there, spending four days re-creating our days when we were all so close because we had no other choice. We ordered pizza and ate sugar snacks and listened to the Hercules soundtrack — there are five muses! — and played Uno. Everybody was doing somebody's hair, and we kept getting into petty fights about who was the ugliest or least funny. The babies padded around in the enclosed backyard, digging holes to Siberia, or bringing dirt to whichever auntie most looked like she could use it. None of us are the touchy-feely type, reluctant to share our feelings with each other. But we laid around the house a bucket of happy clams, each of us happy to be where we belonged.

One day, Jermane and I took her daughters to Target, the two of us stupid and chatty with Starbucks cups sweating in our hands. We pushed the girls in separate carts, doing our own shopping apart from each other. When they found each other in one aisle, approaching from opposite ends, my nieces reached for each other as they passed, happy to be reunited. "THEY'RE BEST FRIENDS!!!!!" I cried, sob-choking at the scene. But it was even better: they are sisters.

Honestly, L's a natural. The eldest of who knows how many, she excels at all the duties that the job demands. I love how open she is with her affection, and how she advocates for her sister to get a snack at the same time she does. Last time I visited, L refused to let her little sister N feed herself, lovingly picking up her spoon and shoving the pockets of rice into her mouth. "You're doing great," she cooed.

And I’ve become obsessed with drumming the importance of sisters into these tiny doughy heads. Getting L to understand that the same way she has a little sister — who she loves, protects, bullies, reveres, feeds and tries to eat, all at the same time — I, too have a little sister, and it's the same person as her mami, and that it's something we have in common, and that sometimes, the things we have in common can still make us feel special.

"L, is N your uncle?"


"Your Mimi?"


"Your Papi?"


My voice up a thousand octaves, as sweet as Oreo filling: "Then who is she?!"

"My sister!"

I grilled her about sisters for my entire visit. Twice a day, when we were brushing our teeth, I asked her if she knew who my sister was. She either didn't know, didn't care, or was too worried about plaque to bother. I kept working on her, pointing out pairs of sisters on TV or loudly referring to my sister by her identity instead of her name. My final night there something clicked.

"Do you know who Auntie Jazzie's sister is?"

"Maaaaaamiii!" she sing-said, as bright as the sun.

This hasn't shaken her world as much as it has mine — I screamed — but I appreciated it nonetheless. I needed this toddler to understand why I was in her life, that one of the relationships that colored her life was something I could relate to, that we shared a crucial similarity. That her mami has three other sisters will be a lesson for a different day.

Jazmine Hughes is a writer who lives in New York City and Oaxaca, Mexico.