As My Immigrant Parents Chased Their Dream, My Sisters Became My Mothers
In honor of Mother’s Day, we’re sharing stories from the Brit + Co community about mother figures who shape our lives
I was only six months old when my family touched down on Canadian soil. Bundled up in a car seat, I slept next to my then-seven-year-old sister, Elizabeth as we were transported from Kolkata, India’s bustling streets and rickety mopeds to Toronto’s slick motorways and pastel-colored family vans. It was December 1988; Toronto was covered in snow reflecting the night’s sky.
“Are we on the moon?” Liz asked our big sisters, Philomena, then 14, and Juliana, 11, as we glided across Highway 401.
My parents are the epitome of the immigrant story – they traded in their hometown and stable careers in India for a fresh start in Canada, for the sake of their four daughters. They juggled odd jobs working around the clock, managed a hefty mortgage, and kept four little girls clothed, fed, and entertained. Building a fulfilled life for us was their priority, and it kept them busy.
So it was my sisters who raised me, mothered me in every way, and made me who I am today —sometimes in ways I wish they knew, sometimes in ways I could never thank them enough for.
They were my surrogate parents.
My eldest sister, Philomena, put warm meals on the table every night, tended after the home, bathed me before bedtime. Julie checked my homework, made sure I ate my vegetables at dinnertime, and enforced a strict curfew when I’d go out with friends.
Liz taught me how to ride a bike, tie my shoelaces, beat the big boss on all our favorite video games. I cried when she started working summer jobs and I had to stay at my grandma’s.
They were replacement moms so much so that I’d accidentally call them ‘Mommy’ while we were growing up.
They were my role models, too. I don’t think they realize how much I looked up to them, and still do.
From a baby sister’s vantage point, I watched them tick off small milestones: throwing house parties, bringing home boyfriends, trying beer.
And then there were the big milestones: I watched them navigate university applications, graduate, and kickstart their careers. They fell in love with men who ended up becoming their husbands. They built homes of their own. They started families.
Throughout it all, they’ve been my inspiration. I have seen them grapple with climbing the career ladder, relationships falling out, the loss of loved ones. I’ve watched them push through life’s trials and tribulations, and from that, they teach me to be resilient, to be strong, cognizant of what I say and how I treat other people. They’ve taught me everything I need to know about how to manage a mother-in-law, deal with office politics, and perfect family recipes. They show me, in big ways and small, how to stay dedicated, to make decisions with conviction, and that hard work pays off.
My sisters were just teenagers thrust into the role of providers. I wasn’t surprised at all when, one by one, I watched them excel at motherhood when they had kids of their own. When I was born, Philomena was 14. I was 14, too, when she became a mom and I held my niece in my arms. The maternal touch came naturally to all of them: they’re nurturing, selfless, and doting to their little ones. They’re relentless in their fierce love for their children and their families.
Through it all, they always put their baby sister first. By the time I started university, my sister Julie bought me a laptop with her savings. And after I started a new life in London, it’s always been my sisters who see me off to the airport — of course, after a big meal at a favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It’s my sisters who are always there waiting to pick me up when I come home.
My sisters give me confidence, knowing that no matter what, they’re always in my corner — just like a mom would be. But they’ve also become my friends. As I’ve grown up, we’ve planned sister dates, sleepovers, and even traveled the world together. On a beach in Mexico when I was 20 and my sister Julie was 31, she saw a tattoo I’d covertly placed on my inner thigh.
“But Mom said we’re not allowed to get tattoos!” my older sister said. She promised to keep my secret; we nursed sunburns and hangovers for days in a row.
Yet despite the changes of adulthood and the friendships we’ve developed with one another, I realize I’ll always be their baby sister. To this day, when my mom is inundated with work and can’t provide the listening ear I need, my sister Philomena always reminds me: “You don’t need Mommy. You have me.”
Even now at 30 years old, I’ll always want to be them when I grow up. They’re always one step ahead of me, showing me the way.
Carmen Chai is a Canadian journalist living in London, UK. She has been a staff reporter for several Canadian publications, including the Toronto Star, Vancouver Province, National Post, and most recently, Global News. She writes about health, nutrition, relationships, and travel.
(Photos provided by author)