Dear Carolyn: I am in my late 30s, and after being stuck in the wrong career for, well, my whole career, I have made the decision to apply to full-time business school. It’s scary and exciting, and something that will likely take me away from my hometown, where I have lived since college.
The problem is that I’m the oldest of two daughters — always the dutiful daughter, always available to drop everything to tend to my parents’ (especially mother’s) needs. My free-spirit little sister, meanwhile, has lived all over Europe for the past 10-plus years, much to my envy. My mom has always been extremely anxious and needy, which is getting worse with age.
I now feel guilty for even considering a move that could take us 700 miles away, much less to my dream school that’s in Paris. My dad’s shellshocked looks and my mom’s ever-present, anxious “What if there’s an emergency?” comments make me question if I should even do this. I would deeply regret missing an adventure in a whole new setting, but I also would deeply regret missing potentially the last moments of my parents’ lives. Being the oldest child is hard. Advice, please!
Carolyn says: Wait — no. Being the older child who has been manipulated into believing it is her responsibility to take care of her as-far-as-I-can-tell-still-perfectly-capable parents while her younger sibling enjoys the freedom of complete autonomy and zero family expectations is hard.
Maybe you prefer not to be that wordy. Fair enough. But your six-word version is simply not accurate. Firstborns have their challenges, sure — as do middles and youngests — but to see this narrowly as a birth-order issue is to miss the broad scope of what’s really going on.
Your parents groomed you to serve them, expect you to serve them, and used their emotional leverage to keep you close enough geographically to serve them. Because doing that to you serves them.
Why weren’t they focused on providing you with whatever was healthy for you?
To give them the benefit of the doubt, I’ll hope this firstborn thing is a cultural expectation handed down by their parents’ parents’ parents, and their fault is only in not questioning its fairness and present-day relevance.
But when your dreams are on the table and they opt not to support them — when they deny Daughter A the same fulfillment they grant Daughter B — my generosity curdles fast.
At this point, you probably struggle to distinguish between what they want from you and what you want for yourself. If so, that’s not your fault; it’s the guilt they’ve embedded in you. (Easy installation!: (1) Set expectation. (2) Withhold love when expectation isn’t met. (3) Repeat. Enjoy lifetime guilt supply.)
Sad fact: Caring for parents when the time comes can be a sacred and beautiful task, entered freely and with love. Manipulating a child into it erases all choice, and the beauty with it.
You are so invested in this dynamic that you might need good therapy to untangle yourself — not because you can’t physically get to Paris, but because guilt strings can choke off your joy supply whatever you do, home or abroad. If you foresee eternal self-flagellation should something happen to a parent while you’re busy living your life, then please — please — make an appointment today.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org.