Arm’s Length

Arm's Length

My psychiatrist has asked me numerous times how my sister has handled my parents differently than I have? How has she protected herself? How has she kept herself from being so enmeshed in the family dynamic?

The answer is that my sister says no. She keeps my parents at arm’s length. She didn’t answer the phone whenever my mother called, letting it go to voicemail instead. She didn’t let my mother pry and control her. And, she never identified with them.

I, on the other hand, was a member of the first-born club. My mother, father, and I were all first-born. I was repeatedly told that I was like them in that I, too, was first-born. I, like them, was a type-A personality, an overachiever, a workaholic.

I shouldered higher expectations. I was to be a doctor or a lawyer. My goal was to be a neurosurgeon. In high school, I almost got straight A’s, ranking 3rd in a class of 450. I assumed that I would go to an Ivy League school, and was devastated when I didn’t get accepted.

My parents graduated at the top of their high school classes and were high achievers in college. My mother was captain of her college debate team. My father got two bachelor’s degrees in five years – one in chemical engineering and one in humanities. Years later, living off savings while supporting a wife and two daughters, he attended Harvard Business School.

I expected to out-achieve them. I didn’t. I failed. I fell apart. I couldn’t withstand the strain, the expectations, the speed of being a UCLA honors biochemistry major.

I wanted a well-rounded education and to have fun, so I dropped out of the second quarter of honors chemistry. Physics and biology, too, I only took one semester each. Honors calculus, though, I loved and took for the entire year. Math was always my favorite subject and I regret not continuing my math studies.

Bottom line: I must say NO. I must STOP identifying with my parents. I must learn to hold my parents at arm’s length. I must learn to be a “good enough” daughter, and not try to live up to any real or perceived expectations.