Selfishness or self-protection?Posted: June 15, 2010
There’s this song that I feel embodies my most violent emotions about what it means to be a single adult who has a younger sister with disabilities: Ordinary, by Train. Yes, the song from Spider-Man 2. (Remember the posts about how we are nerds?)
And when the world is on its knees with me it’s fine
And when I come to the rescue I get nothing but left behind
Everybody seems to be getting what they need where’s mine
‘Cause you’re what I need so very but I’m anything but ordinary
As physically typical and privileged as I might be, I’m not exactly “ordinary.” Even if you just accept the frequently-associated connotation of ordinary as lack of excitement, dry, or otherwise, well, boring. I stand out by being Lily’s sister, by my own PhD, by our mutual status as children of a mixed marriage that is also 100% a numerically minority (if well recognized) religion. People often describe me as weird. I am rather proud of that. 😉 I’m single at the age of 30, with a young but flourishing career that takes a lot of energy to maintain. (An established woman scientist commented during a discussion group I was part of that she sees women investing more energy in their students than men; students almost become surrogate children sometimes. I would argue that it’s a side effect of being a devoted teacher, having known men who also seem to give huge amounts of energy in the classroom.) I find myself feeling like I have more in common with the stereotypical man of my age, “ready to settle down and support a family,” than the stereotypical woman of my age who wants to start a family.
And it’s all complicated by Lily’s place in my life, the way I feel like I can’t easily depend on someone else to help me, despite an almost desperate desire to do so. I Must Be Self-Sufficient Because She Can’t Be. Learning how to let people into my life has been a huge challenge, and right now I feel the absence of a supportive partner keenly. I have, essentially, no regrets about giving what I have to Lily, even if I’m scared of what it will mean to give even more for her. She’s my sister – there’s no way in hell I’m going to abandon her or let other people hurt her. But it hurts some days when I realize that I don’t let people support me, and how that may eventually mean that I won’t be as healthy and strong as I need to be in order to keep supporting her.
I have conversations about this with my friends. (I have some absolutely amazing friends. I may want to have a primary romantic relationship, but wow, my friends are awesome and make my life so much better.) One of the ideas I think I developed during childhood was that I somehow had to earn attention or affection that was manifestly obvious; I knew I was loved and celebrated by my parents, but you know, it’s really hard to do something special with the kid who is able to quietly, happily play with her Legos while her sister needs hours of effort to learn speech or sign language well enough to ask for juice. Don’t get me wrong, I had a supremely excellent childhood, but sometimes it’s hard to remember that just being me is enough reason to “deserve” love, attention, or happiness. One of my friends recently reminded me that it’s okay to be happy, and just having her say that was such an emotional moment of relief so strong that I recall fighting back tears.
(Quick aside: Have I mentioned the perfectionism thing here yet? That many of us feel like we have to be perfect because of the problems our sibs have? Or that we feel we have to excel in order to be as extraordinary as our sibs are and cause our parents/families to set aside time for us? I find it much, much, much easier when dating to care about someone – cooking for them, paying for meals or movie tickets, getting them gifts, asking about their days and lives – than I do to let someone do that for me, because of that. When I fall short of my perfectionist goals, I don’t like to let people do things nice for me. Which is one reason I’m so ambivalent about celebrating my own birthday, and go all out to celebrate those of my friends and family. It’s sort of all I can do to accept that it’s okay to take a day to celebrate being alive.)
I feel like pulling away from my family just a little bit right now. It hurts to think that, despite the fact that I can tell I need some extra space to fully invest in living in a new place, with a new job and new friends – it hurts because I can’t separate the desire for self-protection and enjoyment of self from selfishness. But this is my birthday month, and I have new clothes and a new haircut and am reconnecting with friends who are now local while finally making new friends, and I want to try to be a grown-up, and just be me, and maybe find someone who can help me enjoy that. And that can’t be a purely negative thing to want.