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.


38 responses to “Arm's Length”

  1. […] Kitt O’Malley is a mental health advocate, wife, mother, sister and daughter who neglects housework as she blogs, connects using social media, and lives with bipolar disorder. This is a great resource blog for those who live with or are living with bipolar disorder. […]

  2. Thanks for following my blog! You get a shout out today!

  3. No. I am not a doctor. You must see your medical doctor, your psychiatrist, about this. Doctors, specifically psychiatrists, are not evil.

  4. Sorry to abuse this space but I don’t know why do I suffer from insomnia. I take pills, I sleep. No pills, no sleep. Kills me.
    Can you help me crack this puzzle? Thank you.

  5. My older brothers used to visit mom once a month.
    After my advent, I suggested each brother visit mom every weekend. This way, each brother visited home every 3 weeks instead of every 4 weeks while mom had a loving son to help with weekly shopping trips to market every week.

  6. You, too! 4 hours is still a very long ride of you must do it every day. Hopefully you can read or study on the train ride.

  7. I’m the 7th child so I can’t relate much. But I was expected to achieve high enough marks in grade 12 to get admission in nearby university.
    For the whole year I prayed to get admission in that university but I wasn’t. I had to join the two older brothers in 500 km away King Saud University.
    Turned out God had been working hard. There were new trains, shortening the travel time to 4 hours.
    I also helped my older brothers earn some money working part-time. We all 3 ended up enjoying the experience.
    Always be thankful to God. Wish you good luck.

  8. It’s all about giving thanks. God never does any evil. If we thank God, even bad things turn good as in Joseph’s story, son of Israel.

  9. Just noticed that my response to you hadn’t posted. Hope that you are having success at overcoming the “first born syndrome.” Accepting one’s limitations and imperfections is so much more satisfying than always striving and failing to be perfect.

  10. I really needed to read this. I can truly relate and I feel the same “first born syndrome” Thank you for the reminder xx

  11. Oh no, I’m sorry. Of course, I understand, you have to go if she’s not doing well. ((((Hugs)))))

  12. I am first born as well. I can totally empathize with the perfectionism as well as the stress both external and internal. We always strive to achieve and please. Setting boundaries is extra hard. Stay strong!

  13. Thank you. Unfortunately, just got call from my mom at psych hospital. She was crying. I’m going to visit this evening, briefly. Don’t look forward to it.

  14. I am the firstborn as well. And guess who took care of my mother after having forgiven her for the abuse she inflicted on me. You are so right to start putting limits in place and putting more emphasis on the care of your own self. Hugs for you my friend.

  15. Like you, I am the firstborn child. And like you, I must, MUST hold my parent at arm’s length. It’s a different situation than yours, of course, but incredibly difficult all the same. The bottom line for us both is that we need to put ourselves first and we absolutely MUST protect our stability/sanity. You’ve inspired me to say “NO!” and to be a good-enough daughter!
    Thank you Kitt!!!

  16. Cannot imagine doing it without help. At least the sale of my parents’ house can pay for their care.

  17. Deeply in graded on the psyche. This one club I belong to. We took care of my mother, too, all alone with no help. I take my hat off to you. God speed!

  18. I know. Wish I could simply shrug it off. Deeply ingrained.

  19. Yes, I am enjoying it. Just what I needed. Thank you!

  20. Oh that first born thing is strong, isn’t it? Much truth in here, Kitt.

  21. Paladin Avatar

    Do not know how your ordeal became mathematical, Kitt. From previous correspondence, thought it wise to let you know the P was not “Procrastination”. You are a good daughter and doing well with your caretaking responsibiliites. Hope you are enjoying your stay in Oregon.

  22. Like the Drop the P and stay with I. Thanks!

  23. Tough losing your dad so young, especially to suicide. I send you my love and condolences, even if it was many years ago. Yes, it is a process – an ongoing one.

  24. Thank you, Van.

  25. Thank you, Bradley. I guess it never stops…

  26. Yep. Hard to stop myself even now as I type.

  27. That I need to do, for sure. Thanks!

  28. Paladin Avatar

    A few months ago when you had too many demands occuring on the same day, I sent you a response as follows: (Nada == Assertive). Hope you will remember. Since Math was one of your favorite subjects, this might strike a chord. Non-Euclidean geometry using as its parallel postulate any statement equivalent to the following: If l is any line and P is any point not on l , then there are no lines through P. that are parallel to l . Drop the P or (Parent) and stay with I. You will feel much better.
    Considering one of Einstein’s laconic phrases “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile” indicates implicitly your “life” be in proper harmony first.
    Look forward to you providing me a response altering this theory or postulate, youngster. Have a feeling you may be geeky enough to create something.
    Viva, Kitt. Keep Trucking.

  29. Yep. I relate to so much of this — first born and all. I was on the hard road to an inevitable emotional collapse when my father died by suicide my junior year of college. As hard as that was (and i certainly don’t mean to diminish the effect it HAS had on me), twenty years later I see that in many ways it saved me. I changed directions, got good therapy, and though it’s been a process, learned to say no — such a hard thing as an overachieving first-born. I still feel that clench of discomfort when I do it, though, especially as my mom pours on the guilt. I have, however, gotten comfortable with being uncomfortable when I DO say no. It’s a process. You have amazing insight and I wish you all the best as you work through such a difficult situation. Xoxo

  30. It seems you have been under this kind of pressure for a lifetime, Kitt. It took me forever to get out of the shadow of my mother, a person I was constantly compared to, but it did happen. Sadly, not until after she died at the young age of 53. I hope you find a way to let some of this go, just to protect yourself. But it only comes in its own time, and no one is sure what that might be for another. Hugs. ?

  31. Great post, Kitt, you’ve done so much, you can only do so much more if you give yourself some freedom. Seeing much growth in you.

  32. I can definitely empathise with this sentiment. I was the first born from the first born club too. I fell out of the rat race in my teens due to ill health (that wasn’t taken seriously so I’m still trying to get it sorted). It’s hard to want to be high achieving and to meet and exceed the set example, but never mind.

  33. I wouldn’t blame you one bit Kitt! It’s tough and may seem egoistic and selfish but oh my why can’t I be a little egoistic and selfish enough to protect my own mental wellbeing? And yes this over achieving thing and wanting to measure cum live up to our parents’ expectations, even finish what they never could or did etc etc – putting ourselves under so much pressure – I still handle that every now and then like yesterday, but I try to remember who the big loser may be in all this – and that’s me all the time – so I tune off or shut the damn gadgets off once I feel it’s time out or getting to if you know what I mean… Cheers to you

  34. Nice post, Kitt. I felt much the same way as you. Funny we end up with similar situations. Hang in there. You are on the right track.

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