I’m not sure how it came to be that I’m the one child in my family that everyone relies on. As the youngest of three, it was always my expectation that I’d be freer to do what my heart desired than my siblings were. After all, my parents had already gone through the growing pains of parenthood twice before I came along, so naturally, I’d have the opportunity to spread my wings a little further, right? Nope.
See, life has this funny way of stopping you dead in your tracks the moment you develop expectations. Growing up, my family was incredibly close. We enjoyed Sunday dinners together, laughed our way through the holidays and fast-tracked our way to each other in times of need. But things changed. We grew older, but not necessarily wiser. My siblings and their families dispersed at the drop of a hat, it seemed, leaving my parents and I looking on from a distance.
And as we looked on, it became abundantly clear that my siblings, despite their age and maturity, weren’t necessarily equipped to tackle life without the closeness we’d enjoyed prior. More frequently than not, they needed advice, money or even a shoulder to cry on. My parents, who have so very often gone beyond their call of duty in my eyes, grew tired. So, somewhere along the line, I began to provide the shoulder to lean on. I listened; I offered advice; I shelled out money—all so my parents could finally relax as they deserve to do.
But I’m not just a lamp post for my siblings to rest upon; I also try to be the easy and agreeable child my parents need at this stage in their lives. My parents are only in their sixties, but they’ve done their time, so I don’t give them trouble. I do everything in my power to make sure they know I’m doing the “right thing.” I show them that they won’t lose me to the world beyond our home.
It’s not an easy role to play. I struggle with the idea that my siblings have lived and I am still trying to find my own way without making too many mistakes. I’m often frustrated by the fact that I feel confined to the small world my parents (and siblings and aunts and uncles and cousins) are comfortable with me inhabiting. There are things I want to do, places I want to see and risks I want to take, but can’t because I need to be there for the people—the family—who rely on me today.
Within the context of my immediate family, I often see myself as the “last chance.” For one reason or another, whether due to extenuating circumstances or poor judgment, my siblings have allowed their best opportunities to pass them by. I cannot do that. I cannot, in good conscience, allow all my parents’ hard work and dedication go to waste. They worked tirelessly, made sacrifices and endured difficult circumstances to ensure that my siblings and I had every opportunity to succeed.
And so, I feel an enormous pressure to be perfect, to be correct, and to be flawless. The problem is that I’m not any of those things. I, too, make mistakes. I, too, can be reckless with emotion and decision-making. But, at my age and in my familial circumstances, I can’t afford to screw up too badly. To anyone else, 30 is still young. Plenty of time to make mistakes, to rediscover yourself, to explore the world. For someone like me, though, for whom the stakes seem so high, 30 feels ancient. Sometimes I’m left wondering how long before the bough breaks under the pressure to be an ideal child.
Some of this is par for the course in a Latino family and I accept that as part of what differentiates us from families of other cultural backgrounds. But, as an individual, I am distinctly American and long to have the chance to be as carefree and flawed as my siblings, friends, and colleagues have been…even though it’s frowned upon, on some level, by conservative Latino culture.
Sometimes I think playing this role, that of the reliably ideal child, has hindered my personal growth and much of the onus there is on me. What I’ve learned over the years, though, is that everyone is different. Neither of my siblings could have fit into the box that I do in this family, and part of what makes me unique is that I can find hope and comfort in living this way. Ultimately, I know I have to find a balance between serving myself and serving others. It’s a process. It’s a matter of understanding myself and how I fit into the world around me.
Little by little, I’m finding my way.