It Took My Mom’s Death to Lift the Burden of Being the Responsible One￼
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I’m in good company with this bunch of badass women: Beyoncé, Oprah, Hillary, and Taylor Swift. Why? Because I’m the #1 child, and #1 daughter in my family, just like them.
Birth order, which is not an exact science but has been researched for decades, shows that us firstborns tend to be type-A personalities with an intense fear of failure. It kills us to screw up, and that’s why we’re controlling, and approach anything new like it’s a chance to hug a cactus.
Rule breakers? Hell to the NO.
Bossy know-it-alls? Olympic level.
Responsible child? Made for it!
Do you relate?
“An only child who’s been dethroned” is one description I’ve read that explains the oldest child. I get it: parents serve you like you’re a princess until a sibling shows up, and then they snatch the crown off your head and stomp on it.
This is what happens: when your parents need help, they go straight to you. Mom and Dad expect you to set a good example, so you get straight As. You babysit on demand. I learned early on that if I did these things well, I would reap praise and approval from my parents.
It worked for me, and over time I became a world-class, Hermione Granger–level bossy know-it-all.
I was born in 1963 — I’ll let you do the math — and I have a younger sister and a brother. Even though I was not an especially warm or supportive sibling (I probably resented having grown-up duties when I was a kid), I was protective.
When my sister was 7, she climbed on the upright piano keys to reach her Slinky. But she was wearing socks, so she slipped and fell, and hit the back of her head on a side table. I cradled her limp body in my lap while I waited for my parents to return home, as blood seeped from the back of her skull, I mean, come on! I hadn’t signed up for this. But I did what was expected of me, and having my favorite white sweater permanently stained with my sister’s blood was apparently part of the package.
In the ’90s I was at a club in San Francisco waiting in line for the bathroom when I overheard the woman in front of me say to her friend, “I don’t sip life. I chug it. I GUZZLE it.”
The statement stopped me in my tracks, because until that moment, I thought I was living a balls-out life, even as a #1 responsible child who was a people-pleasing perfectionist. But I was cautious, and risk-averse. I said no to anything new that had a whiff of discomfort.
Damn…I was actually a SIPPER.
But my mom? She was a guzzler, mostly champagne, and she loved her life.
A few years ago she called to tell me she was diagnosed with a rare disease that had no cure. She dropped that bomb, and then said, “don’t tell anyone,” including my siblings. She didn’t want them to worry, but I guess that meant it was okay for me, the #1 child to solely carry that burden.
Six months later, when she was in hospice care at home, she took her last breath.
Months before her diagnosis, my mom had made a request to go on a trip with my sister and me. Just the three of us girls so we could bond and have some quality time together. She rarely asked for anything, so this trip was important.
But we don’t live close to each other, so choosing a destination took some negotiating. New Orleans? Montreal? Vancouver?
All too far. I’d have to take off too many days from work, I said to my sister and mother.
Napa, I suggested. My sister and I could fly in, we could drive to the wine country, and my mom could bring her dog.
The discussions went on for months. And then she gets this effing disease and her health declines, and then the trip is off the table, because… I… procrastinated.
And that’s when I became her #1 irresponsible, selfish daughter.
After she died, I stayed at her house for weeks while my siblings and I cleared out a lifetime of belongings. Each time I used her shower, I looked at her makeup chair, the one she sat on when putting on her lashes and radiant raspberry lipstick, and apologized through my tears and wails. I didn’t make the trip happen, and I didn’t apologize for that while she was still lucid. My two biggest regrets.
My sister tells me I should forgive myself, that I was a good daughter. She said there was probably zero chance my mom was thinking of the missed trip. And I know she’s right because all my mom wanted at the end was to be out of pain and back in her home surrounded by her family.
So maybe I wasn’t a B- daughter. Maybe I deserve an A because after my mom passed, I managed all the things you do after someone dies: the house, the money, the memorial… because she had planned ahead (of course) and had given me, the #1 child, those duties.
And now I don’t have a mom to be responsible for — but I was never actually responsible for her. That was her job, and her job only. I’ve learned that being the responsible one and having responsibilities are clearly different.
When my internet boyfriend Keanu Reeves (also a #1 child) was asked how he confronts aging, he said “with a wonder and a terror.” He’s right. Because the earth-shaking things that used to matter, well they don’t matter so much when the runway ahead of us is shorter than it is behind us. In middle age, we naturally slough off whatever BS doesn’t serve us like caring about what other people think, and that freedom creates the space for wonder.
And the so-called terrors of growing older? That BS doesn’t serve us, either. Whenever I face stuff that makes me feel bad about getting older, I just remember that it’s all ageist crap – social constructs to get middle agers to buy into anti-aging (impossible) and the untrue belief that life after youth is all downhill.
I’m not gonna pretend that life isn’t going to pull on the one string that unravels the entire sweater, but when that happens, I’m using my hard-won, superpowers: bend and flex when life comes at you.
Gray hair? Here for it.
Shrinking ½ an inch? Unnoticeable.
Vintage vagina? Manageable.
Losing a parent? A calamity, but we survive.
The clichés of life are real — life is short, and you do only live once. None of us is entitled to time. So I’m gonna face my fears, get comfortable with being uncomfortable, do some messy shit, and lean into being #1 and responsible for ME — so I can start guzzling.
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