My mother had surgery last week. Bedrest, heavy medication, the works. The weight of being the oldest, the second in command, is always on my shoulders. It’s a comfort and a burden all the same, and I have never felt it so acutely weighing down on me than I have in the past few weeks.
I made my mother’s bed, I made her food, I helped my brother with his homework, I did my own hair (usually my mom does it for me). Went grocery shopping. Missed class to go to a doctor’s appointment. Facetimed frantically in between walks to class, checking in on her. Felt guilty staying after class to talk with friends when I could have been at home, taking care of my family.
That’s been my life, more or less: oscillating between guilt when I act my age, enjoy my youth, and feeling as if it’s what I deserve. When you’re the eldest daughter of a single parent, there is no such thing as “enjoying your youth” unless you have the time to spare. I’ve spent many nights watching my little brother, and many mornings making sure my mom gets to work on time. I’m well versed in giving a soothing lecture to aid my mother’s stern one when my brother gets in trouble, to coming home and having something to look at, be it homework, or literal work.
I’m not resentful, not really. It’s just sometimes…I wonder what it’s like to not feel this way, to bear your family’s burdens and responsibilities. To just be a kid, or to just be twenty-one and your parent gets to be your parent and not your life partner/financial consultant/patient/assistant. I was robbed of that because I am the eldest daughter, and that’s okay. Sometimes.
I actually didn’t even realize this was a sort of trauma, a string of my anxiety that went without explanation until Twitter. It’s great that I’m not on my own, that others are reconciling and struggling with the realities of being the eldest, but I wish it weren’t the case.
After all, who are we without our responsibilities? Without going to doctor’s appointments, without holding someone else’s memories, without, without, without? These thoughts haunt my brain more now as I get older, especially as an impending move looms over me.
I got into graduate school, two universities very far away, and it feels like celebration. But it also feels like I’m going to tear out my insides as I leave the only role and place I’ve ever known to do something else, to be someone I’ve always been while taking care of everyone around me.
Who am I when there’s no one to take care of?
To end on a positive note, that’s going to be exciting to figure out. To all the eldest daughters reading this – I hope you get a chance to figure out who you are when there’s no one around.
You’re your family’s caregiver, but you belong to yourself, too.