I have one sibling, an older brother. Growing up, our parents compared us to each other, often to his detriment. When he was born, there were complications. When I was born (three years later), everything happened perfectly. My brother was a fussy baby. I was quiet and slept right through the night immediately. My brother threw temper tantrums and ran away from home, repeatedly. I didn’t. My parents often said that I was the “perfect” child, the “good” one. My brother was rebellious, “bad.”
I still feel guilty about these comparisons and not just because they made my brother feel bad about himself. You see the instances that my parents claimed were proof of my “goodness” were really just proof that I kept my mouth shut. My brother wasn’t rebellious; he was just willing to say what he thought. Yes he was loud and occasionally violent about it. But he usually had good reason. When it comes right down to it, my brother got the short end of the proverbial stick. And then had that stick used upside his ass.
My brother was our paternal grandparents’ first grandchild. They lived about a half hour away and insisted that my brother spend as much time as possible with them. As a male child, he was a perfect way for my grandparents to try to fix whatever mistakes they thought they made with their only male child. By the time I came along, my brother was more their child then our parents’. I don’t remember a time when he didn’t spend most of his weekends at their house.
I was jealous of his relationship with our grandparents. I thought they loved him more than me. They never said anything, but I may have been right.
My grandfather often planned activities with by brother in mind. I was never invited. Never even asked if I was interested. My grandfather’s big hobby was model trains. I wasn’t allowed to touch them. My brother was allowed to touch, rearrange, and play with the trains. I have distinct memories of my grandfather driving away from our grandparents’ house with my brother in the car, leaving me behind in an empty house (my grandmother was at work). I was eight.
My revenge was that our maternal grandmother liked me better. She said so. Out loud. With my brother in the room.
We always went to visit our maternal grandparents during our school’s spring break, which usually fell on or near his birthday. They lived on a farm seven hours away from us and talked with a southern accent. My brother complained about these visits every year. He hated that we had to visit on his birthday, that it took so long to get there, that there were strange smells and stranger people. Everyone always commented on how well behaved I was, how I was such a “good girl” for helping out our parents, how much I looked like my mother. I loved our visits.
The older we got, the less our parents compared us. It wasn’t necessary. My brother and I were stuck with the labels of “bad” and “good” child. Each year, our various resentments grew. He resented having to spend weekdays with our parents. I resented our paternal grandparents love for him. He misbehaved and was spanked for it. I kept my mouth shut and nothing happened to me.
He ran away from home at least once a year. Usually in the summer, which he wanted to spend entirely at our paternal grandparents’ house. He had to be bribed into going to our maternal grandparents’ house. I crept into the persona of “good girl” and rarely allowed myself to act otherwise. The shell of goodness felt safe, comfortable, even if it wasn’t always genuine.
Then my brother became a teenager. Our paternal grandmother bought him his first car and we rarely saw him. When he was seventeen, he moved out of our parents’ house and into our paternal grandmother’s apartment (our grandfather had died years before). I watched our parents endlessly discuss my brother’s rebellion. And I wished I was anyone other than what I was: a boiling mass of jealousy and anger within the façade of a “good girl.”
Then my brother became a father and a husband. An adult. Seemingly all of a sudden he stopped rebelling and became “good.” He got a job, provided for his family and treated our parents with respect. He didn’t go out of his way to spend time with them, but he no longer argued with them, no longer picked fights with them. Our parents began to spend hours discussing how much he’d changed. I was still angry, still jealous and still hiding behind my “good girl” façade. But now, no one noticed.
Years later, my brother and I discussed a little about how we were compared. He told me he had hated them. He said that he had always felt as if our paternal grandparents were his real parents. That our parents were just these people he was required to live with. I told him that I thought our paternal grandparents loved him and not me. I also told him how sorry I was that our paternal grandparents and parents used him as a way to work out their problems. And that I had grown up angry that everyone, our parents included, loved him for who he was, not for what he let them think he was.
You see, by allowing myself to crawl inside that “good girl” shell, I had prevented anyone from knowing the real me. I stayed silent whenever anyone said or did anything that I didn’t like or didn’t agree with. I rarely said or did anything troublesome because a “good girl” didn’t do that. But I wasn’t a “good girl” inside. And no one really knew me.
Looking back at all this, I also can see the seeds for what became my arrogance. Our parents called me their “good girl,” their “perfect” child. People, both related and unrelated, praised me for being there for our parents, for my polite behavior, for my “goodness,” even for my intelligence (long before I showed any signs of being anything other than an average student). Growing up I was constantly thinking I deserved things just because I was there. As an adult, I fight against the bitterness of not having my “goodness” acknowledged. I fight resentment every time I hear about special programs for people with kids or for veterans. Not because I think they don’t deserve it, but because I think “what about me? I deserve those things too!” I think I deserve them without working for them. Why? Because I’m me.
I’m me and I’m not a “good girl.” I don’t deserve to be handed things just because I’m alive. But I also don’t deserve to be labeled as any one thing. I’m not just a woman. Not just mentally ill. Not just fat. I’m all of those things and none of those.
I am a human being. A human. Being. And somehow my sibling learned those things long before I did. And without my shell of “goodness.”