By Esther Mann, LCSW
I am the oldest of three sisters. There is a three-year age difference between me and Miriam and a one-and-a-half-year age difference between Miriam and Chani. When we were growing up, it always felt to me as though I was separate and distinct from the two of them, and Miriam and Chani were part of the same team. I have to admit that I had a lot to do with that. I always felt much more mature than the two of them. I also found them to be a nuisance in many ways. They always seemed silly to me and uninteresting.
I was a mature and cerebral child. As soon as I was old enough to learn how to read, I was addicted to reading and read voraciously. I was also very intense, concerned about our family in general, and tuned in to the relationship between my parents. In general, I always felt there was a ton to worry about. My sisters, on the other hand, seemed oblivious to the world around them and just wanted to have fun. And they did have fun. They always had loads of friends and were always running somewhere.
I was more of a homebody. I had my own room, whereas Miriam and Chani shared a room. I spent many hours alone in my room, reading and studying. Again, to be honest, I think Miriam and Chani probably would have loved to hang out with me, in my room and in general, but I didn’t welcome them into my world. Whereas they shared some of their friends, I discouraged my friends from having anything to do with them. My attitudes and needs were fierce. As I look back now, I’m not so sure what it was about, why I had such a strong need to pull away from them and do my own thing, but I knew that I needed to ditch them whenever possible.
So now the three of us are all married with children. I live in the Five Towns and Miriam and Chani live in Teaneck. My relationship with each of them normalized once we were married. We talk on the phone, see one another for holidays and simchot, and act very civil and appropriate.
However, within the past few years I started realizing that I’ve missed the boat on something wonderful. Not only are Chani and Miriam best of friends, but their families are almost like one family. They send their children to the same schools, belong to the same shul, have Shabbos meals together, and even take trips together. Their husbands and children all get along beautifully. They are one big happy family. In fact, their children seem more like siblings than cousins.
I’m feeling very sad for myself and for my children. My children are fine around their cousins, but they don’t have the closeness and tight bonds that their cousins have with one another. And honestly, at this point, I wouldn’t mind being invited on one of their trips or being asked to come for a Shabbos. I guess part of maturing is recognizing the importance of family. I do have a wonderful family, but I don’t share the same intimacy that they have shared with each other their entire lives.
I don’t know why it took me so many years to wake up and realize that I kind of burned some bridges along the way. In fact, I’m honest enough with myself to realize that it is very nice of them to have remained as friendly with me as they have over the years, considering how dismissive I was of them for so much of our lives.
I guess what sparked this letter is that my mother mentioned that she overheard Miriam and Chani discussing plans to go to Puerto Rico together this coming Pesach. I couldn’t help but feel jealous and left out. I would love for them to invite me and my family to join them, but obviously such a thought wouldn’t occur to them, since we’ve never spent a Pesach together.
The bottom line is that I’m feeling lonely for my family that I rejected so long ago. I’m also feeling angry with myself for having acted so selfishly and having been self-absorbed growing up, and I am now having to deal with lots of regret. How crazy is that?
Feeling Left Out
Dear Left Out,
Much has been written about the significance of birth order and the role it often plays in a person’s life. The scenario you describe sounds very typical. Of course not every person lines up with typical patterns, but, more often than not, firstborns tend to share a host of qualities that you may relate to.
Typically, firstborns are natural leaders because they tend to be reliable and conscientious; they tend to be perfectionists by nature. Though sometimes aggressive, they have a strong need to excel and really don’t like surprises.
These oldest children are typically high achievers and scholarly, and feel most comfortable when in control of a situation. They grow up fast, often too fast, and sometimes become “little adults” before they are ready to take on so much responsibility.
How much of yourself do you see in this description? I would imagine quite a bit. Though possessing these qualities didn’t make it OK for you to so thoroughly reject your sisters, it can at least help you to understand where your behavior was coming from and why you had the need to behave in ways that now no doubt appears to you as quite unacceptable.
As children, Miriam and Chani probably tried to break through the wall you built between yourself and them. I’m sure they were consistent and relentless, as younger siblings typically want nothing more than to be close to their older sibling. It’s not unusual for these needy younger siblings to even put up with abuse, rejection, and insults if necessary, in order to be a player in their perceived fascinating world of the older sibling. Hopefully, at some point, a healthier sense of self kicks in and they realize that it’s just not happening and not worth chasing a dream. Luckily, Miriam and Chani had one another to turn to and at some point made peace with your meaningful absence in their lives and filled the void with one another.
But that was then and this is now. People have the opportunity to grow up and change at any time in life. It took you a while to realize how beautiful it is when siblings and cousins mesh tightly and view one another as best of friends. You’re finally “getting it.” But how could Miriam and Chani possibly know what you are now getting and feeling? Many of us expect others to read our minds, to hear our thoughts and intuit what we want or need. Last they heard from you, you were very clear about enforcing strict boundaries between yourself and your sisters, and Miriam and Chani have no reason to know that anything has changed in that regard.
Therefore, it’s up to you to make amends and let them know that you admire what they have together and would love to be part of it. Don’t expect them to necessarily roll out the red carpet and welcome you in with open arms. That could happen, but more likely Miriam and Chani will have to process your change of heart and what it could mean to them. Right now, things seem to be working quite smoothly between the two of them. Sometimes people don’t like to rock the boat.
You will have to take the initiative in a big way. I don’t know what your living conditions are, but maybe you can invite both families to your home for a Shabbos. Or suggest some other gracious invitation to let them know how much it would mean to you to be part of the club that years back you had no interest in joining.
If their initial response is basically “TLTL”–too little, too late–you will have to decide how hard you want to work at redefining your relationship with Miriam and Chani. It took many years to get to the place you are now at with them. How many years of effort are you willing to put back into this situation? My guess is that with enough honesty, determination, and loving-kindness, you can turn this situation around. Miriam and Chani sound like wonderful people who understand the meaning and importance of family. Once they know it’s safe, hopefully they will open up their hearts to you once again.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.