I feel a little silly even writing this but, here goes: Growing up I’ve always been the middle child and so I’ve always had siblings to kind of “compete” with. It’s been like this since I can remember, but as an adult I look at my siblings and feel heart broken. They’re all getting married, having babies, doing the family thing—which is great—but then here I am, alone, baby-less. Watching everyone else, sometimes I wonder if I’m a little bit of a failure for not having the same things, for not settling down. So I guess my question is, am I really failing or is it just me being all mopey?
—Moody in Alabama
Life would be so boring if there was just one kind of success, one kind of happiness. You’re not a failure, you are just making other choices or on a different time table. Of course we compare ourselves to our siblings, often unfavorably (my sister is a gorgeous six-foot marathon runner who teaches disadvantaged kids, trust me, I’ve talked myself down off the comparison cliff). As you point out, your competitive dynamic has been in place since you were wearing pull-ups. However, you are now growing up and should start working to define yourself in your own terms, by your own values.
What is important to you? What exactly are those values? Create a mood board, list them in your journal, or find some other way to articulate precisely what you love and where you find meaning. If you have chosen to be single or child-free there are a couple of provocative new books, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on The Decision Not to Have Kids (Meghan Daub) and Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (Kate Bolick) addressing how tangled these issues can feel, especially for women.
Once you get your mojo back about your lifestyle, hang out with your siblings and their partners and kids and see if you feel stronger and more confident. If you enjoy spending time with children, you can be that awesome aunt who is soooo much cooler than their parents. Don’t be surprised if some self-deprecating thoughts rear back up during those initial family gatherings—we often fall right back into our younger and less secure selves with our parents or sibs. To paraphrase the sage words of the meditation teacher and author Tara Brach, our anxious, self-loathing, and insecure thoughts are “real but not true.” When you start getting down on yourself, it can be profoundly soothing to remember that while you might be feeling like a failure in that moment, a wiser, more thoughtful, less reactive you knows the truth that you are not.
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