An Unwilling Rivalry

The competitions I didn’t want and couldn’t win.

The holiday season is upon us. As such, you may find yourself encountering family members you rarely see. And that means catching up. Hearing your siblings talk about everything they’ve achieved and skirt around their failures. Naturally, you may be inclined to compare them with your own progress or lack thereof, especially given our current culture of curated lives.

I’m lucky that I have no siblings to compete with, and have always gotten along well with all my cousins. But cousins means our parents are siblings, and they have their own bad blood, rivalries, and (I imagine) inadequacies. The issue with reaching adulthood and especially parenthood is that one begins to run out of major milestones. And so the scoreboard slows down.

That’s where the kids come in. Parents can live vicariously through their children’s achievements, and lord those achievements over their siblings in lieu of their own progress. We’re pitted against each other before we can even pronounce the word ‘rivalry’, each parent hoping theirs is the first child to do so.

Please don’t misread this. I bear no grudges towards any of my cousins, and none of them actively participated in this. The responsibility lies solely with our parents. And in case you don’t feel like reading this whole article, I’ll spoil the ending:

Don’t use your kids to one-up a coworker, sibling, or anyone else. Use a therapist, maybe.

The biggest competition I was given growing up was my older cousin Sadie. Sadie was, in a word, perfect. She got good grades at her respectable school. She was a cheerleader. She danced. She wore trendy, tasteful clothes. Her makeup and jewellery were understated because she had no flaws to hide.

By contrast, I made okay grades at a poor rural school. I dropped out of track and field. Sure, I was in marching band, but I played on the drumline and keyboard percussion, not something delicate and feminine like the flute or clarinet. I played outside, and got muddy. My clothes usually came from the boys’ section. I only wore makeup during my goth/alt phase, and my jewellery resembled the brambles I played in growing up: tough, unfeminine, and studded.

Sadie’s angelic blonde hair lacked the unruly frizz and curl that mine had. Her eyes were blue, mine were a sort of consolation prize gray. Her skin was clear, and I’ve looked like a pepperoni pizza for nearly twenty years now.

Sadie and her parents have never, EVER been anything but loving and welcoming towards me. But my parents, in particular my father, often punctuated their suggestions with ‘like Sadie’. They’d offer to buy me nice, girly clothes…like Sadie’s. At one point they tried to get me into the same school as her, so that I could emulate her. It never came to fruition, but the damage was done.

Then there was Marcus. Marcus was born one month to the day before I was, to my mother’s younger sister, Jackie. For a long time, Marcus was my closest cousin, both geographically and in age. So naturally, we grew up together, good friends despite having relatively little in common.

Marcus received the full efforts of my mom’s side of the family. Support, funding, and especially praise. Very little, by comparison, was left for me, because I didn’t ‘need it’. And when he went off to university, I was told Marcus would send his essays and other work to me for help in checking it over. In reality, they were continuing a great subterfuge at the expense of Marcus, which started in high school and valued his football career over him as a person.

I suspect mom felt wounded by the way her only child was largely ignored, which seemed to fuel the pressure she placed on me to succeed. But no amount of exceptional performance in music, or academics, would compare to Marcus’ participation in a successful high school football team.

Mom felt like she got the upper hand when I graduated from university. Marcus dropped out, and I was the first person in mom’s family to earn a degree. She invited her parents to stay with us, five states away, for my graduation ceremony, and they came. The photo of the four of us at lunch after the ceremony sits on my desk.

The icing on the cake was my grandfather’s funeral. Jackie took to the lectern to regale the gathered mourners with stories about how he was never happier or more proud than when he watched Marcus play football. While there’s no denying he preferred sports (he attended all of Marcus’ games, but almost none of my concerts or performances), his paramount concern was always education. As were many of his generation, Papaw was a man of few words, but he constantly told us how important education was. It was the one thing no one can take from you, he said. Maybe that’s why mom felt like she won.

In case someone reading this needs to hear it, a funeral is not the time or place to extol upon the virtues or achievements of anyone but the deceased. Or maybe the deity of the service’s religion.

Dad’s side of the family offered up another cousin vs. cousin, mercifully was mostly played out behind the scenes, and stemmed from the rivalry between my dad and his brother, Bob. Bob always seemed to copy my dad, much in the same way that Jackie copied my mom, with impulse pushing out prudence and resulting in a sort of consolation prize. Dad got married, Bob got married. Dad built a house, Bob got a doublewide. Mom got pregnant, three months later so did Bob’s wife.

Bob got the short-term triumph: a boy, valued over my dad’s girl. A son would carry on the family name, and bring his parents a sense of pride. A daughter would be a treasure, but ultimately her worth as a wife and mother would go to some other family, along with her surname.

While I’d later go on to do better academically, my cousin would continue to be coddled by his parents as a golden child, above the law. They even sent him to the same university I attended, fully expecting me to support him. I was told he wouldn’t be bringing his car with him because I could drive him to the shops or wherever he needed to go. And like Marcus, I was told (never asked!) to help him with coursework and campus life.

He dropped out the semester I was studying abroad, coincidentally.

You would think with multiple cousins being pitted against each other by one or more parental units, that would be enough competition to get us through the year until the next Clemson-Carolina game.

But my grandmother also liked getting in on the game. She enjoyed regaling me with stories about how when she was my age, she was a size zero. Never mind that this is patently false, as size zero wasn’t a thing until around 2010. It still wearied me; another drip from a relentless stream of microaggressions.

She also would respond to my financial woes by reminding me that she made excellent money as a waitress. I’ve never been a waitress, because I know myself and I know I’d be absolutely terrible at it. I told her this. But it never stopped her giving me career advice. She also joined my mother in the concentrated effort to quit a job on my behalf because they had me washing dishes, something they considered ‘men’s work’, which I guess would explain why it was my father and grandfather that always washed the dishes — oh wait, they never did that, because it was their wives’ job.

There were also the frequent times where, being a teenager, I had the audacity to walk in her house with a face full of angry acne, and her response was to scrub my face down with camphor spirits. Again, it was just a part of life I’d grown used to. My face has been broken out since I was eleven years old, and everyone has given me unsolicited advice from every angle.

There could be reams of words written about the implicit misogyny, politics, and socioeconomic fallout of a family that allows a daughter’s achievements to render themselves irrelevant, while expecting that daughter to buoy the sons of the family, whose resulting achievements are lauded. But that’s not really the focus of this article. There are millions of articles about the ways in which we devalue the work of women; we certainly don’t need my lukewarm take on it.

This is just the result of an increasing amount of myopic navel-gazing, as I deal with my approaching 30th birthday by looking back on my life and grappling with a lot of difficult issues. I’ve seen the ways we’ve failed each other, and documenting them has been a helpful way to process.

Pushing children to achieve for achievement’s sake is how you cultivate impostor syndrome, issues with self-worth, a host of other mental and emotional issues, as well as perpetuate a frankly garbage idea that our existence is only justifiable by our productivity. Love them for who they are, what they love, and if you have some long-standing beef with someone, don’t make them a part of it.

In the end, I think that the more we can learn to stop keeping up with the Joneses or Kardashians or whoever we’re supposed to keep up with these days, the better we’ll be as parents, siblings, and human beings.