I moved to New York City—and 3,000 miles away from my family—when I was 18. Having lived here for more than 10 years, I’m completely adult-like. I know how to take care of stuff (like paying bills and getting internet service), am great at getting around (G train to random bus in Queens, no problem), and am largely independent from my family (help is for sissies!). But when I’m around them, I become a different person. I lose and forget things. I don’t know how to get anywhere. And I seemingly lose my ability to function without the supervision of adults. In other words, I revert to the person I was growing up—the baby of the family catered to by a doting mother and three older sisters.
Apparently, I’m not the only one.
When we get around our families, many of us revert to familiar roles like actors on a set. Take #4,378: Holiday with the Fam. And, action! Oldest children, take charge. Youngest children, act helpless. Middle children, do whatever weird thing you usually do while we look on in confusion. The dynamics of our nuclear homes become hard-wired from an early age, and old habits are resurrected like better looking zombies.
In a family with limited resources and two adults (if you’re lucky), children must compete for time and attention. In a subconscious (and conscious) response, we form identities that are separate and distinct from that of our siblings. If your older brother is good at anything with a ball, then maybe you decide to take up guitar. If your sisters are glamorous and beautiful, and you’re um…not, you become the bookworm. Before I digress into my own therapy session (I’m the bookworm), the point is that we play pretty well defined roles in our respective families that might not necessarily match who we are in the outside world.
Take my own family.
At home, my mom laughs easily while salsa dancing in the kitchen. But outside, she is as serious as a church librarian. My nephew is reserved around us but as giddy as a character out of Glee around his own friends (without the singing). The second oldest is our resident wild child…I mean free spirit. She doesn’t play by any rules, let alone ours. But with her friends, she’s the one they count on, a Mother Theresa by comparison (albeit, one in 5-inch pumps). And me…after 32 years, including 22 years of education and 14 years of living on my own, my family still calls me BABY. Enough said.
Trying to reconcile who we are with our families and who we are for “real” (whatever that means) can sometimes feel disorienting. At the same time, playing those roles can also feel as comforting as putting on an old pair of sweats.
The holidays are almost over, and time with our families (whether mandatory or chosen) is coming to an end until the next excuse to gorge ourselves with food. Before it’s over, be grateful for who they allow us to be. For better or worse, those roles are an important part of who we are and why they love us.
To learn more about Adriana,
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.