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Fighting the Insecurities of Feeling Second Best

Personal Perspective: My sensitivity to feeling "less than."

Key points

  • Intellectually, I know I am enough, but emotionally, I often feel less than.
  • Some interactions in my life remind me that I am good enough.
  • My replacement child status ironically has helped me see the best in others.

My insecurities often center around feeling second best; the sense of being chosen last on a dodgeball team; the lone player still sitting on the bench after everyone runs onto the field. Growing up, I never really connected my self-doubt to the replacement of my dead brother in our family’s blueprint, as I became baby number two. While the current research on the phenomena of replacement children helps me to intellectually acknowledge my challenges, it does little to ease my familiar, life-long sensitivity to runner-up status; to filling shoes that never quite fit.

The one main area, though, where I feel first is in my relationship with my husband. Even after 47 years, Paul anticipates my needs and helps me in countless, unselfish ways. He willingly offers to do errands for me—chores, as he puts it, making me feel as if, instead of city life, we live on a farm and I have told him to milk the cows and buck hay. Even this he would gladly do for me. He listens to me even more than I listen to him, as I sometimes catch myself smiling, shaking my head affirmatively in his direction, yet not really hearing his words. Paul always puts me first.

Source: Barbara Jaffe
The author and her husband Paul
Source: Barbara Jaffe

Yet, Paul has also never felt less than, never felt that he had to prove his existence or self-worth. He fits comfortably in his own skin. He doesn’t question whether he should do more or even be more. This very feeling of knowing I am enough in his eyes helps me when I feel that I have fallen short. Do my sons know I did my best despite what they might feel I did or didn’t do? Paul says they do. Do my grandchildren, Ezzie, Rose, Cole and Dylan, know that I love them with the fiercest of adoration that joyfully breaks my heart apart every time I see them? Paul says they do. Do my daughters-in-law know I cherish them? Paul says they do. I am enough in his eyes, so I must be enough in theirs. He has helped me to ease the tension that exists between the irrational struggle to earn a gold medal each time and the self-acceptance that silver is quite enough.

Fast forward to my grown sons and their significant others, all women with their own intact families and all with mothers whom they love and feel joyfully connected to. I am happy for them and glad they have positive relationships with their own mothers, much different than the one I had with my own. Still, "second best" has taken on a new meaning as a mother-in-law. In this relationship, I accept that I am literally second best. One of my daughters-in-law even remarked succinctly: “I have only one mother whom I love, but you are the best mother-in-law I could ask for.” Definitely a compliment from this fabulous woman, but still, I have won, once again, the runner-up prize for the best in second.

As Nana, like with my husband, I don’t feel second best or the runner up. I saturate myself in every aspect of being with my "grands"...from changing diapers to imaginary play, introducing them to Quiet School, Tickle School, and Laughing School, ideas I created initially with my granddaughter Rose during our play time together.

Source: Barbara Jaffe
Puppy Harry, Rose and Ezzie
Source: Barbara Jaffe

In my career, I wanted to be the best writing professor, the kindest, most accessible; thus, I possessed all these qualities during my entire three-plus decades of teaching. I never tired of my search for a student who was the diamond in the rough; the hard nut to crack; the one who had given up on herself or himself. I embraced my students, cared for them, and provided help until they could see their own sparkle that glistened in the chair in front of me. Intuitively, I connected with so many of my students who had also felt second best in their own lives.

Source: Barbara Jaffe
Cole and Dylan, two of the four special 'grands' in the author's life
Source: Barbara Jaffe

Perhaps, then, what guides me as an aging woman is to let go of the struggle to be first in everything, for that is unattainable. Rather, I am working on being enough in my own eyes, the way my students viewed me, how my grandchildren connect with me, and the way Paul sees me and smiles when I return home.

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