Black Sheep and Golden Child: Discarded or Encased, Which is Better?

Cicada wings I encased in resin

I used to be a charge nurse in long-term care facilities and later owned my own home care company. Over the course of my career, I had to call many adult children and tell them the death of their parent was imminent. Once, when I called a local son of one of my dying patients, he said, “So, what the hell do you want me to do about it, why don’t you call my sister?” and slammed the phone down in my ear.

If the adult children did come to the bedside, these are the scenarios that usually played out: One child sobbed over their parent at the bedside, holding their hand, and doting on their every need. They’d run to the nurse’s station with yet another request and plead with tears in their eyes, “Is there anything else we can do?”

As we talked, they would say things like, “we’ve been estranged for years,” “flew in despite what’s happened,” “couldn’t please him,” “didn’t approve of,” or “was never enough.”

Ah, the Black Sheep. I knew the title well. Life for us is always like a funeral. No matter how perfect or successful we make the rest of our lives, there’s always something or someone missing. We can never truly have it all. It’s a cruel and unusual punishment for crimes we didn’t even commit. And what we are really grieving for when our parents die is how things could have been, and now there is no hope of ever reconciling our relationship. The thought of having an entire family around a Thanksgiving table or a Christmas tree are gone forever. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

The other adult child usually decided to come, but they stood pissed in the hallway with their arms folded across their chest.

As we talked, I’d hear statements such as, “he was such a pain in my ass,” “he never respected my boundaries,” “thought he owned me,” or “as long as I kissed his/her ass.”

Enter the Golden Child. They didn’t speak to until spoken to but had a lot to say. They grieve for the loss of their lives spent in cages, they grieve for the loss of their voice and the loss of their individual identity. They’re finally seeing that the reward of being favored and accepted came with a price. Sure, it was wrapped up like a gift with a shiny bow but it has taken all but their lives. They’ve existed. And what are they now if they aren’t praised at every turn? Saved? They don’t know and aren’t sure they want to. —

My father was a Golden Child and then raised my brother to be a Golden Child. These tend to be their characteristics:

Golden Children are highly favored, given praise for the littlest of things, and are accepted the way they are, no matter what. There is no reason for them to ever change because the narc parent has sent the message that they are perfect the way they are. Golden Children can’t stand up for much of anything that is opposite the narc parent because the message is: “You had better tread lightly or else.” Some Golden Children are easily swayed by promises of gifts, inheritances, and lavish attention, praise, and ego-stroking. They sometimes join in on abuse of other family members, parroting the narc’s words, tone, and even inflection. You sometimes find yourself wondering where the narc abuser ends and the golden child begins. They value safety and familiarity over the messy unknown life of the black sheep. The narc needs this triangulation of the golden child for back up. For their own validation and acceptance. Things they will never give anyone else. They need it in order to do their dirty work. Deep down I wonder if they know they are sell outs? But, the world tells us that golden anything is better than black anything else. Golden is accepted. Sought after. Bright. Gold means #1! But, Golden Children rarely if ever reach their magnificence. Some ask for handouts their entire life, and the narc parent is just too happy to bail them out again and again. Money? Cars? Lying for them? Fixing it? Protecting them? You name it. Consider it done. But, bailing someone out all the time or spoiling a child, is abuse. When parents do this they clip their child’s wings. The child can flap their wings against their entrapment, but they’re not going very far anytime soon. If they do try to go beyond the pale, they are quickly blinded by the light of complicity and their own illusions of perfection. They go along to get along. That’s how they survive. And there’s nothing more that can be done. — And when the parent that’s caged them dies… they are lost, pissed, and confused.

So, there they stand, along the dank nursing home hallways, arms folded across their chest and the person they’re really mad at — is themselves. They’ve sold their souls for the fake love and attention from a sick individual that needed some back up in the convoluted mess that is their inability to deal with their own pathological issues. Bullies. Always stronger in groups. A life triangulated away into nothingness. They’ve been duped. 

Black Sheep like me are never bailed out, helped, selected, chosen or favored. We muscle through life on our own, like scrappy wild children looking for food, and nothing we come home with is ever good enough. We could have always done better. We grow up without love and nurturing and by some miracle known only to God, end up capable of pulling ourselves up and out of some of the muckiest, hurtful places in life, only to smile and give to others another day. We know no one is coming to save us and know that it begins and ends with us to be there for ourselves… but somehow we remain open to hearing from God at any time now. See how much I help myself? Do you see me now? In essence, we’ve become stronger for being discarded. We’ve had to figure shit out, and overcome painful negative loops playing in our heads to accomplish anything. Black Sheep can do whatever we put our minds to, and we tend to be over-achievers. We love with our whole hearts. And because we know how it feels not to be, everyone’s included at our table because we know that exclusion is deadly painful. Hell, we even have compassion for our abusers. We’ve loved deeply, even in spite of knowing we were being used and merely tolerated in return. But, yet, Black Sheep are out in life trying to create beauty out of our pain, families out of fragments, and feasts out of scraps. And when our ailing parent dies, we, the Black Sheep: seekers of answers, ask, “Is there something else we can do?”

My brother used to tell me before my dad triangulated him to his side, “You are the strongest woman I have ever met.” And, I’m still not sure, if that was meant to be a statement about me or one about his own limitations.

I don’t hold a grudge against my brother. In fact, I love him very much. Both the Golden Child and Black Sheep are abused children that grow into abused adult children. Both are molded, scolded and imprinted with shit that takes years of counseling to unravel, let alone understand. And sadly, unless we seek counseling and explore our own pain, sometimes we don’t even realize the deeper family dynamics that are so ingrained in us that are passed on from generation to generation.

I haven’t seen my brother in nineteen years, and I doubt I ever see him again. When I think about him, I get sad. Not so much for me, but for him. I can only imagine what kind of hell his life has been and how controlled he is as an adult. The last time I saw him, he sported purple bags under his eyes, had a flat affect and although he was alert and spoke, he did so with reluctance about him. It was as if he had accepted his fate of, “this is my lot in life and I had better keep quiet about it, or else.”

Fuck that.

I wish him nothing but the best in life. I wish him the ability to see through this one day and feel his way out the other side like I did. I hope he seeks help with his depression and finally lands in Wrongville with me. I hope he too was also able to break this cycle of abuse in his own family and do what my father wasn’t able to do in his. I hope he stands up one day and tells his children about their Aunt Robin. I doubt they know I exist. That makes me sad.

But, I’m glad to be the Black Sheep of my family sitting over here in Wrongville. We’re not complacent over here. Not willing to go along to get along. We stand and deal. I think if we’re going to be abused, it’s best to be excluded from the family dynamics of narcissistic abuse than it ever is to be encased in it like a bug captured in resin.

I will remember and recover. Not forgive and forget. My heart can only take so much.