ColumnConscious life, hear me roar.
From the day you are born, your family, to some degree, defines who you are.
How you interpret that connection may change in stages as you get older, but you will always be linked to the over-achieving mother, the annoying sister who gets better grades than you, the father who never shows up for his kid’s awards, the comedian brother who doesn’t know when to quit.
And while this might not be something you want to accept, it’s the truth. Many a friend has emptied the contents of their lives to me and ended sentences with, “I wish I had a normal upbringing. That people could’ve seen me different. I was never anything like my family.”
I was thinking about this yesterday after my son came home upset about an incident at school where he got into some trouble. My immediate reaction was that the kid needed a hug, so I held him and waited to hear about the source of the sadness. After the story was told, I had to be quiet and let my thoughts simmer. It was hard not to go back to being the same age and identifying, yet the back story was different…
Dad, who was going through a heavy drinking stage, was either at work for the electric company or home yelling at everyone (even in his sleep). Mom, always maxed, was either scooping ice cream at Friendly’s, cleaning Cape Cod mansions, managing a supermarket, or trying to make sure she wasn’t losing her mind having four kids who demanded to be taken to track, hockey and Boy Scouts. And because my parents were not always available emotionally during my teenage years, and my hormones were raging, and I was dealing with teenage girl social issues, I got lost. From the ages of 12 to 16, I began cutting myself, was nearly successful at committing suicide, and eventually became an alcoholic. An addict. I lied to teachers and my parents, skipped school, got into trouble, got stoned, listened to Janis Joplin – I dropped out of “normal” society.
Looking into my son’s big blue eyes pouring over with tears, I didn’t want to yell. I wanted to be there for him, but there was a piece of me I couldn’t shake and was horrified by: What are people going to say about us as a family? We need to look better. Aren’t we cooler than this? Better than this? We’re not that family with the messed up kid, right? Why can’t he – we – just be normal?
The baggage we all carry is so heavy.
As my son disappeared into his room I sat still to think parent thoughts about punishment and how to make things right. Later, standing in the doorway to his room telling him I’d be back, the defeated 14 year-old sat on his bed with a guitar and tear-stained face to look up and nod “okay.”
Would he now try to go kill himself? Would he try to find drugs? Will this be the tipping point?
“It’s never the end of the world, you know,” I blurted out, talking to my 14 year-old self.
“This is just one of those times you mess up and you move on and you grow.”
“Come on,” I said.
“Come on,” I said, “Now,” and watched him put down the over-sized guitar.
Punishment consisted of hot chocolates at the coffee shop. My mother would’ve done the same, but added donuts.
If we are to identify ourselves with family as the foundation of who we are, we need to forgive them and ourselves for the wrong turns and bad choices. We need to own the fact that we are imperfect.
My son is not me but he is everything to me. Thanks to my genes, he will say stupid things and put his foot in his mouth. He will get in trouble and possibly not be the school valedictorian. He will be stubborn. But he will not be exactly like me. He will be better than me as my mother was better than the mother before her. I say this as the woman who learned and grew from her mistakes.
Does our family define who we are? You bet.
Between the Lines, is a weekly column navigating the sometimes-sharp, sometimes-blurred lines of life and culture between city and country.
Image: Pink Sherbert Photography