You know that point in your life when you realize the house you grew up in isn’t really your home anymore? All of a sudden even though you have some place where you put your shit, that idea of home is gone. …You feel like you can never get it back. It’s like you feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist…. Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.
I’ve always had a very fraught relationship with my family. We’re the kind of family in which everyone feels like the black sheep. No one feels quite appreciated enough, no one feels quite accepted enough, no one feels like anyone else really gets them. I’m lucky to have a close relationship with my brother, predicated on the idea that while we understand one another, we are very little alike. In our profound differences and intentional similarities, we’ve found both balance and peace. With the rest of my family, though, even slight differences are fodder for deep contention and long-term strife.
Young enough that my parents feel justified in dismissing any of my ideas, opinions, feelings, or decisions with which they disagree out of hand, they perform these dismissals on the basis of my youth and their disagreement and pretty much nothing else. Over the years, the litany of my wrongs against them has stacked up: my presence in their lives has stood as a roadblock to their happiness. I have been inconvenient, disagreeable, and unfathomable by turns. Every choice I’ve made in my life, large or small, has been scrutinized and found wanting.
I’m hardly a rebel. I have so far made fairly traditional choices, many on the basis of a compromise between what I want and what I dimly guess might, at last, make them happy. I still can’t decide if the follies of my youth have been rushing blindly away from the deep and often self-contradicting structures my parents have imposed on my life, or if they have been in the impossible quest I’ve set myself to make them, finally, happy with me.
For this reason, among others, I suppose, the concept of home has always been fraught when I consider it. First because there is no specific physical place that word brings to mind: our family moved often, and the place my parents live now is not a place I ever lived myself. Second, because even the most maudlin, Hallmark-endorsed sentiments about home suggest that it’s not so much a place as a group of people. But I don’t feel at home around my birth family. I feel distinctly ill at ease, uncomfortable in my own skin, defensive, and exasperated. I have worked hard for many years to repair some of the deeper scars that ran between my parents and I, and it has often felt as though I was the only one working to heal that damage. As a result, the healing is lopsided, incomplete, and fragile. One ill-timed sentence, one misstep, and the whole thing falls apart again. At this point, it hurts, yes, but more than that, it makes me furious.
During a visit this summer, my mother informed me that my adolescent bout with clinical depression and suicidal thoughts interrupted one of her vocational “dreams” and she was forced to give it up, in part because of the things I was going through, in part because of 3 or 4 other factors. But she blamed me. I was dumbfounded. I spent days trying to see it from her perspective, to try to feel sympathy for her frustration and disappointment, but all I could feel (and all I can feel to this day) is anger, because what the fuck did she think she was getting into, having children? What the fuck kind of priorities did she have, if her only daughter’s clinical, chemical depression was cause for her disappointment, and 13 years later she could still hold a grudge against me, as though I had woken up one day in a fit of teen rebellion and thought, “I know. I will become mentally ill so that my mother can’t do what she wants to do for a living.” You know. Out of spite.
Well, I feel spiteful now. And it’s a conflicted feeling, because I crave family togetherness. So many of my parents’ micro-aggressions are so insignificant, taken alone, that it seems reactionary and petty to make a big deal out of them, to distance myself from my parents or cry foul. But taken in sum, they’re unbearable. When I seek the advice of people I trust, they respond either with worried looks and concern that I might rock the boat, or that I just need to calm down because it’s not that bad, or they flippantly tell me, “Well, then stop talking to them if it’s that bad.” I have no logical explanation for why it’s not that simple. But I suppose this is not a logical situation.
What does one do with a family that has never skewered your self worth on a pike, but has swiped repeatedly at it with paper-cuts over the course of many years? With a mother who competes with her daughter in some weird reversal of some crazy Electra bullshit? With a father who turns a blind eye to tiny abuses and refuses to act as an advocate for his children? I’m a member of a generation drowning in student loan debt, renting crappy apartments, eating shitty food; most people my age not only need the emotional support of their parents but often their material support as well.
Some people tell me that the necessary, healthy distance comes naturally as you grow older, or as you partner off and start a family of your own, but I haven’t found that to be true so far. And when the meantime is truly mean, and your best intentions typically meet a stone wall of indifference or outright contempt, family can be a real bitch to negotiate.
I’m not asking for advice, or sympathy. There are many families worse than mine, families that render their members truly harmed and broken. I think I’m writing to exorcise the lingering vestiges of the ideas I’ve held that being a good daughter means being compliant to warped dictates over my adult life, that being a family member who makes a positive contribution to her family inevitably means sticking around even when the going stops going at all.
And as the circumstances of my life have been kind enough to remind me, where my biological family falls short, so many others have been put into my life to nurture me, to sustain me, and to exact from me the kind of caring that only trust can demand. In this way, I have much to be thankful for. In this way, my family might be patchwork, but it is whole.