“Wait—your parents are still married?”
The therapist stared at me, his mouth agape.
“To each other?!”
I nodded warily at this abrupt shift in the tone of our conversation. I was 24 years old and still new to the mechanics of therapy. Just moments before, this man—himself old enough to be my father—had been explaining how all families, loving or otherwise, could be a source of great distress, dysfunction, and pain. He had seemed to be easing my path to revealing any untold horrors of abuse or neglect. I don’t think he’d have batted an eye if I had launched into a description of ritualistic animal sacrifices we had conducted as a family every Sunday afternoon before picnics.
“Even divorce can be very rough on a child,” he had said, tilting his head in anticipated understanding.
But my still-married parents caught him completely off-guard. Underneath his astonished gaze, I felt the legitimacy of my pain shrink. What am I—shiny-haired product of such a perfectly “unbroken home”—doing here on this leather couch? I suddenly wondered.
The message I internalized that day: whatever unhappiness I might feel, blame should always accompany it, resting solidly on my own failed shoulders.
I have sat on many other leather couches in the two decades since that day. I have scrutinized the diplomas hanging on the walls and wept into the Kleenex placed on the side tables. Over time, I have learned to release that self-blame and the shame that kept my soul hunched and frightened for so many years.
I have also learned how I agree with the speech that particular therapist made, right before his near-spit take—and where I disagree.
Yes, families of origin can produce distress, dysfunction, and pain. Families of origin can also provide comfort, support, and affection. Far from being mutually exclusive, these opposing dynamics coexist in most—I dare say all—families, though rarely in equal measure.
As children, we are completely dependent on our seemingly omnipotent caretakers. We take in all that our parents offer us, good and bad together, on our journeys to get our needs met and to learn what it is to be human. As adults, we have the opportunity (and often the responsibility) to unlearn those early lessons and to decide on our own forms of human-ing. We get to decide what strategies of surviving—and thriving—suit us best.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
1) Family is not a magic word unless you want it to be.
We are bombarded by messages telling us how important our parents are to us—or at least, how important we should believe they are.
“Family is forever.”
“Blood is thicker than water.”
“Call your mother, she misses you.”
For many of us, though, such repetition is more painful than comforting. Maybe you ache for a parent who abandoned you, literally or emotionally. Maybe you feel a guilty responsibility to make yourself more available than you want to a parent who was—and may still be—thoughtless, hurtful, or abusive. Maybe you hear in such words an enmeshed parent’s refusal to acknowledge your personal boundaries or your right to a separate personhood.
When we insist that the world should be different than it is, we open ourselves to immense pain and frustration. Our parents are who our parents are. No amount of willing or wishing can change that fact. It’s okay to let go of trying.
I will give you permission, if you’re having a hard time giving it to yourself.
2) You always have choices, even if none of those choices are great.
Perhaps you too breathe a sigh of relief each time a New Year’s Eve passes…and takes with it the last gasp of the holiday season. From Thanksgiving onward, the expectations of Happy Family Fun Times can feel inescapable. How-To Articles on “surviving your family during the holidays” abound.
One underlying message of good holiday survival guides seems worth expanding to a year-round practice: you make the decisions for yourself. Only you get to decide what your limits and boundaries are, to weigh the pros and cons for yourself of available options—and even to choose whether to engage with your family at all.
3) Give yourself what you need now.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” As a writer who grew up with parents obsessed with appearances, allowing myself to speak the truth of my life as I experienced it—attending to the inside without regard for niceties of the outside—has been a profound and transformative act.
Each time I pick up the pen, I give myself permission to speak or keep silent based on my own needs, and not any demand from those who hurt me that I protect them from the truth of their own actions.
You too own your own voice. Only you may decide what songs to raise with it. You own your own hands, your own mind—and only you get to decide what use to put them to.
4) Recognize that you did not have power then. Recognize that you do have power now.
You may be carrying pain or shame or injury from when you were too little to protect yourself. Grieve, if you need to. Mourn for the child who did not have their needs met. Mourn for the life you wished you’d had but didn’t.
Forgive the child you were for what happened: for what was done to you or not done for you, for times you were not loved the way you needed, for not being able to change how things turned out. You no longer carry a child’s vulnerability, and your past selves need your love as much as your present one.
5) Forgive your parents—or don’t.
Forgiveness is always your choice to make.
It’s unfortunate that English only gives us the one word for two very different processes: one, a letting go of hurt and anger so that these emotions no longer burden our hearts, and two, an act of trust and openness necessary to rebuild a relationship after the other person’s action damage it.
You do not owe anyone but yourself (and your own heart) forgiveness.
More Radical Reads: Grieving the Living: Parental Control and Bodily Autonomy
6) Understanding where you came from can help you understand yourself.
I have learned much about my parents by talking to other family members about stories they remember. If your relationship with a parent is such that you feel comfortable and safe asking about their own experiences, either during your childhood or their own, you can speak to them directly.
Understanding does not mean excusing. But as you learn more about the context of their actions, you may find ways to see a parent more clearly through your own, now-adult perspective—and by extension, yourself.
7) Get help, if you need it, from an impartial outsider.
Reach out to a therapist, a leader in your faith community, or someone else you trust.
This life stuff is hard. Don’t think you need to go through it alone if you find yourself struggling.
8) Surround yourself with a chosen family.
I first heard the term “chosen family” in the context of Kath Weston’s 1991 work on lesbian and gay patterns of kinship,Families We Choose, describing how lesbians and gay men (many of them rejected by parents for their sexuality) built new kinship systems for themselves defined both through and against those of the families they had left.
What queer theory is to me, Disney movies are to my brother. One of his favorite movies is Lilo & Stitch, in which an aggressive (albeit cartoon-adorable) alien escapes to Earth, gets adopted as a pet by a young Hawaiian girl—and adopts her and her sister back in turn. At the movie’s end, when the intergalactic authorities arrive to decide Stitch’s fate, he introduces Lilo and her older sister, her guardian since the death of their parents, as: “This is my family. I found it, all on my own. Is little, and broken, but still good. Ya. Still good.”
Find your own family, whether it’s little or big, broken or whole, queer theory or Disney. Find and make a family that is good to—and for—you.
9) Recognize that you are already surviving.
You have already survived every day to this one—you beautiful, wild, fierce, loving and loveable, perfectly-imperfect human. You are already phenomenal.
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(Feature Image: Black and white photograph of 3/4 of a person’s face. The face is looking to the right. They have short, light hair and their hands are covering their mouth. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ghbremer/13488669715/)