This New Year’s Eve, a holiday with no particular meaning for me, I had dinner with Jon and four friends from New York City. It turned out to be a remarkable experience. The subject of family came up, as it often does during the holidays.
Each of them told us how they had broken away from the conventions and expectations of their families many years earlier. They all chose to answer callings their families did not understand or approve of. For years they were estranged from them. But eventually they found ways to reconnect without giving up their lives.
Jon and I, who have also chosen to break away from the expectations and obligations of our families, were surprised. I’m 51 years old, I didn’t even know until six years ago that I didn’t have to have dinner with my family every Sunday night of my life. Or that I didn’t have to share every holiday with them, every ritual, every tradition every year.
What our friends understood and did, is something important that I’m just beginning to learn.
And it is still painful and frightening and difficult sometimes. For many years I believed that if I disappointed my family and broke away to live my own life, I would end up alone and abandoned. I still feel that way sometimes.
But I am figuring out how to do it.
Hearing their stories, I felt connected to them in a way I’ve never felt connected to anyone else before. They lived through something I’m still going through and came out on the other side. And it turned out well for them. It is possible. They survived.
I’ve come to see the family I grew up in as a system. There are tons of unspoken rules, how and when to visit each other, things that can and can’t be spoken about, holiday rituals, birthday rituals, food rituals. Women behave one way, men another and children another. The script is well known. And I guess this is fine if you want to go along with it all. If it works for you.
But it didn’t work for me.
For most of my life I pretended to myself and everyone else that it did. But I always imagined another life, a way out.
In my mind the way out always came from someplace outside of myself. I would think that if I found a religion that didn’t celebrate Christmas that would be an excuse not to have to go. Or if I became involved with an art movement that monopolized my time I could dedicate myself to that, another good excuse.
But that would just be leaving one system for another. What I really wanted was my freedom.
And to get that I’d have to take responsibility for my life and my decisions. There was no guru or god to follow. I had to look inside myself. But I got help too. I continue to find people who know and understand me and what I’m trying to do. So I have support, but I’m still often filled with doubts and trying to let go of obligation, guilt, anger and fear.
But there came a point a couple of years ago where there was no turning back. No matter how deep the guilt and fear, the idea of going back was even worse than what I was feeling. And along with all that, my life started to become what I’d always dreamed it could be.
I am fulfilled in a way I’d never experienced before. In a way I couldn’t even imagine. And I’m just beginning to be more comfortable with my relationship with my family too. It’s about being satisfied without compromising so much that I lose my sense of self.
I think my new friends have helped me to see there comes a point where the inner turmoil that goes along with leaving family and making your own life, dissipates. And it’s comforting to meet other people who have been on the same path and come through it whole and happy. Maybe that’s why we met and are becoming friends now.
Because, after all these years, I too am getting closer to that place where I truly believe I have the right to live my own life, not the one expected of me.
10 thoughts on “Family: Living My Life”
I appreciate reading about how you are making your life your own and following along as you sew fabric into art.
couldn’t find the words…hope this works. WOW ! xo
Brilliantly put and executed. I found my way back to family, but still am caught up in that ‘rituals’ and unspoken rules. Think I may separate again, broke a couple rules this Christmas. It’s exhausting on so many levels.
I’m in good company then Mary. Nice to hear from you and best to you in all you do.
Maria, I didn’t think I was going to read this whole post, but couldn’t stop. Because it’s exactly the way I have been feeling for several years now. My mother and step father moved up here to be close to me and my family. My brother and sister were in Colorado at the time. So we did all the holidays at their house or mine. Every single birthday. Sunday dinners even. And I started really dreading another birthday. Or Christmas. Or even Christmas eve “breakfast” at mom’s. Then my step dad died almost 3 years ago. We stopped having so many birthday celebrations. But kept up all the rest. I just feel like I need to do all this, for my mom. For my grand kids. When I am just miserable inside. I don’t want to have to go and go and go some more, just to make my mom happy. Or to make “happy” memories for my poor grand kids. I really don’t want to do this anymore. But feel guilty if I don’t. I guess I just need to figure it all out, like you did. For myself. Because I am tired of feeling so miserable about certain times of the year. It’s not right. It’s just so confusing. So thank you for your post today. I needed to see it.
AS I said to Janet, Kris, it seems so many people have similar feelings. I hope you find a way to make it work for you. Thanks for your message, it makes me feel good to know my writing matters.
Hi Maria, you expressed so well what has been a huge struggle for me and which continues to worm its way into my feelings about myself and the choices I make. My mother, who is 90, reads my blog on Facebook,so I don’t talk openly in my blog about the toll that dysfunctional family relationships has taken on me. She’s been surprisingly supportive, rather than judgemental, about what I’ve shared on my blog. I’m consciously trying not to let her readership inhibit what I post on my blog; at the same time, I don’t want to hurt her feelings unneccesarily.
I find it hard to balance the writing with not wanting to hurt feelings. I imagine many people do. Jon often talks about it being one of the things that hold writers back. I’m finding that there’s a way to write about these things that is honest so even if it’s painful it’s still my truth. That said I know my mother doesn’t read my blog. But it’s part of the process that I was writing about, being able to say what I feel. And I’m finding out that there are so many other people who experience something similar.
As you’re finding out there’s an awful lot of us who’ve gone through this. I think the lucky ones are the ones who mainly accomplish this in adolescence or have good enough families that the process is not so painful. Then there are those of us who thought our families were perfect (it’s apparently almost hard wired into the human child to believe only good about their parents as through evolution that was the best way to survive, even though said parents may have been dysfunctional or abusive). Then, as you’ve pointed out, theres a long struggle to conform to the family because of course they are fine and it’s you that’s not!
Then the realization that maybe there could be something wrong with how the family operates. And you’re starting to learn the rest. I’m just a little bit ahead of you because I got hit upside the head with a physical and emotional collapse, which was a cover for eventual healing in my 40s. It does get easier and better as you’re finding out, but it doesn’t seem to get “unhard”, easier but still at least a little hard. Unless maybe I just haven’t reached that point yet?
Thank you for sharing…the best is yet to be!
Thanks for your story Carolyn. it’s always good to hear someone else who understands.