I was born when my mother was too young. Her parents were good people, nice people, respected, and upstanding people. They were people too good to have a daughter who got knocked-up before she was of a proper age and married. They offered to adopt me and to help my mother to live her life as though I had never happened. I can’t tell you the number of times I wished she had consented. Growing up in my mother’s care didn’t exactly afford a charmed childhood, especially given that my birth had effectively crushed her every dream.
At his parent’s insistence, my (barely) 18 year-old father did the stand-up thing and married my mother. Then he enlisted in the Air Force. With the GI Bill and the support of their families, both of my parents eventually managed to get through college and launch careers. They also managed to string their increasingly disappointing relationship along until I was 14, nearly the age my daughter is now. My mother had an affair which my brother knew about but I did not. (He had caught the lovers together.) Then, my father came home from a business trip abroad with his new love, a pretty British woman who was herself exiting a bad marriage. The ensuing situation was anything but gentle and in the end my mother claimed the moral high ground that she didn’t deserve. My father flushed the whole failed endeavor that had been our family and started over.
As you can imagine, my mother “has issues.” In 2001, my then husband (Ex) and I determined that we needed to limit her influence on our children. She didn’t take it well. She didn’t take it well at all. (She’s not unlike Ex, in that and many other respects, which it turns out was not a coincidence.) She reverted to a passive-aggressive pattern that escalated tensions and eventually prompted us to sever ties altogether, but—leaving the door open. If she chose to pursue professional help, we agreed that we would support the effort and would participate in as much as we were invited or allowed.
Perhaps bitterness is hereditary. She never forgave me. After I left Ex, he saw an opportunity and reached out to her. (Remember what I said last post about birds of a feather liking to hang out and get drunk together?) She embraced him, and offered to testify on his behalf, to support and help fund his effort to gain sole custody of the children. She helped an alcoholic with a drunk driving conviction, an anger management problem, and amply documented sexual sliminess to pursue custody of her grandchildren. She’s what a friend calls a piece of work. I don’t think he means it as in, “work of art.”
My (fantastic) attorney sliced my mother to ribbons at trial. “Ms. P., do you have an axe to grind against your daughter?” My attorney asked my mother about her alcohol and prescription drug use, about her coming-on to Ex while I remained cloistered in the hospital with my newborn premie baby girl, and about the letters of concern Ex and I had written together outlining our reasons for limiting her involvement in all our lives. My mother was asked to read passages from these letters. She appeared small, ugly, spiteful, and—bitter. Neither her appearance nor my brother’s harmed our case. In fact, their testimony supported me: If the crazy people wanted Ex to have the children, it was definitely a bad idea.
My “family” is a family-of-choice. These are people who stood beside me with love, support, and acceptance as my frayed marriage disintegrated and as I hot-footed it over the coals of the divorce trial. Some are the people who didn’t relent when I neither took nor returned their calls when times were dreadfully dark. These are people whose successes I celebrate and whose pride is mine, too. They are people whose troubles weigh on me because I love them. Seeing my loved ones is something I look forward to immensely, awkward as it sometimes is to explain.
I used to feel sorry for myself because I don’t have a real family. Anytime any of us would find ourselves with a share-your-family-tree exercise, I’d cringe. Then, during one such moment in the spotlight, my daughter, who was then 10, grabbed the markers and furiously drew her conception of our family tree. When she was done, I felt not self-pity, but pride. It took a child’s perceptions and bright perspectives to bring me to the practice of blessing-counting, to remind me that it isn’t blood that makes a family, but love.
Our family-of-choice is stronger, healthier, more functional and whole than those whose trees revealed the details of some of their more strained family relationships. Others’ family trees had sick and wilted limbs where ours simply had scars. The diseased parts of our tree had been pruned away some time back, forcing the healthy shoots to grow more vigorously, sturdier, and stronger. I have returned to count that blessing at nearly every holiday in the company of those who have no social obligation to spend the time with us. They choose to celebrate with us and we genuinely enjoy and appreciate their presence. No drama, no subtext of long-carried resentments, no lingering angst, just good food and kind people.
It’s love that makes a family and it flows from nurturing relationships which are positive and healthy. Part of loving is coming to the dance a willing partner and trying very hard to engage in a mutual expression of joy and creativity without stepping on anyone’s toes or being stepped on yourself. That isn’t always easy, but it is always meaningful and often, it is extraordinarily beautiful.
I have to run now, Readers. Today, my dance card is full.