On The Joy of Family

Sarah is almost exactly two years older than me. In our youth, she was brutal. She teased and tormented me endlessly. Sometimes I hated her. Mostly I just wanted her to love me. High school was a turning point. All the issues of our childhood became a nothing. And we became good friends. We still are good friends.

I am just under two years older than Chris. When we were kids I was borderline sadistic towards him. I am sure he has physical scars, and probably some emotional ones thanks to me. There were probably times he hated me. I don’t blame him. I was pretty rotten. High school was a turning point for us as well. We got along. We became friends. We are still friends.

As adults, I love both Sarah and Chris to the point of dysfunction. If Sarah asked me to kill someone for her, I would do it. I would bet money that Chris would kill someone for me. All the fights, the violence, the mean words, they mean nothing now.

I didn’t fight with Merry and Andrew. The age difference was too vast. I still tormented them to some degree. When Andrew was around three, I cut his eyelashes off. I don’t even know why. When my mom noticed, she blamed him and told him not to do it again. I witnessed this interaction. I didn’t come clean, and he didn’t rat me out. He should have… I also told him he would turn into a girl at the age of eight. He totally believed me. I was a jerk.

Summer and I never fought. She was a lot older than me. And she was my hero. I idolized her. She always made me feel important and loved. But as adults we have had some tough moments. Some of these moments are hard to relive. Some of them I would rather forget. They are painful. But we have always come back to a place of love. She is still my hero.

When I got married 20 years ago, I did not do it with the intention of someday being divorced. I can look back now with my wise old eyes and recognize there were problems from the start. Even before I married my husband, I knew innately that it was not a good decision. I did it anyway. I don’t regret it. We had great times together. We had four beautiful amazing and interesting children. We built a life together. It didn’t last. But my marriage is part of the tapestry of my very good life.

Even so. Even when things turned ugly. Even when my marriage was bringing me far more pain than joy. Even when it was more painful than simple neutrality.. divorce was not something I wanted. It was something I actively fought against. For too long.

I grew up in a household where marriage was sacred. It was something to be protected against all trials and pain. Marriage was supposed to be hard. It was supposed to be worth it. But I also grew up witnessing a marriage that was healthy. My parents supported, respected, loved each other. Yes, it was painful and difficult, but they were two people who wanted to make it work. They actively tried to better themselves, and supported each other in the same persuit. In a marriage like that, it is achievable to weather the storms. That was not the kind of marriage I experienced. We were two people who loved each other. But the toxic aspects of the marriage overtook the positive.

My divorce was hard on me, yes. Of course it was. But it was especially devastating for my kids. When we were married, Shelby would often tell the kids “mom and I will never divorce. Ever. Promise”. Even in our happiest times I would cringe when he said this. I think I knew intrinsically that our relationship was doomed. What a hard reckoning for my kids our divorce was.

Shortly after Shelby and I split, Lilly asked me what we would do if we had nowhere to live. It was a good question, as I had spent most of my married life at home with my kids. Without a job. Without a resumé. I had my degree, and that was something. But I had no solid income. No good prospects. How was I to provide for these four small beings and myself?

I asked her what she thought would happen if we lost our home. She said “well Nona and Papa would take care of us.” That got me thinking. Nona and Papa, being my parents, would do anything to ensure we had a place to live. What would happen if they were no longer able to take care of us? Easy answer. I have my sister Sarah. She would never let us be homeless. And my sister Summer too. And then Merry and Chris and Andrew. And if for some reason I cannot count on my siblings, I have my aunts. Gigi would do anything for me if I was in crisis. So would aunt Jamie and aunt Jo. My uncle Charlie would surely step in if I needed him. And if something happened to all of these people, I have dozens of cousins who would step in to help me. I have an unreasonably enormous safety net.

I was nearing my forties before I realized how rare my vast safety net is. I dated a man for a while who had two small children of his own. He is a good man. He is a good dad. He would do anything for his kids. His mom is older, and lives hours away, and was never very involved in the first place. He has siblings, but for a variety of reasons, he is not close to any of them. When it came time for work and gymnastics and soccer and Girl Scouts and dentist appointments, it was all him. He told me regularly “I have no help”. It was a little heartbreaking.

If I need help transporting this kid to this or that event, all I have to do is ask and my folks are there. Rachel is dealing with her own mental issues. My parents ask what they can do to help her. Emmy needs to get to gymnastics and I have to work. They rearrange their schedule to help out. Carson wants to do mountain biking. They buy him a bike, and offer to help get him to practices. On Emmy’s final basketball game of her season, she had a dozen family members rooting for her in the bleachers. At 9am. On a Saturday.

I work with a wonderful woman who has four kids of her own. She is strong and capable and independent. She is in every way, one of the most incredible people I have had the pleasure of knowing. She could climb any mountain. She could overcome any obstacle. And she does. Her four kids are similar in age to my own four kids, so we have a lot to talk about. Our parenting styles are similar. We are chill, we don’t yell, we take care of their needs. We let them be who they are. But my parenting approach is privileged. I have their dad, who despite being someone I don’t want to be married to, is a really good father. I have my parents, who will alter their own lives at the drop of a hat if I need them to be involved. I have five siblings who show up when I need them. My friend has nobody. Her childrens’ father has passed away. Even when he was alive, he wasn’t very involved. Her father has passed away as well. So has her mother. She is utterly alone. She is raising her four children on her own, and doing a damn good job of it. But she is doing it without support. Without the love and help she deserves. She is doing it without family.

Here is the thing she is doing. And it’s the same thing my old boyfriend is doing. It’s the thing I am trying to do. She is creating what she wanted in her own life. She is doing it through her own children. They might fight now. They might hate each other at times. They will probably end up with emotional and physical scars. But they will be there for each other. If one needs to leave a bad marriage, the others will rally. If their nieces and nephews need them, they will be there. These kids we are raising will never be alone. That’s the goal. That’s the joy and privilege of having a family.

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