A picture taken by my husband, John Cary, as we attempted to get a shot of all the family together a few years ago. My daughter, who in actuality loves nothing more than her cousins, pictured in the foreground in true yuletide pain.
Chances are that you’ll have an encounter with what might be called “family” in the next week, and, if not, then you have in the last couple of weeks — the season of mistletoe, casseroles, drunken declarations of brotherly love, toys strangled against cardboard by plastic twine, and, too often, unsolicited and underhanded commentary that hit you right where it hurts. It can be beautiful. It can also be really, really hard.
Part of our angst over family gatherings can be chalked up to the general dysfunction inherent in any group of people that attempts to do all of those most Herculean of human pursuits together — to birth, to love, to grow, to heal, to die, to lose. Is it any wonder that our families are conflicted? They are the “places” where we do all of the hard, meaningful stuff in life. This kind of suffering, I’ve come to believe, is not to be avoided.
Sure, people can treat one another better. They can go to therapy. (Please everyone, go to therapy!) They can try to respond differently to the same old stimuli (Mom’s criticism, Dad’s hubris, etc.) and carve new pathways in their brains. But the process can be like shoveling snow with a toothpick.
I’ve tried it so often myself: “Okay, this time, when money comes up, I’m not going to devolve into an intolerable pseudo-Mother Theresa figure.” And then, in a matter of nanoseconds, I’m lecturing everyone as if I spend my days dressing wounds in an orphanage. My version: Pavlovian righteousness. Yours could be any number of totally repetitive, totally unproductive responses that fit right into the long evolving family matrix.
We are all lead characters in our family dramas and we know just how to play the part, no understudy required.
Part of our angst over our families, I believe, falls in a different category. This one produces unnecessary suffering. This one is less about the actual drama that your particular family is staging and more about your insecurity, about what you mistakenly perceive as the truly unique and horrible version that only your family is depraved, disconnected, unconscious enough to create. You may have a boatload of angst over something even more basic… whether your family even constitutes a family in the first place.
Here’s the punch line to the whole thing: everyone’s family is screwed up and there is no typical family. If your family is you and your bald uncle with one extremely long ear hair, then that counts, just as much as if your family is three sisters, three brothers, and two smiling parents. You might even be the more contented one if you just have that one uncle. Who knows?
This isn’t just me blathering. The statistics back it up. Fewer than half (46%) of U.S. kids younger than 18 years of age are living in a home with two married heterosexual parents in their first marriage. Thirty-seven percent of queer and transgender Americans have a child at some point. Forty-four percent of people ages 18-29 have a step-sibling. Fifteen percent of all new marriages are interracial these days.
And yet we still live in a world that culturally operates as if everyone emerges from two heterosexual, long-married parents of the same ethnic and religious background, lives in the same two-story home with a white picket fence with those parents and 1.5 siblings for 18 years, and everyone else is a little off. In fact, everyone else is everyone else because the heterosexual, “intact,” nuclear family is now an anomaly. Especially one, Facebook feeds be damned, that dresses in matching family holiday pajamas. (This is what Family Story Project calls “nuclear family privilege.”)
This is all to say I can’t relieve you of the first kind of suffering: the sparks that fly and the burns that ensue when real humans try to do hard things, namely be in lifelong relationship with one another. I can recommend letting go of that second kind of suffering: the pain you might feel because your family seems uniquely dysfunctional or perhaps not even worthy of the exalted title of family.
Your family is whichever motley crew of dysfunctional humans you love so damn much you would do anything for, including being driven crazy by them. Your family is your blood, or maybe not. Your family is the people that know you at your ugliest and least evolved. Your family is oxtail soup or rice congee or collard greens. Your family is your breaking point and your healing refuge. Your family is your best chance to be known.
This essay was originally published at On Being on January 1, 2016.