We say “family” like it’s a magic word meant to drum up feelings of closeness, companionship, and unconditional love. From Hallmark to the Olive Garden, the idea of familial bonding brings happiness and warmth.
That’s when you use it in the symbolic sense. You hug a friend and proclaim that he or she is your “family”. The irony is that most times our own personal ideas of what family is doesn’t line up with the actual family we have gained through marriage, law, or birth.
Honestly, the concept of family has long been an issue for me. It’s ironic given that I write these flowery platitudes about wanting to be the best father I can be. For many in my position, that parental instinct comes from the example set forth early on in life. We watch as the adults set the standard and we strive to emulate it.
I don’t emulate any figures from my youth except for maybe Mr. Belvedere, Mr. Drummond, and a little bit of Raj’s mom on What’s Happening!! My childhood was spent searching channels for the parental guidance the television suggested. The way family was shown on TV didn’t match the world I came from. I thought it was all fake. Family ties were made at a Hollywood studio.
I’m being serious. I thought TV families were purposely phony. Family, in practice, could be cruel and mean-spirited. Sure, things would sometimes be good, but the bad times were always around the corner. They’d come out of nowhere and, the moment you stopped expecting them, you’d have, at the very least, your heart broken.
Coming from that background lead me to make some very bad decisions with who I continued to surround myself. Therapists would tell me that “you choose what you know” and I’d get offended. How could they imply such a thing? All of this pain was my own doing? I put myself in these situations? How?
It took a while to realize that, for the most part, I did. When you grow up with missing pieces in your life, you don’t realize that those pieces belong there. You think that those gaping holes in your happiness are par for the course. You find people who mimic that dilapidated view of love you came from and assign them similar roles in your adult life. Next thing you know, you’re playing the same broken song again, only now it’s sung by a different band.
That song sucks and I’m done playing in my life. I was tired of it when I was younger and felt unsafe in my own skin. I was tired of it years later when invitations to holidays were suddenly taken away with no reason. I was tired of it when I was doing good things for the “family” in my life, knowing in my heart that they’d never do them for me. I have been used, abused, and refused in ways that would make most people gasp. It has been a long cycle that I felt would never stop spinning.
The worst part is that the good people, when they (hopefully) come along, pay the price. It’s these positive influences who die for the sins of toxic ghosts they never met. They come with love and holiday hams. They’re met with confusion, defensiveness, and walls you didn’t even know you built. You push away the ones you need the most.
You should have seen the walls I moved into my post-divorce house with. They blocked out everything including the sun. I couldn’t see anyone and hoped no one else saw me. I was the stray dog who would bite you before you had a chance to give him a meal. If I hurt you before you hurt me, I win.
It sounds pathetic when I put it that way, right? Poor me. No one cares and no one ever will. Throughout my life, I looked for love in the trash. I ran away from things that could possibly make me happy because, over time, I figured they would just hurt me.
It’s been two years since I brought those walls with me into my new life. They’re still here but packed away in storage now. Sometimes, when I’m down, I go back behind them and look around. The poisonous voices from the lives I left behind pull me back and I feel small and scared. I feel like I did for decades.
The only difference now is that I’m able to step out from behind them. When I do, I have good people waiting for me.
I have my kids, who I can mold into the adults I want them to be. I see everything good they can become and strive to make them into the type of family I always wanted, both for me and for the people they might meet one day. Sometimes my lessons are met with obstacles that have been tossed in our way, but we eventually soar over them like a DC Superhero. We always do.
Lauren and Christian are waiting for me, along with their families. I watch them all interact and see that television ideal play out before me. Barbecues and block parties are taken straight from the 1990s TGIF lineup on ABC. There’s comfort and love there. It isn’t pretend and it continues on even when the doors close. I want to be a part of that. I want my kids to be too. I want that more than anything else.
Most of all, they want me around and I want the same. I don’t beg for their holiday invites, or acceptance, or have strings attached to my involvement. This is what unconditional means. This is what family means. I get that now.
People deserve to be surrounded by people who care. After years of telling myself otherwise, I know that I’m one of those people. Rather than lamenting over past pain and seeing it as some sort of indictment on me, as a person, I see it differently. I see all those years as practice. I see them as training. I see them as being force-fed examples of what family shouldn’t be and what I shouldn’t want in my life or at my holiday table.
I’m not making those same mistakes anymore. My whole life has been leading to this moment on this day in this year. These are the people I deserve and these are the people who deserve the best version of me. That’s who I am going to be.