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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

what it means to be a family

After this past school year I have a new understanding of an old word.


I didn't grow up in the we've-got-your-back-no-matter-what family system.  It was more like a you're-on-your-own-look-out-for-number-one kind of paradigm.

Sandi's family, and in fact the majority of the close-knit coastal Maine island community she's from, consists of hardworking, selfless, generous people- the kind who fish your lobster traps when you throw you're back out, who make your family dinner every night for a month if you need and who drive you an hour to the doctor AND take you out to lunch.  The sense of family and community is more collectivist than individual.  People do what is best for the community and, because they are part of that community, it is often best for them.

I have both relished in this group and sometimes felt like a square peg in a round hole.  After all I grew up watching "Guiding Light" after school during my formative years and fighting with my sisters over the last of the secret stash of candy.  Coming from an Italian family, gatherings were spent yelling and criticizing (and sometimes loving).  Overheard were things like, "Ma, why did you put raisins in the Thanksgiving stuffing this year for God's sake?" and "If you kids fight one more time, I'm gonna pack up the car right now and take you home!" and "Suzanne you are THICK-HEADED! Capatosta! And your belly is sticking out!"

My parents were both too wrapped up in their own issues to notice that our clothes were kind of dirty and our hair needed cutting. Providing safety and comfort was a secondary thought.  I had an aunt that was a particular bright spot in a tumultuous family and she would take me to New York City and taught me about the important things: The Rockettes and the power of good lipstick.  Everyone needs someone, a life ring in a stormy sea, if they are to survive a bumpy (let's be honest, downright tragic) childhood.  I had two.  My aunt and my oldest sister.  I have no doubt that it is because of them that I am not drooling in an insane asylum today.

Yes, I come from the cliched dysfunctional family (on steroids).  Fortunately for me, years of good therapy and some seriously solid love from those I have surrounded myself with have made me able to find some humor in identifying this as only one part of my background.  Living as a healthy adult hasn't exactly rewritten history but it is kind of like watching the scary part of  movie you know has a happy ending.  It was bad but I'm okay now.  Often even thriving. 

I tell you this to set the stage for the degree to which I was incredibly ill-equipped to be a mom and be part of a cohesive, loving family system.  I have had to stretch like Gumby over these last years into a new way of thinking and living.  This journey has called for immense amounts of self-compassion as I would fail many times to leave the wounded parts behind when parenting my kids.  I know it has been said before but for me it is true: being a mom has made me want to be a better person.  When I have a yucky interaction with one of the girls I debrief with myself internally to determine how to do better next time.  The learning curve has been more like a sheer wall I've needed to scale but I am doing it everyday.  I started behind the pack but I am gaining.

When Sandi left for school at the end of August it was hard not to just feel overwhelmed and abandoned.  As we were talking after her finals about the year in review, she thanked me for all the sacrifices I had made to allow her to follow this dream of hers.  Suddenly the loose threads that had been flopping in the wind wove themselves together into fabric:  this is what being in a family means.  You give for me and I give for you.  We don't keep score because we are in this together.  We are a team.  We function as a unit- yes with individual needs and wants- but with an eye on the system.  With a want to make it work for everyone.

This way of thinking feels like wearing a pair of new, unwashed pants- kind of itchy and stiff.  It is as though I just woke up after a 60 year coma to view a television for the first time while everyone around me is like, "Yeah, a TV.  Big deal."   Well, this shift is a giant deal for me.  It frees me from worrying that I won't get what I need.  It isn't about getting sucked into the system and abandoning my needs. It is more like trusting that the system/family/group gets me, understands me, and will support me in what I need.

It is a move from fight to grace.

As an expression of this and to involve the girls in creating our family as we want it, we made a chart of family values and the corresponding family rules . We made the chart together and told them that these rules are for everyone, moms too, and we can remind each other if we are not living the way we have intended.

A few days later, Ella grabbed a Sharpie and added this under number eleven.

This whole concept is incredibly freeing to me in that it makes our day in and day out less about "accidental" parenting or living.  It sets an intention, on pink fluorescent paper no less, to live in a certain way.  It holds us all accountable. 

And I know for me, at least, I need a lot of accountability.

I want to say thank you to my family.  Specifically to Sandi, but also the girls, for loving me the way I am and being (sometimes) patient with me as I have moved away from having a death grip on life more to having a secure hold.  And sometimes, just sometimes, the four of us can sit in wonder as I depart from my norm and let life blow away and float on the breeze.


Nicole said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nicole said...

Suzanne - I've been a "lurker" on your blog for several years now. I think I came to it from the now One Mom in Maine blog, or vice versa.. it's been awhile. I actually think I saw you (I recognized your children) at Great Skates a few weekends ago. I wanted to speak to you then and tell you how much I value reading your blog and how sometimes it's just what I need to validate how I am feeling as a mother, a human being, a person trying to figure out this parenthood gig.. but then I wasn't sure if that would come off as creepy, since we've never met. ;) Anyways, without fail, when I find a few minutes to myself without my girls tugging at me to do something, I come to your blog to catch up and I always leave feeling refreshed, inspired, and thankful. Thank you for sharing a little bit of your life, your thoughts, your struggles, and yourself with the world. You have a beautiful family and should be proud. <3

love is written here said... have no idea how much this comment means to me on so many levels. In no way would I think you a lurker or anything of the sort. I mean, I write a blog for public consumption. I hope for it to reach audiences beyond those I know. I certainly hope that you come and introduce yourself next time we are in the same place!! I am at Great Skates often. Thank you for all that you have offered me here.

Emilie said...

oh my holy mother of god, you need to get this published.

i love you.

good god, girl.

Kathryn said...

Suzanne, I laughed and cried reading this. You are the most amazing person I know. You rock and I love you more then you will ever know. :)

Raina @ Mamacita Spins The Globe said...

Suzanne, I love, love, love reading your blog. This is why I nominated you for The Versatile Blogger Award. You can do with it whatever you'd like... but just know that I tip my hat to you :)

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