Saturday, April 10, 2010

Giving in to Hope

Having a family of my own makes me think about the one I had growing up. My parents, my brother, my sister. The way we related to each other, or didn't. The way we treated each other. Some of the things that went right, but mostly, what didn't.

I think about my parents when they first started out. Younger than Jeff and I currently are by almost two decades. No one starts out intending to have a fractured family, and I'm sure they didn't. I imagine them as a newly married couple as they appear in the wedding photos we have at home -- with years to look forward to, with plans and hopes, and with the same kinds of excitement and anticipation Jeff and I have about raising our own children. Now their oldest child is in his 40s, and the other two, in their late 30s. Do they look back and wonder if things could have turned out differently?

There are cracks in my family. I don't know any family without them. If I were to draw a line from each member of my family to the others to represent the relationships, there would be more broken lines than connections. Most of the connections lead to my mother, with her in the middle and the rest of us circling her as if maypole dancing.

We don't discuss these cracks, but they are the most truthful things about us. They are what I think about when I think about my family. They reveal the missteps, the unmet needs, the disconnects that beg to be addressed. And they hold the clues to our deepest failures -- our failure to forge the relationships that could have -- should have -- been forged, to understand and listen to each other, to treat each other with tenderness, to accept each other's shortcomings, to learn to forgive.

We've lived with these cracks for so long that we don't know how to talk about them. The way no one talks about the broken chip on the coffee mug. When it first breaks, it merits a mention. But not months or years after. We learn to avoid the sharp edges until it becomes a habit. Under this silence, raw emotions simmer on the verge of erupting.

At times, I've tried to bring attention to some of these cracks. To me, they are painful reminders of what we don't have as a family. And I easily -- or perhaps foolishly -- give into the possibility of hope, a new start, the ability to make amends. But I lack the tact and the composure to address them skillfully -- as well as the detachment to be purely helpful. And when the emotions are as raw as they are, any touch, however delicate, stings. In the end, there are always hurt feelings, aspersions, regrets, efforts to soothe, and perhaps more resulting cracks, the way probing with a needle to remove the splinter enlarges the wound. My efforts then become recast as the meddling of a control freak, and I too withdraw into my corner.

I think about the failed relationships in my family and feel heavy with sadness. I wonder what we could have done differently. Are they the by-product of the stresses we encountered or would we have turned out the same regardless? Why do we have so many unmet needs? Will we ever emerge from our past and meet each other somewhere in the middle, healed and free of the need to blame? Will we ever release each other from our past mistakes and allow the other to be the better person she/he is trying to be?

Now that I have my own family, I feel the need to think about these cracks, analyze them, and study them from different angles so that I avoid the same mistakes. I'm struggling to make sense of our lives -- the difficulties we faced, how we met or failed to meet them, what we could have done differently. And I'm trying to understand each of us with some detachment, apart from the roles we play when we come together, but as the persons we are when understood in our own right. But it is not easy to untangle yourself from the history and see your family members with fresh eyes.

Last night, after a long day, I held my baby in my arms. He had just finished his last meal and was ready for the night's sleep. I kissed his forehead and his cheek. We breathed together, our lungs moving up and down, up and down, until he fell asleep with his head resting on my chest, something he hasn't done in months. As I held this little precious person in my arms, I thought about the relationship I want to have with him. It then dawned on me what a privilege it is to have this chance to have this new relationship, completely free of any baggage apart from the ones I choose to bring into it. What a godsend to be given this chance, to be at my best, and not to be spurned for any past mistakes.

I think about the potential for happiness in his life. How it is my job to safeguard it. And how I would hate myself if I were to detract from his happiness or cause him any pain. It seems a responsibility greater than myself.

I'm sure I'll never get it right -- not completely. And I imagine we'll encounter new situations that we never anticipated, the same way my parents could not have foreseen the cultural differences that seeped into our family and upstaged the values they held so dear. The way we are separated by two languages. The way we fail to read each other's signals, despite our efforts, because we do not understand. The way their children rejected the ways of their world in order to find a way to live in this one.

But I find myself starting a list of all things I want to do right -- and differently. I tell myself that if we instill the importance of treating each other with understanding and forgiveness, then maybe, just maybe, we'll emerge intact. And I find myself giving in to hope once again.


  1. it seems this--the rebirth of optimism and abundancy of love--is one of the ways parenthood shifts our life views completely. i understand it in my head, but not yet a parent, i cannot feel it in my skin.

    but what a monumental privilege it is to be given a chance to redeem ourselves in a little way and contribute to this world by raising up children...who can hopefully learn from our mistakes and make their lives, this world, infinitely better.

    thank you for the reminder of how much there is in life to look forward to!

  2. Great post (from a lawyer reader) - I'm an only child from a difficult, tempestuous family and the hubs always were (and are) my mother and her now-late father (whose influence lives on). You really nailed the pain of looking at the failures to give love or comfort, the fractured trust, the things we can't talk about, and the loneliness of being so close and so far.

    I am sure that you will do better because you are aware of the issues. I really believe that in my family, one of the biggest mistakes of the prior generations was pretending that everything was OK and not taking little steps to make future relationships better. Decades later, or once someone is dead, it is too late.