The last few years have been a time of great change in our home. All five of our children are now grown and flown. In May our babies, our twins, graduated from college and this past summer, the last one of them moved out, and we officially became empty nesters.
We had to learn to let go and move on. Let go of the child rearing years, and move on to a new chapter in our lives.
In 2012, my brother-in-law, with whom I was close, was diagnosed with Stage IV colorectal cancer and died a little more than two years ago after going through about 18 months of radiation, chemotherapy, and hospice care.
We had to let him go, and we had to move on without him in our lives.
A little more than a year ago, my husband and his siblings had to make some tough decisions with regard to their mother, my mother-in-law, after she suffered a fall and emergency room visit that ended up changing her life in several major ways. She is such a strong woman who has persevered even though she was a young widow and dealt with some pretty significant family challenges.
My mother-in-law had to let go of her former life and move onto a new life. My husband had to learn to let go of being parented by his mother and move onto taking care of her.
Many of my friends are dealing with aging parents. Some are healthy and active, and I rejoice in that. Many of my friends have mothers and fathers who are getting sick or passing away, some unexpectedly, and my heart aches for them as they reminisce about how important these people were to them. I love seeing the pictures of my friends with their parents and hearing and reading the stories about them.
Everyone is in a constant state of letting go and moving on when it comes to issues with our own and our parents aging.
All of this comes to the forefront of my emotions as we enter the winter holiday season. A season that is filled with family and memories. It’s the most wonderful time of the year according to the Andy Williams song.
Letting go and moving on is never more apparent than when we celebrate family milestones and holidays.
When you come from a dysfunctional family, the holiday season is often when familial issues rear their ugly heads and people with whom we’ve had limited or no contact all of a sudden re-appear. And usually not in happy, filled with good tidings, types of ways.
My parents separated over 45 years ago, and have been divorced for over 43 years. Their separation and divorce was and remains acrimonious in spite of the years and the fact that my father died in 2008. Both of my parents abandoned their parenting roles when they divorced leaving 8 children ranging in age from 4 to 13 (I was the oldest) to fend for themselves.
I and two of my siblings attempted to fill the parenting gap while my parents used their children, emotional blackmail, and money against each other. We were often forced or expected to pick sides. My father would pro-rate deductions in child support for any time he spent with his children. We would often have no food or need clothes or have disconnected utilities, but my mother never ran out of cigarettes or booze. The tactics they used did not hurt them as much as they hurt us. We had to tend to our younger siblings when we were so young ourselves. We used our babysitting money and then money from our jobs to help put food on the table, buy clothes, and pay the electric, gas, or phone bills. My sister, as a newlywed, saved the family home from foreclosure – more than once.
My relationship with my parents since their divorce has been difficult. When my father got sick and died in 2008, I had spent two years, along with my siblings, taking care of him after a period of 7 years where we had a limited relationship with him due to his alcoholism and bad behavior. The limited relationship was the consequence of the intervention with him that did not go well. During his two-year journey to death, we did the right thing by him even though he fought us every step of the way. Going through the process with him, though, brought me closure in my relationship with him. I am proud of myself for being a good daughter. I am thankful that I was there for him when he died and worked through all of the estate stuff fairly and with very little drama.
My relationship with my mother has been even more complicated. I spent many, many sleepless nights worrying about this. While I had closure with my father and rarely thought about him, I thought about my mother every single day. In most cultures, mother / daughter relationships are special, and I desperately wanted one.
The preferred method of punishing family members on my mom’s side of the family has always been cutting off behavior. My mother learned this lesson well and chose to cut off from some of us multiple times during our lives. She missed the significant milestones of some of her adult children and the births and special events of some of her grandchildren.
My mother has never accepted responsibility for her actions and bad decisions, but rather always chooses anger and blame. I believe this is her way to assuage the guilt. If you aren’t in her good graces, you are “just like your father.” Those in my mother’s good graces must tow the line with her thinking or risk losing her maternal love which is the only power she has to offer. I totally get it. I don’t like it, but I get it. Everyone wants to be loved by their mother. It’s up to the individual if the price is too high or not.
Cutting off behavior has extended to me and my siblings and even to our children. One of my siblings left the family in the 80s and remains steadfastly alienated from everyone else. The remainder of us use various justifications to cut off from each other.
When we get to the holidays each year someone, inevitably, opens the wounds and words and emails and text messages fly back and forth. The result is more hurt feelings and more cutting off behavior – because that is the weapon that is used in our family.
As we go through life, certain events trigger one to remember and think about the past.
That is what happened to me about two years ago. I had reached a stage in my life where I started spending a lot of time thinking about my own mortality, my parents and extended family, and my husband and children.
Two years ago, my mother and I exchanged letters. It did not go well. It was a futile and ill advised attempt on my part to try and repair the relationship with my mother.
For the first time in my life, I went to see a therapist. She provided me with a lot of validation regarding my choices and path in life. She also gave me permission to establish boundaries from the dysfunctional members of my family. Boundaries are different than cutting off. I knew this was the correct path, logically, but, emotionally, I was struggling. It just went against a lot of what I believed and tried to accomplish. It also went against a lot of what people say and write about family – that is, that you should love them no matter what. Move on. It’s in the past. Forgive and forget. Well intentioned, but clearly not good advice for everyone or all circumstances.
It was a goal of mine to bring about family change with my siblings, but I realized, through therapy, that that is never going to happen.
Rather than think about what I didn’t have, I started thinking in terms of what I did have. A loving husband. Five wonderful in every way daughters. Great friends. Family members who stand by me and my family through thick and thin and not just when they need or want something.
Therapy also taught me that I do not have these blessings in my life because of luck. I have them because I have worked hard for them and because I am a good person.
My parents taught us that you build yourself up by tearing each other down. My mother and her family left us the legacy that you cut off from someone as a way to punish them. Many in my extended family have learned these lessons well. I am filled with great sadness that the relationships in my extended family are this way.
I’m glad I finally received validation from a therapist who was an independent third-party. It was also surprising and somewhat disturbing to know that these types of family situations are fairly common. That others share this pain and sorrow is almost unimaginable to me. I think we need to share more of these experiences with each other rather than think we are alone or hide them from others. We are not responsible for other people’s behavior even if we are related to them.
I am proud of the fact that my husband and I have broken the cycle of cutting off behavior – at least with our family and going forward.
In a way I’m sorry I didn’t seek professional help sooner, but I also believe that you have to do it in your own time. I didn’t need a lot of sessions or special treatments. I was already almost all the way there on my own and, thankfully, just needed the extra push to take the last, hard steps in self-care. Self-care. A hard concept for a woman. That being said, I would highly recommend therapy to anyone who thinks they might need it. The validation is enormously helpful.
The good news. I no longer worry about my relationship (or lack thereof) with my extended family. I no longer lose sleep over my mommy issues.
The biggest reward. I’m a much happier and better person, wife, mother, and friend. My circle may be smaller, but it’s solid and complete.
The last two years, it’s become easier to ignore those calls and emails and text messages. I no longer need to engage. It actually feels empowering to exert this control over my life.
Bottom line is that I no longer let the holidays or our culture or societal norms bully me into being hurt and damaged.
How did I do that?
I let go and moved on.