When “family” becomes a source of stress and overwhelm.
The other night, while driving home from a big family gathering, I got hit by a tidal wave of grief.
Growing up, my concept of “family” was a tight-knit unit of four people– no aunts or uncles, no grandparents, no cousins– until my baby brother was born, and we became a unit of five. (Note: it’s not that our extended family didn’t exist, exactly, we just rarely saw them, and they played no role whatsoever in my definition of “family.”)
Our little family unit felt right to me, each of us playing a vital role and providing the checks and balances required for the whole team to thrive. I never even considered a concept of “family” that looked any other way. We were perfect, the five of us: chaotic, but not overwhelming. Messy, busy, and ever-evolving… but always with a grounded and stable core.
I was twenty-three when my parents announced they were getting a divorce.
The announcement came as a complete shock; a tremor at the faultline of my entire concept of family. My mom told my two brothers and I that we needed to gather for a “mandatory family announcement.” I took a five hour bus upstate from New York City, and discussed theories in hushed tones with my siblings, until Mom and Dad arrived.
They were acting so weird; I remember immediately wanting to cry, but not knowing why. They sat us down immediately, and told us the situation.
I don’t remember making the decision to cross the room and climb into a chair with my little brother, but we spent the rest of the conversation nestled together. We listened, nodded, and asked questions. My parents were warm, and patient, and promised to be as honest as possible with us, without getting too into the weeds.
None of us had even suspected.
Something started breaking in me that day, but not the way I would have expected.
The truth is that I was proud of my parents. They made it clear that they had been very unhappy together for a long time, and I thought… how powerful; how brave. They both deserve to be happy.
I was inspired by their courage, and their refusal to settle. I admired the way they told us; their transparency, trust, and vulnerability. It was sad, but I supported their decision and I handled it well. I was an adult at that point, and I’d been living far away from my parents for years, after all.
That day there was just a small crack in the glass of my concept of family; a weak spot really, nothing more; a vulnerability worth keeping an eye on. But more and more cracks started showing up after that.
Seeing how awkward my parents were around each other during holidays that first year.
My relationship with “my parents” being replaced by two separate relationships with two separate individuals.
When they started dating other people.
When they each eventually got married again.
It was only once I started noticing that spending time with “family” felt like work instead of rest that I realized my old concept of family had been shattered. When I had to always wear a bra in my mom’s house, because she was married to some random guy. When hanging out with my dad became exhausting, because it meant trying to include and get to know his new wife, who didn’t speak much English.
My concept of family had been based on such a deep feeling of belonging and closeness, that I never needed to show up as anything but my full authentic self in that moment. Spending time as a family had its ups and downs, but in general I thought of it as a place where I could go to recharge.
As more people entered the mix however, that feeling slipped away. As my concept of family was updated to include interpersonal awkwardness, getting to know new people, and needing to be polite or filter myself, it went from restorative to draining.
At some point, my older brother got married and had kids, bringing even more people into the mix. Now I have a sister-in-law and two little niblings, plus my sister-in-law’s family, who are often around for holidays and other life events that include the kids.
Now, individually speaking, I like and love all of these people. But four or five times a year, when we all gather for something, it’s a lot.
Instead of making me feel connected, nourished, and refreshed– the way I used to feel after spending time with my five-person-family– these gatherings leave me feeling lonely, empty, exhausted, and dysregulated.
This weekend was one of those gatherings, as the whole family gathered to celebrate my niece’s 6th birthday.
The gathering looked how it always looks: my mom and her new husband co-existing bizarrely with my dad and his new wife, my sister-in-law and her mother trying to make sure things are going smoothly, one brother trying to keep people happy, and the other taking political jabs at everyone, two high-energy kids being rowdy and wanting attention, and tons of dogs all wrestling and barking and jumping all over everything.
In other words, it fucking chaos.
My concept of “family” now includes:
Never getting to finish a whole sentence, let alone tell a whole story, because the moment you start genuinely connecting with someone, you get violently interrupted by a jumping dog, a needy kid, or an adult being called away to handle some task or another.
Constant violations of personal space, as dogs or kids jostle you, jump on you, climb on you, or knock things over.
Constant sensory overload from the noise: kids are screaming, crying, or otherwise being loud, dogs are barking and growling, adults are laughing and interrupting each other, and nobody can figure out what toy is still playing music.
There is nothing wrong with any of this individually of course, but the cumulative effect of such chaos on my nervous system is such that I often leave these gatherings feeling like lights are too bright, music is grating, and the sensation of my socks is so loud I want to cry.
The thing that’s been shattered is my sense that “family” is a thing that both feels good, and is good for me. That family is, or should be, a place I can go to feel better.
Fortunately, spending time with family members one-on-one or in small groups can still feel connective, nourishing, and restorative, so that feeling isn’t totally lost. And of course I am grateful that all these people are healthy and alive and able to gather right now, as I know that won’t always be the case.
In fact, part of the reason I wanted to share this all with you today is that I’ve struggled a lot over the years with immense guilt, for feeling this way… and I know many of you can relate to that.
But admitting that I feel this way doesn’t mean I’m ungrateful, or a bad person. It just means I’m human. And what is #transparency if not a commitment to letting people see us in our whole humanity?
So there you have it. When my whole family gathers, I often leave feeling like I need to lay perfectly still in a silent, dark room for hours. And because family didn’t always feel that way for me, I am often hit in these moments by the hugeness of what I’ve lost.
And so, I grieve.
I grieve the loss of my little five-person unit, and my old concept of “family.” I grieve as an adult who is just trying to keep their nervous system regulated, and I grieve as a child who imagined that family would always feel like home.
I focus on what I have while I’m there, and then I cry for what I’ve lost on the drive home.
Sending you so much love,