My First Family’s Contract

This week marks the 20-year anniversary of my mother’s remission from breast cancer. Technically, it’s the date of her first mastectomy, and we are celebrating her life, and ours with her, as a survivor.

“We” means my first family, or family of origin: my two sisters and me; a smattering of our own partners and families, as we’re all adults; our mother, of course; and, for some of the celebration, our father.

The thing is, it doesn’t feel like we’re much of a family anymore. Since my parents divorced two years ago, we are all trying to figure out how to have relationships with each other in some as-of-yet-undiscovered new configuration.

I’ve recently read a slew of beautiful, poignant essays by adults who have lost a parent (including Scott Bramble’s moving piece on losing his mother to cancer). The struggle always seems to involve working through the grief, often along with their remaining family members, to reconstitute what’s left from their original family in some new shape. These pieces have hit me hard in two ways:

1. with the ever-present memory that I could have grown up without a mother, but was lucky enough to get to keep her; and

2. that my first family, as a unit, has ceased to exist, about which I feel a strange, persistent sense of grief.

Admittedly, at least to my adult eyes, this grief seems strange and rather self-indulgent. All members of my first family are still, most fortunately, alive and well (see #1). The lights are still on in the metaphorical house. It’s just that no one knows how to live there anymore.

Years ago, as a teenager, I used to fantasize about my parents getting divorced. These two people just seemed to be such colossal impediments to each others’ happiness. Incompatibility was the theme of their marriage: He was a professional country musician; she only liked rock-and-roll. He was gregarious and a consummate performer; she, an introvert who hated to draw attention. He was loud, quick to emotion, affectionate; she was quiet, slow and seething with her emotions, played her cards close.

I longed to know what my parents would be like as people, if only they were able to stop squashing each other’s joy and create their own individual adult lives. I told myself that I would rejoice if ever they split. After all, it was their partnership. Not mine, not my sisters’. Not my investment. I loved them as people, but I wasn’t in love with their being together—quite the opposite.

Still, despite the incompatibilities, the five of us were a family. My dad was deeply in love with my mother, though I was never sure about her feelings for him. My mom held our household together in a steadfast, devoted, practical sort of way, and set the tone for us all. He came in and out, showering us with the feast-or-famine quality of his energy, his humor, and his play—and the darker sides of it. She was always present, constant and caring, though her emotional withdrawals could be long and painful. For our parts, my two sisters and I played our feminized, birth-order-determined roles, always the good daughters who maintained and upheld the emotional life of the family. 

When called to a crisis, it always seemed that our two parents were firmly in it together. Twenty years ago, when they were both 38, they went together through the journey of her breast cancer. He held her hand and stayed beside her through the whole ordeal, a year of two mastectomies, months of intensive chemotherapy, and a long recovery.

In retrospect, though, I realize that facing mortality might never be a shared journey. Perhaps the loneliness and the fear that he gladly would’ve shouldered with her were ultimately unshare-able. And perhaps that divergence of experience between the two of them was the beginning of their long, slow un-doing.

Which lead to the call, four years ago, in which my mom confessed that she and my father were “having trouble.” It caught me off guard, hitting unexpectedly hard. I remember not knowing what to say, and so defaulting to the words I’d rehearsed in my head as a teenager: “It’s your relationship, not ours” (meaning my sisters’ and mine). “We support you as individuals in doing what you need to do to find happiness.”

But finally spoken, those words rang hollow. And as their relationship began to unravel, I couldn’t believe my own sadness and disappointment at the way those two people came apart, and what it increasingly meant for our fivesome.

Since the unraveling, I’ve found myself asking: What makes a family?

Here’s my working definition: A family is the quality of the relationship between its members. Not just their love—maybe love isn’t even always necessary—but a sense of unit-ness: a joint household, a collective enterprise, an insider-ness with all its shared secrets, magic, traditions. Every person tasked with being a conspirator in each other’s happiness (even if we don’t always know how to be the best conspirators). A shared history and memory. Hopefully, a shared vision for the future together.

In our culture of distributed community structures, marriage has come to be a proxy for tribes, kinship, alliances. For many of us who can choose to marry, our wedding is the only time in our lives that we might have most of the folks we love physically present around us. I’m incredibly fortunate to be happily married, and to have seen the cohering of a community at my own wedding. And yet still, something about watching my original community come apart drove home the function of a family, a household, an emotional unit, like nothing else before. When two people partner, everyone who loves them gets invested in their unit.

In my case, two years after my parents’ divorce, I’m starting to clarify what’s particularly hard (though perhaps not all that unique). Like:

1. The sentimental and the practical stuff. Coming to understand that my own son will never know my parents as I knew them, in their town and their house together. Instead, what he’ll know of my childhood back in Texas will involve spending hours on the highway, zooming between the houses of two extended families. Double the family events, having to keep track of who still speaks to whom, and who can and can’t share space.

2. The fragmentation between sisters. No fivesome is without its straight lines and triangles. For us, our parents’ divorce has had profound, unforeseeable, weird effects on the relationships between my sisters and me. As the realities of the divorce have set in, we’ve watched ourselves, almost unwittingly, line up to take sides in some primordial alliance. Planning this (surprise) celebration for our mother amidst the Komen de-funding Planned Parenthood debacle, and trying to imagine what our mother would want for an honorary fund, only highlighted this. The modus operandi amongst us three, at least for now, has been not to talk about the hard stuff. It’s just still too raw.

(I’m almost not able to admit—but am not deleting this sentence because it needs to be said—that I’m relieved sometimes to have married a man and given birth to a son. It’s as if I can be free to be the emotional ringmaster in my household, as there are no other females here to have to negotiate with.)

3. And finally, the divorce is painful because the unraveling of my first family has so closely paralleled the evolution of my own, new family. The beginning of the end for my parents occurred just as I moved far away for the first time. Then they separated—the weekend I found out that I was pregnant with my first child. A month after my son was born, the divorce was final. And so at the same time that I have been learning to be a mother and a co-parent with my husband, I have had to learn to let go of the partnership between my parents.

I have come to believe that the degree of hardship exists in proportion to the Realness of the Unit. As my friend Jennifer wrote recently of her divorce from the father of her children, the anger and the grief are important—they’re what tell us that “the contract we tore up was real.” While my parents’ marriage contract was their own to tear up, by fiat, they also tore up the family contract between the five of us.

We are now engaged, informally, in the process of writing our new first-family contract. It’s an exceptionally messy process that involves a lot of negotiation. There’s no new normal just yet—not much magic or insider-ness about it.

Celebrating my mother’s cancer anniversary has been an attempt to lay claim to some magic—to honor what was and what has been. To start to move past the grieving, and maybe, soon, to make some new things together.

Misty McLaughlin edits the Family section of Role/Reboot. She is a parent by vocation, a nonprofit web consultant by trade, and a writer and seamstress by fits and starts. Among other topics, she’s passionate about exploring issues of gender and generation, helping other households to find cultural loopholes that allow them to make their own models, and promoting institutional support for rebooting our roles. Follow her on Twitter @mistymclaughlin.

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