I’m not disappointing anyone. I’m not obligated to anyone but myself and my chosen family. I don’t have to feel guilty or that I’m a terrible daughter.
It might be strange to say that I feel lucky to be without parents, but it’s true.
I have amnesia when it comes to other people’s families. I forget that they exist, and when I’m reminded, it’s like being awoken from a sound sleep. My brain misfires, and I actually find myself feeling sorry for my friends when they tell me they have to go home for a weekend, or a holiday, or that their parents are coming to visit. Poor you, I think. What an unpleasant obligation.
It’s not because my friends (necessarily) have terrible parents. It’s because I can’t imagine a family that’s not the one I grew up with, and I’m grateful to not have that life anymore.
My mother’s illnesses, mental and physical, and her struggles as a single parent, made her a person I wanted to get away from as soon as I realized that such a thing could be possible. When I left for college, my longing to claim my own space began to become a reality, but real relief, real breathing room would not come until my mother died when I was 19 years old.
There have been, and are still, times when my parent-free life is difficult to manage. It’s hard for me to be with other people’s families. Watching my friends interact with their parents is often mind-numbingly stressful, if not exhausting. Not having an answer to the question, “What do your parents do?” is relentlessly a social minefield.
The feeling of being unmoored in the world can be terrifying. I’ve had to do a lot of compensating, emotionally and financially. I’m learning that I have to be my own parents, which is something I’ll be negotiating for the rest of my life. Sometimes it’s gorgeous, sometimes messy, usually a little of both.
But there is also work that’s already done. While my friends, the ones whose families are “in tact” and alive, will someday likely have to bury their parents, I won’t have to. I’ve done it already.
I don’t need to plan accordingly, position myself so I live close to my family, worry about their health and well-being. (Being dead means you are perpetually accounted for.)
And then there’s the matter of expectations. When I ask people to talk candidly about their decision to get married, more often than not, they cite their families as a factor. Even if they themselves did not imagine getting married, they sometimes do so because it’s important to their parents and extended families. While they might not have wanted their weddings to look a certain way—hundreds of guests, white dress, religious content—they find themselves negotiating with their family and the family of their partner to reach a compromise. They have to pick their battles.
My own decision not to get married or have children, while mysterious and destabilizing to others, gets to be mine. I deal with the implications and consequences on my own. I’m not disappointing anyone. I’m not obligated to anyone but myself and my chosen family. I don’t have to feel guilty or that I’m a terrible daughter. It’s a weird advantage that makes it easier for me to opt out and listen to my gut.
Whereas I can and will opt out all I like, I’m the exception, and as a result, I definitely underestimate the obligation people feel toward their families. (How could I not? All I ever wanted to do was get away from mine.) There’s relatively little at stake for me in terms of making, or not making, certain life choices. I don’t have to worry about being isolated from my family, or making someone worry, or having constant fights, or being frustrated by compromise. For all this, I feel lucky.
I’m assuming that the reader will not understand this. It’s OK. There are different kinds of gratitude. We don’t live each other’s lives, really, as much as we’d like to think we do. I’m not sorry that my mother is dead. I will probably always be angry at her. I’m not sure there’s enough therapy in the whole world to erase that anger. There’s a lyric in a song by my favorite singers, Nerissa and Katryna Nields, that is the entire, terrible, beautiful truth: “The mother we have is the mother we need, even when we’re all alone.”
If given the chance to edit my first 19 years of life, I don’t think I would remove all of the anxiety, cancer, paranoia, noise, and miscommunication. I’m grateful to be unencumbered now, to be able to live my life without that very specific emotional clutter, to cut those strings that tied me to that toxicity, to have had them cut for me.
Chanel Dubofsky’s work has been published in RH Reality Check, Cosmopolitan, The Frisky, The Billfold, Lilith and The Forward, among others. She is working on her MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Brooklyn, New York.