It started when I was 12 or so, around the time my parents were engulfed in a brutal court battle over custody of my sister and me. I called it “family watching.” If we were out and about and I saw a family that looked ideal to me, I’d watch them carefully and take mental notes. If the parents were holding hands and basically getting along, I’d say to myself, “That’s the kind of husband I’m going to find someday.”
As we drove along the hilly streets of Oakland, California, where we lived at the time, I’d do some “house gazing” and pick out the perfect house for my future family. I especially liked those moments where I could take a glimpse inside the house and see how it was furnished. Maybe there would also be a child sitting comfortably on the couch, nose in a book, without a worry or care in the world.
I know now that it was a fantasy (how on earth can you judge the happiness of another family based on outward appearances?), but it was how I learned to cope with the crumbling of my own family.
Within a year, my mother, sister and I would be moving away from my dad, and my parents would stop speaking to one another. My father would hold a grudge against my mother (and me and my sister, to some extent) for the rest of our lives. The chance of my family forming any kind of cohesive, harmonious unit was pretty much null and void.
It destroyed me.
What I have is not something I truly deserve ... it will be pulled from under me without me noticing, just like that.
I didn’t let go of that fantasy of the perfect family, and as soon as I could, I started to look for a possible mate, one who could stand by me, make a family with me and, most of all, heal my childhood wounds. And yes, I started that process at 14 years old, when I began dating the man who would turn out to be my future husband (though I obviously didn’t know it at the time!).
Long story short, after 10 years of dating the kindest, smartest, most dedicated person I’d ever met, we got married. In time, we had two sweet boys. And this summer, we will be celebrating our 16th wedding anniversary.
Our marriage isn’t perfect (whose is, really?), but it’s as damn good as any I’ve ever heard of, and while we have our daily stressors with family life, finances and the utter exhaustion of raising two lively boys, I would say that I have exactly what I dreamed of having way back when. Actually, I have everything I had dreamed of—and more.
But I can’t relax into it. There is a feeling—not every day, but at some point almost every day—where I become overwhelmed with worry and doubt, and almost none of my worries are founded in any truth. If my children get a fever, my first thought is that it’s surely something extremely serious and that they may very well die. When I say goodbye to my husband each morning, I always imagine what would happen if he died on the way to work. Each (normal) fight we have feels like the end of the world, and I immediately wonder if it signals the beginning of the end of our marriage.
And no matter how grateful I am, I always pine for more—thinking that our family would be more perfect if we had a bigger house, another child, a more flexible budget, fewer screens, more time together.
Some of this has gotten better over the years. I have realized that no family is perfect. I have practiced gratitude and I know how very lucky I am.
And yet, the doubt is always there. It's the feeling that what I have is not something I truly deserve, that it’s too good to be true, that it will be pulled from under me without me noticing, just like that. Just like it was when I was a child.
I know this isn’t the healthiest way to be. I have been in and out of therapy all my life, and I’m back in it now. I am working on realizing that this life I have is real, it’s mine and it’s well deserved. I am working on saying to myself, “This isn’t the same as your old life.” And when I worry, I say, “This is your anxiety talking. It’s not the truth.”
I know this: My grown-up family can’t take away the pain I experienced as a child. I believe that those wounds will always be there, in some form or another. But it doesn’t have to have a hold on my life as much as it has.
I also know that I am not alone. There so many children from broken homes out there who are all grown up, raising families and feeling many of the feelings I do. Our circumstances may be different, but we share many of the same hopes and fears.
To you, I say this: We are the ones who create our happiness—we can chose not to be bogged down by the demons from our past. It’s hard as hell, but not impossible. Get help if you need to. Open up about your feelings.
And remember, whatever riches were bestowed upon you in your current life—however sparse or abundant—you deserve each and every one. And more. You can have a new life, a better life. It can be yours without worry, without any strings attached and without fear.