Like all mothers, I have two families: the one I happened
into and the one I made happen. I had
nothing to do with the former (I simply arrived on the scene) and
everything to do with the latter.
The family I was born into had, let me kindly say ... issues. No, not
stuff-me-in-a-closet-and-feed-me-dog-food issues (in which case I would already
have written my memoir). Not even
prosaic daddy-is-an-alcoholic issues. I
envied friends from families with definable issues. Definable issues are great. People write books and maintain extensive
websites about definable issues. Support
groups offer support for definable-issue families.
But suppose you grow up in a family with no
marquee calamity; an outwardly functional family where, gee, for reasons
neither understood nor articulated, no one really likes each other very
much. A family where you'd almost always
rather be anywhere else than with your family.
I understood this dynamic, with some sophistication, from
about age 8. That's when, one Sunday
night eating dinner out with my parents and toddler brother, I noticed a
family sitting nearby. They were leaning in toward each other across the table,
chatting and smiling. The father reached
over to pat the mother's hand. The kids shoulder-bumped
and guffawed about something. I
thought: Wait a second ... Is this the way families act? Is this what
it looks like to be a family? It was
a revelation. And an insight that
colored the rest of my time under my parents' roof.
I was scared to create my own family.
When I left for college ... when I started working ... when I met
the right guy ... when we decided to get married ... I was scared to create my own
family. Suppose it turned out like the
one I came from? Suppose I was not
capable of doing better? Where were my role models?
Turns out, you don't need role models. You don't need instructions. You just need a dose of courage, an open
heart and a deep-seated respect for the uniqueness (quirkiness, more than
occasional obstreperousness) of the little humans you help create. Teenagers put those fine principles to the
test. Do they ever. Teenage girls, especially, test the limits
with their crazy-making ability to morph from angel to devil, from "I-love-you-soooooo-much, mommy" to
Although I have failed many of these tests, apparently I've
passed enough of them so that—to my great and everlasting surprise—my
children appear to enjoy spending time with me. I mean, when they don't have to. I mean when it's actually their choice.
I've taken both my boys on extended
trips. Last summer, Lizzie and I spent
two weeks together hiking, sleeping in the same room and (the potential
show-stopper) sharing the same small bathroom. Did we enjoy each other's company every minute of every day? Hardly. But on the plane home, she fell
asleep with her head on my shoulder.
When our family is out together at a restaurant, we're the