When Family Doesn’t Look Like You Expected


My most vivid memory of a childhood Christmas tree was the time I sat silently crying behind one. I couldn't tell you the context of their argument, but I distinctly remember the heartache and the fear that consumed me amidst it.

I remember my big brother interjecting, pointing out to them the reality of the situation. The irony of his raised voice demanding they stop yelling to ease my tears doesn’t escape me.

That was our normal.

In my very first Thanksgiving with my husband’s family, roughly a year after he and I had met, we were gathered around a very large table. We ate, we laughed, we just enjoyed each other. There were no outbursts of anger. No one’s feelings were hurt. The only yelling was that of the boisterous laughter that flowed freely among this crowd.

I recall a moment of sitting back and just breathing it all in. I looked around the table at these faces, watching them love each other out loud. My god, I’ve always wanted this. The big family, the dinners, the showing up for one another. It was such an overwhelming joy to witness what I would actually call family. This was what I’d always dreamed of… I almost couldn’t believe that it actually existed in real life.

I’m not so naive to think that there aren’t dark corners hidden somewhere in every family. We all have our stories, our secrets, our stuff we don’t talk about. But this was a whole new norm for me. A family that not only cares for one another, but deeply and genuinely cherishes each other. The stuff of (my) fairytales.

When the conversation turned to sharing our gratitude, I listened intently at the myriad of things this group had to be thankful for. When the conversation - and all eyes - turned to me, I found myself overwhelmingly choked up. I managed to eek out a few words about how grateful I was to witness true family.

Despite their limited knowledge of the difficult journey I’d endured with my family of origin, I received some heartfelt nods from across the table. No one looked away when the tears could no longer be contained. No one quickly changed the subject. This incredible family allowed me a moment of reflection and thanks amidst what, to them, was probably just typical holiday celebration. But for me? That holiday celebration was a true turning point in my life. It was the first real exposure to what a healthy family could look like. The real deal. Not just the made up fairytale version in my head. Here it was, in the flesh.

I ate it up, right along with the turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie.

These people gave me so much more than a good meal that day. They gave me a family. They will never take the place of the family I never had, but they have helped to fill a bit of the void my family of origin has created throughout my entire life. And when I think about the fact that my children get to call these people family, I am overjoyed. I always had this ache in my heart that my someday-children would never have my “family” in their lives. But knowing that this crew is standing behind them makes my heart so very happy.