Monday, June 13, 2011

Family

This week has been tough.

Before I explain why, a little background info.

You may have seen me reference my family before. For me, there's family. And then there's family.

In most cases, when I refer to my family I'm talking about my larger family, the one filled with my dad and his wife, his 5 sisters and their husbands, my two grandparents, 16 first cousins and their spouses, and 10 second cousins. Which comes to nearly 50 people.

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This is the family that much of my childhood revolved around, the family I went camping with, whose houses I slept over at, who helped pick up the pieces when my mom and dad first separated, and later divorced.

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Camping...

I remember my dad as being a little lost back then, suddenly the single father of two little girls who were equally as lost. I remember my aunts stepping in to help us navigate our new reality, serving us turkey at Thanksgiving because we no longer had a mother there to make sure we ate.

Until recently, my family was completely interwoven into the fabric of my being. I had few close friends because weekends were spent at birthday parties, or babysitting, or eating pozole on Sunday morning at my grandma's.

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Mmmmmm... pozole....

Many decisions were made after consult with my aunts. Their advice--always appreciated, always full of equal parts lunacy and wisdom--was often sought when I was on the verge of a big decision or in the middle of a crises.

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The Tias...

It wasn't just my aunts either. My cousins were, and in some cases still are, my best friends.

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The happiest, HAPPIEST, memories of my childhood were those spent in the company of my cousins. I only have one sister, but growing up so close to my cousins made me feel like I was part of a bigger clan. The kind of clan that has stories that, looking back, make us laugh so hard we can barely retell them.

Like the time we dipped a french fry in my grandma's spiciest chile sauce and fed it to my cousin Jonathan (we later found him licking the furniture)

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Poor Jonathan...

Or the time we got into a brawl at Reggie Rodriguez park because some other kids were picking on my cousin Ruben (nobody picks on our cousin except us)

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Or the time we were put to bed early because we were scheduled to go to the Rose Parade at 3 in the morning but couldn't get any sleep because my cousin Robert wouldn't stop jumping up and down on his bed, in his underwear, humming the tune to Batman.

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Ohhh Robert...

As a kid, things weren't always perfect in my family, but I was happy and I accepted them. Exactly the way they were.

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Things started changing after I had Noah.

I'm sure my aunts would have reasons of their own, but for me, the relationship had to be renegotiated given the fact that I was suddenly floating somewhere between being the child I had always been, and being a mother (albeit a young one) who had to make some very grown-up choices.

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It's easy to brush things off, let criticisms go, when the stakes are low and it would be better for everyone not to raise a stink.

I get that.

But having a kid, being responsible not only for his physical well-being, but also for his emotional fortitude, made me rethink a few things.

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Suddenly (and yes, it was quite sudden) I realized that I didn't want anyone to yield the same power over my son as my aunts did with me. I realized a) that I was desperate for their approval and b) when I didn't get it, it was crippling.

When they berated me for having a child before marriage, I was devastated.

When they criticized my mothering, even with the smallest things, I felt like a failure.

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That's not to say it's their fault. They didn't change from how they had always been. And these were things I used to be able to brush off, with little thought.

But I changed. The day I was handed a perfect little human and looked down wondering how I could possibly keep him alive, I changed forever.

Which brings me to now.

The past five years have been, in a word, difficult when it comes to family.

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For the first time in my life, I've pushed back when I get pushed and it's not pretty.

Pushing my aunts is like poking a five-headed dragon with hot irons. It's risky business.

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I've had more confrontations with them than I ever would have thought possible, confrontations that culminated, two years ago, with me sitting in my parked car struggling to breathe and convinced I was dying.

It was a panic attack.

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Later, with a prescription for Xanax under my belt, I realized things had to change. In a big, unthinkable way.

I decided to take a break from family, a decision that was only reinforced when I found out I was pregnant with Eva and not in any need of additional stress.

It was a tough choice and one that I never thought, in a million years, I'd ever willingly make.

It left a huge hole in my life (and heart)

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A hole I had to fill with other family, my closer family like my parents, sister, and stepbrothers. I also opened up space for friends, something I had been taught never to do.

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From very early on, I was told no one, NO ONE, will ever love you, or be there for you, like your family. And I believed it.

Relying on relationships that aren't facilitated by blood... was a hard transition. But it's one I'm glad I finally made, because Erik and I are fortunate enough to have some of the nicest, most supportive and loving friends we could ever have hoped for.

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Our best family friends... more like family, less like friends

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These girls make all the difference...

I will admit, though, that for the first couple months, I waited for the other shoe to drop. As in, I was waiting to suddenly be caught up in fear, and regret and misery, in the absence of my family.

I was waiting for the moment I realized I couldn't live without them, relentless criticism and all.

It never came.

And, as the months wore on, I realized it never would.

And when I realized that, for the first time, I was free.

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After a year, I decided to slowly re-enter the fold, with the caveat that if anything happened to "spook" me I would immediately retreat. Up until now, things have been calm.

I was longer blindsided by harsh criticism.

I no longer got angry phone calls filled with thinly-veiled (or sometimes outright) threats.

I was even able to brush off the small stuff, because I thought it finally, once and for all, didn't matter.

My cousin David said it perfectly a little more than a year ago. He asked me "Do they pay your bills? Then why do you care what they think?"

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He's right, of course.

So why did it hurt so bad when I realized on Monday morning I had been excluded from a family get-together last weekend, a get-together that did include my other girl cousins?

I wish that I could say, with certainty, that the armor it took so long to build is foolproof. But it's not.

Sometimes, they still manage to hurt me, to make me cry even. Don't get me wrong, the days of hyperventilating on the side of the road are long gone, but sometimes the actions of my family can still sting.

So I admit, I spent a good chunk of this week crying. I even spent some of it shouting back and forth with my Aunt Nora who, of all my aunts, is by far the nicest.

It was a tough week.

But my sadness is mitigated by this thought, which I choose to focus on:

I DID spend the weekend with family. I spent it with my two beautiful babies, who make me happier than any mother deserves to be.

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I spent it with my husband, who so sweetly let me sleep in on Sunday morning.

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I had a long phone conversation with a good friend, filled with "we miss you's" and ending with plans to get together in two weeks.

And I spent it with my mom, stepdad, sister and brother-in-law, who have never been anything but loving and supportive.

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It's easy to blame other people's meanness for your own unhappiness, but c'mon, we all know that's not the way it goes.

I could very easily focus on how little some of my family seems to think of me.

Or I can focus on how MUCH the family that really counts actually does think of me.

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Except maybe that guy in the back... j/k... I got nothing but love for my bro...

I could choose to be sad. Or I could choose to be happy.

Today, I choose to be happy.

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