For better or worse, there is a lot we take with us into our marriages, particularly from our families of origin. But when your family history has been tough or complicated, the “for worse” can find a way of exacerbating itself. But what Jess reminds me today is that part of the journey of marriage is learning what to take with you and what to leave behind, and that building a marriage together means often means building out from your family of origin as much as it is building up from it. (Also, therapy, y’all. Seek it out when you need it. Some things require outside help.)
An awful lot can change in a year.
For example: At this time last year, I was regularly meeting with a licensed mental health counselor to cope with an unwelcome feeling of never wanting to have children due to my family’s history of substance abuse. Now, I’m thirty-three weeks into a planned pregnancy.
Convention (and a healthy dose of wishful thinking) would ask us to believe that this is a story with a (difficult) beginning and an (happy!!!) ending. But convention needs to wise up, because our stories are never that simple or straightforward.
At a young, impressionable age, we’re introduced to the fairy tale: Once Upon a Time, Happily Ever After. In elementary school, we learn about the stages of a good story: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Messy beginnings leading into neat endings. But that’s a falsehood by way of exemption: books, films, poems, plays are only ever showing us a section of a story. Full stories, and our lives, are comprised of beginnings and middles and endings and beginnings and middles and endings and beginnings and middles and endings.
The trimesters of pregnancy mimic this format perfectly: a beginning, a middle, and an ending (and then, of course, a beginning). It is a period in a woman’s life of heightened, rapid changes—a microcosm of a life and a full story in and of itself.
My family’s substance abuse has been a presence in my life since I can remember. It took many, many years for me to seek help in facing it. It took more than it affecting my relationship with my husband, although seeing it begin to hurt him, and us, did help in pushing me toward therapy. Ultimately, it was when I learned that my sister was using—meaning that every relative on my maternal side, beginning with my mother and her siblings, has struggled with substance abuse—that I, for lack of a more polite phrase, totally lost my shit. I felt like I could not possibly bear a child, because that child would be genetically doomed to be an addict—and I, perhaps selfishly, did not feel like I could survive that. At the same time, I recognized that this was a disordered line of thinking, and I was brokenhearted at the thought of not building a family with my husband.
So, I spent some time in therapy. And therapy helped me. It did not, however, help my family. Turns out you really can’t affect others’ actions and choices—imagine that!
My lifelong story of my family’s substance abuse is one that has had many beginnings and middles and endings. For me, for the past several months, it’s been at a middle. At a point of (mostly) stasis. I know that it won’t last, and I also know that at some point in the (too near) future, my husband and I will need to talk to our daughter or son about my family’s history. As we prepare to welcome this child into our family, so much of our focus has been on joyful planning—imagining who this little person will be and conversing about how he or she will fit into our lives. But on occasion, my inner voice will ask me: But how will you approach the topic of substance abuse? How will you allow your child to love and be loved and experience all of the good that comes with being a part of your extended family, while at the same time limiting her or his exposure to disordered behaviors? How will you teach your child to make conscientious choices when it comes to her or his own alcohol and/or drug use?
Frankly, I don’t have answers to any of these questions. I’m ready for conversations to be difficult, and I know that I can’t protect my child from pain or personal challenges. When I think about these future conversations, I keep in mind an apt line from our wedding vows: I promise above all else to live in truth with you, and to communicate fully and fearlessly. In the end, I know that truth and open communication are the very best that I’ll be able to offer my child. I have faith that our child will grow to be a person who is brave and intelligent and capable of facing these issues, perhaps even with more grace and forgiveness than I’ve ever been able to muster.
What else I know: I’m ready for this next beginning.
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