“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina
Apologies to Tolstoy and his famous first line, but I’m going to have the temerity to disagree. I think that each family is unique, happy ones no less than unhappy ones. Even the happiest of families have their own complex messiness, sometimes obvious, sometimes visible only to its members.
When I sat down to write this blog with this month’s topic: “What family means to me,” I googled, “quotes about family.” I quickly discovered that they fall into two groups. The predominant group emphasizes love and acceptance, such as Maya Angelou’s, “I sustain myself with the love of family.” The other type focuses on the challenges of family life, and are often hilarious, such as Jerry Seinfeld’s, “Having a two-year-old is like having a blender that you don’t have the top for.”
I am very lucky to count myself a member of a happy family, but of course no family is without its challenges. No one would deny that even the happiest of families have difficulties along the way, some more serious than others. There are disappointments and injuries and illnesses, but there are also triumphs, and there is healing. No one can predict what will come along to disturb the balance of family life, but it is inevitable that there will be something.
How I have experienced family over the years has changed, as life brings new stages. When I was a child, my parents were the security I needed. I loved my sister, but we fought all of the time. Now we are the best of friends. When my children were young, I worried about them and loved them more than I could have thought possible, and too many times I was impatient with them. I was exhausted all of the time, and when people said that this was the best time of my life, I was ready to call it quits right then and there. When they were teens, there was a different type of worrying to do, and sometimes we butted heads. Now that they are adults, approaching their middle years themselves, I am so delighted to know them as the people they have become.
I am at the time of life when there are new blessings and new challenges. My husband and I can relax a bit now, and having grandchildren is, as a cousin of mine put it, “crazy fun.” Reading to them or playing with them, or even just watching them, gives me such a profound feeling of happiness. They remind me of what is important in life.
In a way I feel that at each stage of family life I was a bit surprised, but none so much as with having to deal with my parents getting old. Stubborn in their refusal to acknowledge that things were changing for them, they made decisions that were clearly harmful to them, and no one could convince them to change their minds. Complicating it all was the knowledge that their thinking was not as clear as it had been. Knowing this, however, didn’t really make it easier to deal with them, to try to save them from their own worst impulses. It was hard to let go of the feeling that I should be controlling them for their own good, but I finally had to, for all of our sakes. Sometimes I had to intervene, but mostly I had to just love them until the end.
Perhaps Tolstoy was right after all, if what he meant was that the one ingredient that makes all happy families the same is love, the love that gets them through all of the things that set them apart. Still, though, sometimes it’s hard to embrace all of that, so I’d like to make a recommendation for those frustrating days: google “funny quotes about families,” and laugh out loud for a while.
Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her next novel, The Map Colorist, comes out in September, 2023.