I’ve gone through phases when I’ve wanted to appear normal. I wore properly pasteled clothes from Lands End, drove a mini-van, attended mom and me classes, bought the right snacks for soccer practice, made Halloween costumes by hand, went to the mall in regular intervals. Actually all that makes me sound quite abnormal, like some kind of Stepford Wife, which is exactly how I often felt in that role.
Although there were aspects I loved—spending time with my kids and the more creative side of things—I often felt robotic, going through the motions, enjoying my children’s lives, but not sure of how to cultivate my own desires. Someone said being normal simply means having no courage. I’m inclined to agree.
Throughout my youth, I never felt normal. I didn’t come from a normal family—divorced. I didn’t have normal hair—unholy frizz akin to Hermione Granger. I didn’t have normal hands and feet—enormous. I didn’t think or act like other girls, or so I thought. The funny thing is that probably all kids think this at some point, so all kids, while they think they are some unique island, are running around thinking the same thing—no one gets me. I imagine most of us adults run around thinking that still. It’s probably why so many join social clubs or become insane fans of any given sports team or attend church four nights a week. If you involve yourself in a group, it can decide for you who you are and then you don’t need to think about any of it: I’m a Seventh Day Adventist. I’m a Mets fan. I’m a Mason. I’m a soccer mom. Those kinds of claims are considered normal. I’ve tried on many. But I’ve never identified with any of them.
So you can imagine my surprise when my best friend said, “I’m amazed that you turned out so normal.” I’m fairly certain I maniacally laughed at her. We were sitting in my car in my driveway and I’d just gifted her with some of the more graphic stories of my youth. Wide-eyed, she just didn’t get it. How could someone who came from such violence and chaos lead such a normal life as an adult? How had I not also become an alcoholic? How had I not made horrendous choices for my life that led to my spiraling down into self-destruction and darkness?
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I was lucky.”
But it wasn’t luck. Not all of it, anyway.
My friend came from a large, in-tact family that, while they were constantly moving due to her father’s military career, led lives that resembled a typical 1950’s home. Stable, predictable, strongly convicted, church-driven, quiet, and ran like a machine due to the deeply rooted roles of Mother, Father, and Child. Families like that, she surmised, turned out OK. While families like mine, with no such similarity, were doomed.
We were a little doomed, to be honest. But aren’t we all a little doomed anyway? If our parents don’t mess us up, we mess ourselves up. It’s part of learning and evolving. We all make mistakes at some point. We all suffer loss and heartbreak and death. We are all our own version of a mess.
We had that conversation four years ago to this writing, and I’ve thought about it ever since. I’d never considered why I didn’t go down the same exact path as my parents, I just always knew I wouldn’t. Of course I did walk in their footsteps a bit, as all shared genes have a way of doing. I couldn’t avoid all the things I said I’d never do, and I didn’t do all the things I swore I would. This is, my darling, how it goes for all of us. The difference is, when you let yourself consider all those things done and not done, you realize that you have learned tremendous lessons from all of it. I learned that I turned out “normal” despite great odds. But I still struggle from those odds, they are part of me whether I look normal or not.
So I wonder, how did I turn out the way I did? Determination? Resilience? Talent? Wisdom? Experience? Love? Learning the hard way? Parents? Sister?
All of that and more, and the simple fact that I just keep going. But the reality is that normal usually stops. By definition it suggests a ceasing of change. That’s why it’s normal. It’s steady. Predictable. Safe.
I am none of these things.
The basis of evolution is that species adapt to new conditions in order to survive. My family is the best proof of evolution one could hope to find, manifested in two or three generations, but surely going back even further to a single pioneer who was the impetus for a family that never stops changing and trying to improve upon itself, a continual trial and error and trial again. Many families grow. They expand with children and marriages or they may split and go in various directions, making the family tree branch out in unexpected ways. But there’s quantitative growth and qualitative growth and only the latter is what helps a family evolve. Simply creating new generations isn’t necessarily beneficial. Raising those generations to be able to adapt to change, learn and grow, is.
In my experience many families tend to reproduce identical copies of the model they think they have perfected and should a member of that model step out of line, the construct is threatened—at least in the senior members’ eyes.
These are the people who say things like, “In my day we didn’t [insert anything here],” or “Why fix it if it isn’t broken?” or “The trouble with kids these days is.”
Many families tend to think they know how everything works and that their model is what everyone should reflect. Which means the younger generations know nothing and any attempt to alter it is futile. This is not a precursor for growth or change.
I lived with a family like this for twenty years. In the beginning, they seemed to be a tight-knit, fun-loving group that loved to spend time together—blood was thicker than water. These are not bad things, but I came to understand the repercussions of such values when they are held to the extreme with no flexibility. This group moved together like a flock. All heads turned at the same time, all thought was filtered through the matriarch who was loving, albeit with immature love, uneducated, and at times abusive. No one questioned it and nearly no one allowed themselves to surpass her educational or emotional ceiling, most likely due to the abuse that occurred early on, a false power that held them down long into adulthood. That may be one of the most remarkable things to see from the outside, that the young refused to rise up against their parents even if that simply meant getting a college education. It was a threat.
My parents live by a philosophy that each generation should surpass the last. In education, in success, in emotional or psychological capacity, in happiness. Their hopes are that they raise children who will grow past the bar they set. They work toward that end-goal, watching as their offspring take off without them. The other family can’t allow that to happen because they won’t know what to do with themselves should their flock leave. No one else is like them and this gives them a certain kind of power they don’t want to release. The young may leave the nest but circle right around it, never leaving the family-church, never challenging the core beliefs, never even interacting with outsiders in any prolonged way, perhaps in fear that they may be swayed or lose the love of their tribe.
Growth does not occur in this arrangement, only continued cookie-cutter punch-outs of the model. No one breaks the mold. Therefore defining normal and simply reproducing it over and over. Generations of sameness. They will only survive for so long. They also never truly learn resilience.
So now when I think about the answer to that question, “How did I turn out normal?” I now respond: “I didn’t. I turned out better.”