Can hardly believe it’s been almost a year since I wrote this.
Originally posted as a Facebook note on April 23rd, 2014.
On Family (A Confession)
On the last day of Passover this year, I read a book called Wonder. It centers around a ten-year-old kid named August “Auggie” Pullman who has facial anomalies/deformities that are so extreme that almost no one (other than his dog) is able to meet him and not recoil in horror. And he’s starting fifth grade in a prep school for the first time after being homeschooled by his very loving parents all his life.
Sure, Auggie’s story is interesting and all, thought-provoking about superficiality and how-would-you-feel-if-this-was-you and WHY-ARE-KIDS-SO-MEAN and so on, but (and in hindsight this is kind of “duh”) I connected much more with the brief section of the book written from the point of view of his older sister, Via. She uncomplainingly takes a backseat to August, understanding full well that he and his medical, surgical, and social integration issues are more important than whatever run-of-the-mill problems she will ever deal with. And then came this passage:
On my last day in Montauk, Grans and I had watched the sunset on the beach. We had taken a blanket to sit on, but it had gotten chilly, so we wrapped it around us and cuddled and talked until there wasn’t even a sliver of sun left over the ocean. And then Grans told me she had a secret to tell me: she loved me more than anyone else in the world.
“Even August?” I had asked.
She smiled and stroked my hair, like she was thinking about what to say. “I love Auggie very, very much,” she said softly. I can still remember her Portuguese accent, the way she rolled her r’s. “But he has many angels looking out for him already, Via. And I want you to know that you have me looking out for you. Okay, menina querida? I want you to know that you are number one for me. You are my . . .” She looked out at the ocean and spread her hands out, like she was trying to smooth out the waves, “You are my everything. You understand me, Via? Tu es meu tudo.”
I understood her. And I knew why she said it was a secret. Grandmothers aren’t supposed to have favorites. Everyone knows that. But after she died, I held on to that secret and let it cover me like a blanket.
Listen, I’ve read and reread John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, a tragic love story about kids dying of cancer, and it’s never made me cry. Choked up a little, maybe, but that’s all.
This passage just destroyed me. I had to literally put the book down because wiping my eyes with one hand wasn’t helping because the tears just kept coming. I had to bury my face in my arm and let them soak into the sleeve. I wanted to just keep crying until I had no tears left because how did I not know how badly I’ve always wished someone would say something like that to me?? — but I couldn’t, because I was sitting on the couch in the living room during a Passover lunch, and about 15 feet away was a table full of 14 people, a combination of family and guests, and emotional meltdowns are just not done in these situations. So I pulled it together.
Because that’s me, and that’s Via. We get that other things come first, and we’ve internalized it to the point where hearing someone say “No, you come first” is just incredible, in the sense of “not credible” — not true, not real, not possible.
If you asked me: “What’s the best thing about being part of a big family?” I would not be able to tell you.
Or even if you asked me: “What’s one good thing about being part of a big family?” I would still draw a blank.
If you pressed me for something, anything, I’d probably eventually come up with, “No matter what you do, there’s probably always someone else around to distract your parents from being mad at you for too long.”
But that’s kind of the crux of it, isn’t it. That the best thing I can say about big families is that you constantly get lost in the shuffle? That’s not the best thing. It’s not even a good thing. But it’s the only thing I can think of off the top of my head that’s different about having a big family vs. having a small family or a close-knit group of friends.
One of my boyfriends, after meeting my parents, said to me quietly, “Your parents are amazing. But it seems like they’re always so busy; I feel like they probably could never quite give you the attention you needed.”
I defended them, but he was right, of course. My boyfriends are sharp like that.
It’s not that my parents play favorites. It’s not that anyone kid gets all the attention over the others, although I’ve heard various siblings whine about how “HE/SHE always gets this but I never do.” I’ve never felt like I’ve played second fiddle to any one particular sibling. It’s just that we all play second fiddle to the family as a whole. To the other 8 people in it. We all occasionally have our moments to shine, but nobody ever gets to be the lead, and you know that no matter what you do, good or bad, you will be forgotten by the next day or at most the next week. This is probably why I have never been obsessed with being remembered forever or of somehow achieving immortality through my actions or my writing — being part of a big family is the quickest way to learn that all glory is temporary. Which is probably a good life lesson to process early, but still, it, well, it sucks.
The truth is that in a family with seven kids (and two parents, and for six years a sick grandmother who lived with us), when it comes to attention, you have two options: Compete or Retreat.
You can demand attention in three ways: 1) by acting out, 2) by being spectacular, or 3) by getting sick. (I totally understand Munchausen’s, by the way, because the only time any of us are ever truly prioritized over the others is when we are sick. Like hospital and/or medical testing level sick, or mentally/emotionally therapy level sick.) I didn’t like doing (1) on purpose because it seemed babyish and also would get me yelled at. (3) happened all by itself and I never faked being sick just for attention, because I hated being seen as vulnerable. So that left (2) Being Spectacular, and I probably did that the most of those three choices: brought home pristine report cards; wrote a novel in high school; received glowing praise from almost all the teachers I’ve ever had, in every subject from English to History to Talmud to Gym.
And of course, if the only time anyone is ever looking at you is when you’re spectacular, that becomes very much tied to your self-worth, because you know that if you ever slip and stop being spectacular, no one will give a damn about you anymore. Or so the internal logic goes.
But for the most part, I didn’t want to compete for the attention. I wanted to imagine myself as better than that. I also didn’t want my parents looking at me too closely or asking me anything too personal, because what if they ever wanted to talk to me about God, or religion, or even *gasp* what boy I had a crush on? Worst nightmare, amirite?
In a big family, the kids who can find ways to amuse themselves, be self-motivated, and appear to outsiders to be mostly self-sufficient, are the ones who get the least attention. If you are having some kind of internal crisis and you don’t want anyone to know, the best place to hide is in a big family. So I sort of disappeared, popping up every now and then when I got sick, when I did amazingly well on a test or a paper, when I got stories published, when I got depressed, when I got scholarships, when I had a boyfriend, when I graduated from something, etc, and the rest of the time I stayed mostly out of the way. And I think the rest of my siblings did and do the same thing because fortunately none of us are “problem children” and we’re all fairly healthy and capable and self-sufficient in our various different ways.
Resources like time, energy, and money, are limited in large families, and they have to get distributed in a way that best serves the family, and my parents do the best they can. Every kid is always going to have something that is going to require a little more investment than it does for the other kids — my medical bills, for instance. Also my bras probably cost more than any of my sisters’ because that’s just how anatomy and pricing work together in glorious harmony. And because my acne was so bad in my early teens, my mother took me to Macy’s and had the saleslady teach me some basics about makeup. And when my dad found out that I liked Mr Goodbar chocolate bars, he bought me a giant one, apropos of nothing. And of course there’s the fact that even though they’re not very comfortable with where I am religiously, they never pick fights with me about it or try to fix me.
They’re great parents. They do so many things for each of us. They try so hard. But that doesn’t change the fact that on a daily basis or a weekly basis, it is simply not humanly possible to make enough time for each of seven children, and none of us wants to be the ungrateful one, or the demanding one, or the problem child, and so we all retreat. I retreat. I put the family first. I help out more than any of the other kids. I go to lots of family gatherings even when I’d seriously rather not. I calculate expenses and I tell my parents not to spend money on things for me that I don’t need. My idea of an expensive dress is one that costs more than $20.
But does part of me resent the fact that I constantly tell my parents not to spend extra money on me, that I saved them thousands of dollars by getting a full merit scholarship to college, and yet the beneficiaries of that are my younger siblings, who get that money toward their college tuition while I’m going to have to pay on my own for that automotive technician training program I’ve been eying? Yeah, I resent it. Of course I do. I understand it, I understand prioritization, I understand that they earned that money and are obviously entitled to spend it how they choose, I understand that Pratt charges an arm and a leg and probably your opposable thumb too, and I understand how whiny and bratty my resentment is, but yeah, it’s tough to swallow sometimes. But that’s family. And I know that if I ever really needed something, they’d redistribute resources this way for me. But 6 out of 7 times, I’m going to be the one who gives a little, and not the one who gets.
My novels and stories are populated with characters who often serve as a catharsis for all sorts of issues, and only after reading that passage in Wonder did I realize that this was one of them. I created characters who were only children, so that their parents would shower them with all the attention I never got. I created characters who came from families whose parents were even more overextended than mine, or parents who were outright abusive, so that whatever buried feelings of neglect I had about my family could be painted onto them. I even wrote both of those extremes into the same family once — a pair of twins whose mother favored and pampered one and cruelly neglected the other. But I never wrote a character like Via, with parents who try so hard and do the best they can but somehow it’s just never quite been enough. That would have been too close to the truth. I wanted Via to have her own story, her own book, not one centered around Auggie. But of course, she doesn’t.
People still ask me fairly frequently why I don’t particularly want to have children — “But don’t you want a family??” — and I answer them that I’ve just never wanted kids. Not in my wiring. And yes, maybe something is odd about me biologically or evolutionarily that’s responsible for the fact that I have never wanted to reproduce, but it also probably has to do with the fact that I’ve never seen family as this pure good, as this lofty ideal. It’s just a way of living, with its pros and cons like every other way of living, and to me the tradeoffs have just never really felt worth it.
And of course, not reproducing doesn’t mean I won’t have a family. I’ve got one. I can’t get rid of it.