I was trained to believe that we are in control of our lives. I think it’s a product of the seventies and positive thinking philosophies. I believed that if I worked hard enough, thought positive thoughts, and did my best, that I could make my life turn out perfect.
Then one day I came face to face with the fact that I can’t control my world. No matter how hard we try, some things are out of our control. Listening to my son rage in a meth-fueled delirium over the phone for the hundredth time removed every last shred of ambiguity I had about control.
When I think back to what I wanted for my sons, it was simply for them to be healthy, happy and successful. I wanted a big cheerful family with ‘good’ kids. I did everything I could imagine to guarantee that. Healthy foods, regular checkups, positive reinforcement, church, boy scouts, theater, swim lessons, sports, loving encouragement, good schooling, help with homework… We visited family often, hosted holidays, and worked to create the family I wanted.
You name it, we did it.
Preparing for the holidays this year, I realize that by those standards I am an abysmal failure. This year is nothing like I imagined my future holidays would be. I have one son who is divorced, on probation, and an addict. My other son, although financially stable and married, suffers from depression. My addicted son has major problems with our extended family and really would prefer not to spend Christmas with them.
My younger self would have been horrified – addiction, depression, crime, family strife. Where is the perfect family? I have the color-coordinated pictures, the family traditions, the scrapbooks. I can bring receipts; I did the work. This is not how it was supposed to turn out…
But it’s okay, I’m not that person anymore. Over the last few years, I have learned a lot, and the most important thing I’ve learned is that I can’t control my life or my kids’ lives. The only thing I can control is my thoughts. I can see all the ways I’ve fallen short of my dreams, or I can see where I and my family actually are, and the truth in each situation.
I’ve learned to accept both my boys exactly as they are. I’ve let go of the dream version of my adult sons and fallen in love with who they actually grew up to be.
My youngest, who struggles with depression, is loving, caustically witty, and hardworking. He and his wife have blessed us with an adorable grandson who laughs and smiles enough for three toddlers. My son and his wife are wonderful people and work together to learn the best ways to deal with my son’s depression and are helping my grandson learn to deal with his emotions in healthy ways (something this grandma didn’t learn till my 50s). They are all amazing, and I trust them to figure it all out.
My son who has substance abuse disorder is currently 13 months sober. He attends four NA meetings a week and is almost ready to begin sponsoring others. He calls me every day. Sometimes he complains furiously about his boss and his job (I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut and just let him vent), and other days his words carry sunshine as he tells me how he helped another addict, or shared in a meeting, or kept his cool in a situation where he normally would have used. His girlfriend is a former addict as well and he is helping her in her sobriety. They seem really good for each other. My son sometimes seems more comfortable with former addicts than his own family. But they understand him in ways we never will. So I’ve accepted that.
Our family Christmas will be fractured. But I’ll listen to my son, and respect his wishes. I’ll split the group and have more time to spend with everyone. My husband realizes that multiple get-togethers mean more work and has kindly offered to order food for our holidays. (I’ll have to think about that, cooking for my family is one of my love languages, but I might take him up on it.)
My mother-in-law isn’t happy about splitting up the holiday celebrations, but I’m hoping to help her see that trying to force others to do something that is emotionally unhealthy for them, is not how my family works anymore.
So, I can’t make my kids happy, or sober, or make my family get along, or make my in-laws happy. But I can look at my situation clearly and honestly. It is not what I would have ever planned. But it is what it is. It is a bunch of imperfect people, each doing their best, and that is good.
Others may judge it or think I’ve failed, but I know better. Those who are lucky enough to have perfect families and children can enjoy them in blissful ignorance. I know that perfection is a fragile, fleeting thing. They can appreciate their blessings, but the credit goes to chance and luck, not their control.
While others celebrate their perfection, I’m celebrating honesty and effort. I’ve given up control and expectations. I’m just over here coasting along on the current of life, seeing where it will take me, finding happiness in unexpected places, and appreciating it all the more, because I know how precarious it really is.