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Ashley Solomon, Psy.D is a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness.

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Redefining family

February 7, 2011 14 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

alone{Image Credit :: Wilson Fotografie}

In a world where wedding planning involves weeks of heart-wrenching debate over how to appropriately signify mom’s longtime boyfriend (or dad’s) on the invitation, and having a half-sibling or step-daughter is more the rule than the exception, one would imagine that we as a society are becoming more open to the idea of non-traditional families.

But what if our relationship with our family is not mired by the complex reconfigurations of re-marriage and adoption, but rather by the painful reality that our family just isn’t very good for us?

We’ve been taught to believe that our family, and particularly our parents, are to be our advocates and our protectors. They are our coaches and our cheerleaders, our safe-keepers and the creators of our joy, our shoulders to lean on and our sleeves to wipe away our tears. That is, except when they are not.

For some of us, our parents and families are not our beacons of safety, but rather perpetrators of hurtful attacks. They can abuse us physically, verbally, and emotionally, leaving scars that may run as deep as the ocean but never show on the surface of the peaceful lakes we have created. Families can tear us down, weaken our connection to ourselves, and make us question what can be trusted in this sometimes chaotic world.

Of course, this isn’t true for all families, or even most. Fortunately for many of us, our families are our sources of strength and comfort, empowering and emboldening us to live the lives we were meant to live. But when they’re not, and they don’t, what do we do?

Then, in the midst of what we have lost, we rebuild. We create our own families.

Recently a woman I know, Jenny, told me about a very special relationship she had developed with with a neighbor that lived down the block. My friend was much younger than this woman, Susan, who was in her early sixties by the time that the pair met. Jenny told me that when she encountered Susan, she felt a connection with her instantly. Sure they were separated by at least a generation, maybe more. But they bonded over a love of green tea, science fiction books, and the Rolling Stones.

Over the years, their relationship became a mixture of friendship and mentorship. Jenny shared with Susan about her strained relationship with her own mother, who lived several states away, and about the hole that this had left in her heart. She shared that she often ached for the love of her family, particularly around holidays, and how she had used many things – food, alcohol, even reading fiction – as a way to escape the pain she felt. Susan, like all good mentors and friends, validated Jenny’s struggle and did little else but be with her. For Jenny, this was enough. The comfort of feeling accepted unconditionally was what was missing for her, and she found this in the quiet moments spent in Susan’s garden or at her kitchen table.

Jenny told me that several years later, Susan unexpectedly died of a stroke. Jenny was devastated initially, feeling that the universe had taken away her greatest advocate. But later she recognized that she was able to move through the pain because Susan had taught her to do so – by allowing her to feel the pain without judgment. Jenny told me with a mixture of sadness and joy in her eyes, “My mother gave me birth, but Susan gave me life.”

That phrase has stuck with me. I began to reflect on all of the individuals who had given me life and taught me to be more of who I am. Some of them have been family in the traditional sense. And some have been the family that I have created for myself. Whether connected by blood, proximity, or good books, the people that we choose to make our family should be the ones that give us the gift of life – our own.

How do you define family?

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13 Comments

  1. Christie {Abundant Self Care}
    4 years ago

    Wow, Ashely, what a powerful post – particularly for me. I don’t have a great relationship with my dad – in fact – it is down right toxic. Recently, I tried to reconnect with him – forgive and forget if you will – only to discover that the relationship was as toxic as ever. I can change, and I have, but he cannot and over the past couple of days, I have been coming to terms with this. Realizing that being estranged is the best way for me and my health. As much as I would like to say I have one of the happy families that are supportive and wonderful – I just don’t. And accepting that is hard work.

    I have found wonderful relationships in my life though. Ones that are supportive and fulfilling and help me navigate through life in a way that is authentic and true for me. These people have become my family.
    Christie {Abundant Self Care} recently posted..Intuitive Eating- Stop Eating When Full

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing The Soul
      4 years ago

      Thanks, Christie. As you talked about on Honoring Health, I know you’ve done a lot of work around this. Thanks for sharing your reflections and experience so openly. It has certainly helped others and myself understand how this can be done in a healthy way.

      Reply

  2. Alex @ Healing Beauty
    4 years ago

    I define family as the individuals in my life who are able to support and love me through the good times and the bad. They are the ones who allow me to use my voice and even encourage it; instead of silencing my words and beliefs. My “recovery family” includes my three best friends who came to visit me almost every weekend while I was in treatment and who came to multiple family group therapy and acted as my family, as well as the friends I made in treatment who supported me through all the ups and downs. I believe your family can be the one you create out of those special people who are there for you no matter what, and don’t judge you for your flaws.
    Alex @ Healing Beauty recently posted..Tool Kits for Anxiety- Depression- or Sadness

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  3. Dana Udall-Weiner
    4 years ago

    Wow–moving post, Ashley. I think we spend our lives trying to cobble together a family of choice, whether or not we come from homes with abuse or neglect. Because we all want to be surrounded by love and care and empathy, and we seek for friends and partners who will give these things to us. I love the story of Jenny and Susan, and the idea that Susan gave Jenny life. What a beautiful story, one that transcends time and age.
    Dana Udall-Weiner recently posted..Do You Feel Guilty for Eating “Bad” Foods

    Reply

  4. KCLAnderson (Karen)
    4 years ago

    I have many steps and halves…in some cases, step steps! My relationships are strongest, not necessarily with those whom I am connected by blood, but with those whom are supportive and encouraging…my half sister, my stepmother (who is no longer married to my father), my stepfather’s wife, my grandfather’s wife, my own stepkids!

    What moved me most about your story was Jenny being able to move through the pain of Susan’s death, because Susan had taught her to do so. That is the kind of relationship I had with my father, who recently died. With my mother I am not so lucky. Like Christie and her father, it is best for me not to be in contact with my mother. And it is very hard to accept (it took me 48 years to get here!) but now that I do, life is so much better.
    KCLAnderson (Karen) recently posted..Both Passive And Active

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing The Soul
      4 years ago

      That’s a fantastic point, Karen, about how Susan had taught her to grieve – and love – in a way. I’m so glad that you had someone like that in your father. I’m again so sorry for your loss.

      Reply

  5. sana quijada
    4 years ago

    we create our own families – awesome. keep on!

    Reply

  6. Dorry
    4 years ago

    What a beautiful post. I’m blessed with 2 amazing older sisters. They are my heart. Together, we felt the pain and sadness of our parents’ divorce almost 20 years ago, and it bonded us in a way that really defines family for me. Both of our parents are now happily remarried, and thankfully my sisters and I worked through the residual issues that often come from a divorce, and we are all close with our mom, dad and their respective spouses. Now that they both pf my sisters have daughters, our whole family bond has grown stronger because we all have their best interest in mind. And then there’s Billy. My precious husband. He’s more than family.
    Dorry recently posted..Fill Me Up- Butter Cup

    Reply

    • Ashley @ Nourishing The Soul
      4 years ago

      What a wonderful example of how change can actually bring a family together. And I’m so happy that you have Billy in your life as well ;-)

      Reply

  7. Kat
    4 years ago

    I don’t think I have the traditional family, the past has made that more of a distorted hope than anything… But I do think I have a networked family.

    By which I mean, I think family can be people you feel alive around… that you want to do more than exist around. Family consists of the people that will put things into perspective for you (if it’s needed), but defend you a split second to anyone that doubts.

    I think that families (traditional or non) are wholly capable of hurting… but I think the difference is whether they care that they did or not. I think a true family cares when another one is hurting (even if they’re the one that caused the pain)
    Kat recently posted..why people that care can scare

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    2 years ago

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