I spent a few days with Little and her new baby. Little is 8 and 1/2 years younger than I am. Plus, I left home when I was 14 and she, 5ish. So although I love her like crazy, our relationship has always been weird.
We are kind of like time travelers to each other. Visiting her is like looking through a murky pool into some alternate past, not my own, but so similar it feels like deja vu. For example, we have the same parents, but her childhood as the third kid, raised by distracted yet more experienced, older parents, hardly resembles mine. My mom was a SAHM until I turned 8, Little’s Mom has always worked. My family moved all the time, Little’s didn’t. Little is a Millennial, I’m Gen-X. Overlapping that are all these shared memories, easily identifiable even though they are different from our differing perspectives.
So when Little asks me questions, they are usually less interactive and more like she’s gathering information for the future. Not like I’m a mother figure—I wasn’t around long enough to gain that kind of influence. More like I’m a prototype, an earlier version of what she herself may become, or might have become. FWIW, this usually feels kind of gross to me, even though I love Little. I guess because most of her questions are about family, and I don’t like the sense I am the Failed Experiment Child. Or perhaps I just don’t like the idea that she will never return the favor of seeing into my future for me.
For the past few years, Little’s been asking me about my experience with the relatives I excommunicated (hereby deemed The Exes), and the fall-out I had with our mom*. Little’s defense of these questions is that she feels she never learned to have an opinion, and so she’s studying me to see how it works.
This excuse seemed crazy to me, but also maybe true. I guess as the third kid, going with the flow is a survival skill – everyone older has an opinion on how things should be and perhaps when you are the last kid, trying to keep up with everyone else, and nobody has time to bend to your will, the best way to get along is to agree.
Probably because I’m so much older, and because I like to act like I know what I’m doing, it does feel like I took some Time Traveler’s Oath to relay the future as clearly as I can.
And so when Little confessed that she has not stayed excommunicated with The Exes, it clarified for me that I am the only person in my family who has kept the line of not letting The Exes back in my life. In a certain sense, I am the person who ended up ex-communicated, because everyone else talks with each other and I don’t.
This was one of my biggest fears, of course, when deciding to cut The Exes out of my life: my family would cut me out instead. I was afraid to be left out on my own, to be ostracized – that doing so would mean I was wrong, or had lost a power struggle. How embarrassing, right? To think you are a united front, only to find out when you stand up that everyone else remains sitting. Honestly, I was afraid if that happened, it would destroy some important part of me. Also, back then, I feared it was my guilty heart, that I couldn’t tolerate the thing I intended to do to someone else.
And in a slow and sliding way, the thing I was afraid of happened.
From the distance of years, I can report that it’s way more powerful to have made the decision to excommunicate without regard to what my family did. I see now that in wanting my family on my side in the ex-communication, I was giving them power over me, that I couldn’t get what I wanted unless they agreed. Giving up my voice to my family was what helped hurt me in the first place. The thing I was most afraid of was the thing I had to face.
By going my own way, I was able to make a decision about protecting myself (adios excommunicated assholes!) and then let go of all the painful reasons for doing so. I don’t have to keep thinking about what happened, which I would have had to do if I needed to keep my family on my side – the constant re-convincing them.
It may be true that I have become the black sheep in my family, or that my sisters and parents are all off secretly meeting one or both of The Exes, but since I’m not engaged in keeping up with those things, I don’t hear about it, and so I don’t care.
It hurts when Little mentions she keeps up with The Exes, especially since she knows/witnessed some of the painful experiences I had at their hands. About a year ago, Little said, “Are you ever going to talk to them again? And then nervously confessed to having been on a road trip with one Ex, who (according to Little) announced, “I’m your family, and I love (other Ex) and that means eventually you have to let us back in. That’s how family works.”
It felt very good, and very calm, to be able to say, “That’s never going to happen for me,” and know it was the truth because I’m the only one who decides. No committee, no vote, no political wranglings. It also felt fairly good, (although disappointing and sad, too) to be able to say “No, it’s none of my business” when Little nervously asked if I’d hold it against her for staying in contact with The Exes.
Anyway, when I visited Little this time, she broached the subject of the Exes by mentioning what one of them had been up to. I kept quiet, because it’s been a great sanity saver to not engage in any talk about them. I figure my parents and siblings have a right to talk about them (as in, I don’t have the right to police their speech) but I try to keep the mindset they are talking about people with whom I have no interest or connection, so there’s no need for me to say anything.
“Are you not saying anything because you’re angry?” Little asked.
I told her I was happy not knowing about them, that my life was better without The Exes in it. Which, I guess if you are reading this with your own relatives in mind, trying to figure out the pros and cons of ditching some of them, this is one great positive:
In the beginning, I agonized that by severing ties with The Exes, I’d have to live with a big hole in my life where they’d been. Like any other amputation, I’d suffer phantom pains, and would always look at that part of myself and mourn what had been cut away.
Instead, I’m pleased to report that life feels better. Not in a spiteful way, but in a big sigh of relief every holiday when I don’t have to feel angry at being forced to deal with them, or guilty for avoiding them. More like having a cancerous growth removed – sure, there’s a scar there that reminds me, but holy fuck, does every day I don’t have to think about cancer anymore feel pretty awesome? YEP.
In explaining this to Little, I did mention how, in the first year after the blow up, I’d been tempted to ask around about the relatives. My reasons for confessing the temptation were selfishly motivated – I thought perhaps Little was looking for the playbook of how it might feel to excommunicate, and I must admit to secretly hoping she would follow in my footsteps.
On the tail of my one sentence confession, Little immediately began telling me whatever she knew about The Exes. I interrupted her twice, trying to get the rest of my statement out – how I’d learned life was so much better not knowing, not being engaged, not bothering to think about them for months at a time. Little plowed over my interruptions, motivated for whatever reason to reconnect me to The Exes’ doings. Finally, I had to plug my ears and yell “LalalalalalalaMutherfuckingla!” until she shut up.
It made me angry she seemed so eager to push me back into a connection, and sad to think she must still feel so much pressure to put our family back together again. Like I told her: That’s never going to happen for me. It also made me realize that if I’d tried to tie my excommunication to hers (I’m sure I believed back then that two were stronger than one, and we could buoy each other. I probably also believed my family would not dare black-sheep two kids) I would have never made it. I would have been sucked back into the same dysfunctional set up. Even with years of distance, and probably not intentionally trying to hurt me, Little still tried to suck me back in.
Anyway, TL;DR – Three years after kicking two relatives out of my life, managed to learn two things. 1) One of the things I was most afraid of happened, turned out not to not be that bad. I mean, it sucked, but it didn’t destroy me like I thought it might. 2) I thought I wasn’t strong enough on my own, but it turned out ‘on my own’ was the only way I could succeed.
* I’ll try to do the fall out with my mom, re: Little next time. Sorry, this post got long and naval-gazey af, and now my brain hurts a little.