This past weekend, I celebrated a birthday. It was a milestone birthday. I turned 35.
I don’t know how I managed to blink my eyes at 25 and find myself at 35. I don’t feel like I am 35. And yet, I am. So bizarre how that happens, right?
But thinking about hitting this ripe old age had me a bit introspective about how far I’ve come. I don’t want to write one of those “35 things to know by age 35” lists, because: ew. People don’t work like that. We all learn and grow and change at our own pace. But I did want to look back on things that I have learned in my 35 years on this planet.
Family is Who Shows Up
Growing up, the constant message I would hear was, “family is everything”.
It was my job to ensure that everyone was comfortable and happy and to always keep the peace. Even if it meant living in misery or to the point of enabling unethical behaviour. To not keep the peace meant dealing with punishment and temper tantrums that were anxiety-inducing to the point of nightmares.
My loyalty was expected in everything, even when it meant ending outside relationships because someone else in my family could not figure out how to navigate uncomfortable feelings/conflict and found walking away to be so much easier.
Because that is what family does.
As long as others were happy, it didn’t matter if I was not. In fact, my negative feelings were unwelcome because they invited discomfort into the house.
To put it simply: this is all toxic. This is not the roadmap to healthy relationship. Even if someone happens to share DNA with me, there is nothing in this world that can compel me to loyalty when it is undeserved.
Family is there for each other, no question. But that also means that family is there for you even when your feelings are big and uncomfortable and require you to enforce boundaries.
Family does not mean putting up with inappropriate behaviour. Family does not mean allowing abuse to continue. Family does not mean zero boundaries. If someone repeatedly hurts you or crosses your boundaries, if someone repeatedly puts their own feelings and needs above yours, it’s very fair to say that they are not your family. They are simply people with whom you share genetic code.
If it is healthier to limit contact with them or to cease contact all together, do not listen to those who try to tell you that you are sinning or in the wrong. No one has a right to a relationship with you. It doesn’t matter if they share genetics with you. It doesn’t matter if they are literally the reason you came into existence. None of it matters if there is no respect in how they treat you.
Family is who shows up. Family is who shows you consistent love and respect. Family is who honours your boundaries and cares about your feelings.
Often family are the people you choose, not the ones you grew up with.
There Is No Shortcut To Growth
Growing up in the kind of dysfunctional family I did, grit was often in short supply for all of us. Follow-through was not a thing. We’d often start things and then drop them because they were too challenging or too hard or just took too much effort.
The message was subtle, but constantly humming: if its not immediately accessible to you, there’s no point in trying anything new. This left all of us stunted in not only our achievements, but our personal growth. We didn’t know how to interact with one another in a healthy way. We didn’t know how to grow spiritually.
We lacked the resources to become full and thriving adults capable of maturity and self-awareness.
Our hard feelings were beaten back and reacted to without curiosity about where they came from. There was no willingness to learn new paths to emotional health.
We found the path of least resistance, and we stayed. Because it was easier than the alternative.
But I’ve learned since then that there truly is no way to change one’s life without being willing to endure hard things and lean into hard feelings.
Personal growth can be hard work. Learning to ask questions and sit with unanticipated or undesirable answers can be hard work. Learning to label and feel our feelings can be hard work. Relationships can be hard work. Taking personal responsibility for our emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental health can be hard work.
There’s no quick or easy path through any of that except to settle in and do the work. No one can take it off our plates. It is up to each of us to live our own lives and do our own work.
Life Never Goes How We Planned (And That’s Not A Bad Thing)
If you had asked me 10-15 years ago about my future plans, I would have given a few answers. I saw myself working in a career centred around music or perhaps language (I even started school to get some official certification in French language studies). I saw myself getting married one day to the love of my life (who would be a conservative Christian) and having 5 kids. I saw myself getting buried into my future family and being the mom I was told I needed to be. I saw my life defined by other people. I saw myself taking my dying breath as an Evangelical Christian.
Guess which one of those actually panned out? Nada.
But my life did not end.
I did not graduate university. Instead, I found passion in a new career path working with children. I learned invaluable lessons and gained great experience that I can put towards raising my own child(ren), should that day come. I gained important skills about what it means to be the adult in the room who guides littles into the people they were meant to be. I earned enough to support myself without needing a roommate. I learned what it was to truly live on my own and take full responsibility for myself.
And these were important lessons to learn.
I also learned that I’m not as wild about children as I had grown up thinking that I was. Don’t get me wrong: I do love children, and I would not complain if a child was placed in my arms one day for me to mother. That child would be loved and cherished and would never be left wanting for anything. But I no longer see motherhood as the ultimate goal and identity that I was born to fulfill. Children are not my purpose. I am a full person with or without little people who call me, “mama.”
I didn’t start dating the love of my life until I was 31, about 3-4 years after the point I had grown up believing I would definitely be married (because, obvs, after that I would be an old maid and unmarriageable). While I wish it were possible we could have met and fallen in love years earlier to have more time together, I don’t think we would have worked out on any other timeline.
I needed time to heal from a dysfunctional and traumatic childhood. I needed time to grow and make room for someone to have a completely separate identity from me, including different theological beliefs. I needed room to grow as a person and understand better the dynamics of a healthy partnership. Neither of us are are losing ourselves inside of the other. We are two complete individuals sharing life and supporting each other.
We both needed time to grow up and date other people and find out what we each needed and wanted within a relationship.
Oh and he’s not a Christian. And while I still identify as a Christian, I am no longer Evangelical (but Evangelicalism will always have a special place in my heart).
So much of my religious upbringing emphasized my lack of importance. I was told that it was a sign of a selfish and rebellious heart if I ever caught myself making my own needs or wants a priority. I was taught that the key part of living out the gospel was “death to self”.
Particularly as a female, I needed to be careful not to be too inward-focused. My life was meant to be spent in care-taking. First to my family of origin and then to my future husband and any children we may have. The devil roamed and sought to whisper the same lies in my ear that he whispered into Eve’s. I could have it all. I could take charge of my own life and do as I pleased.
But this a false gospel. I matter. My needs matter. My wants matter. My feelings matter.
I get to invest in myself through therapy to heal from past trauma and to grow as a healthy and thriving individual.
I get to invest in myself through how I feed myself. I can choose the foods my body needs to be healthy and still make room for the yummy treats that make life worthwhile.
I get to invest in myself by finding and pursuing my interests.
I get to invest in myself through setting healthy boundaries with others and finding people who are healthy for me.
I get to invest in myself. Period.
I didn’t see myself sitting where I am 15 years ago, but I wouldn’t actually change very much about this place or how I got here.
I don’t have a road map in mind for the next 35 years. Maybe I’ll write a book or two. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll have a child. Maybe I won’t. I don’t know. And you know what? I’m okay with that.
I don’t see a clear path in front me of me right now, but I know that my partner will be by my side. I know that my best friends will be along for the ride. And I know that I worship a God whose love is faithful and enduring.
I will be okay wherever I might end up.