"Nobody feels normal!"
That's what my friend E. said to her eight-year-old daughter, A., who had been complaining about her family not being like other families. A's parents are divorced, and she has a stepmother, and maybe someday she'll have a stepfather too. "Why can't we be normal?!" she asked her mom. "Normal" kids apparently have parents who are still together.
Two thoughts came to mind when E. told me about this conversation. The first was surprise: What decade is this kid living in that she thinks staying married is the normal thing for parents to do? Surely if she looks around at the other kids she knows she'll see other families split up.
Of course having your parents be divorced is a drag. I can relate. I found it just as upsetting.
But I don't remember thinking it made us "different," and I was growing up a couple decades earlier.
Being a latchkey kid? Now that was normal.
E. and I met right before eighth grade, just when my parents were getting their divorce. As much as I loved E.'s family - and continue to - I thought it was a little weird that her dad worked in the same place all his life and her mom stayed home taking care of kids and they never moved and they never got divorced.
My other response was empathy. I've felt how A. does. About my family, about other things as well: Why can't we be normal? Or, why can't we be the way I want us to be? What's with my life, why isn't it like other people's? Why didn't I get married and have kids like everybody else? What am I doing alone? What am I doing with my life?
In this season of deliberately questioning everything, I've asked those questions again. It's been nice to have a safe place to ask them, to ask them on purpose in the daylight with other people to discuss them with instead of having them sneak up on me in the middle of the night when I'm vulnerable and alone.
I thought E.'s exasperated response to her daughter was spot on. I mean, I don't know if it worked for A. Maybe she needed a different kind of reassurance. A hug. And so on. But instead she got the kind of answer my own mother would have given, were I falling into some petulant bout of self-pity. And maybe it's an answer I needed to hear, too. Here's what E. said:
"Honey, nobody feels normal. Everybody feels like they are not normal."
"What about you, growing up with Grammy and Grampy?"
"But I grew up with Uncle N," she reminded her daughter. N. is autistic. He was around all the time E. and I were growing up, but that's before A. was born of course. When he gets frustrated, he's quite a handful: runs away, can't be held down. The family couldn't have any nice things in their house because he would break them. When he got dangerous and they could no longer do much for him or keep him from hurting himself or others his parents found a place for him in an institution.
"Nobody feels normal," said E.