“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to,” my husband Ryan said as he laced up his sneakers and stuffed his wallet in his back pocket. His parents were due at our apartment at any minute, and I was still in my pajamas, wrapped in a cocoon of bedsheets and duvet cover.
“Are you sure they won’t mind?” I asked. Although I was relieved Ryan recognized that I needed a day off from his parents, who were visiting from out of town, I couldn’t ignore the guilt souring my stomach. Before he could answer, I hit him with another question: “Are you okay with me staying home?”
“Of course I am, why wouldn’t I be?” he said. “I’ll text you later, and if you want, you can meet us for dinner.” Ryan gave me a quick kiss before he dashed off.
I waited until I heard the lock click on our front door; then I exhaled. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy spending time with his parents. But after four years of marriage I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the unwritten family obligations I suddenly felt pressured to fulfill — obligations that were a nonissue issue in my dysfunctional family, especially when I was single.
Growing up, I was hardly capable of distancing myself from my alcoholic mom and the alcoholic she picked to be my stepdad. Together they built a life dominated by booze and violence, which extended well beyond the four walls of our humble row home in Philadelphia. Their wedding, my Holy Communion, nearly every Christmas and so many birthdays were marred by drama that usually put someone in the hospital or in handcuffs by the end of the night.
It wasn’t until after my 8th birthday that I escaped the chaos and moved 30 minutes away to live with my dad and my stepmom, two people who appeared calm and collected to extended family and friends, but who were just as erratic and irrational as my mom and stepdad. Over the years, my dad spent more time in his garage getting drunk off Budweiser than he ever did talking to me, while my stepmom used every emotionally and mentally abusive trick available to twist my already mangled self-esteem into a knot. While living under their roof, I was constantly seeking a way out.
Shortly after I started my freshman year in college, my stepmom packed up her car and headed to Florida to be with a lover she met online. After a few days, in her new life, she called to explain why she left. “Me leaving for Florida,” she said, “Is just like you leaving for college.” Initially, as I’d done so many times before, I tried to make her excuse sound rational in my head. But I just couldn’t do it — and that’s when I realized that I wouldn’t have to do it anymore, if I didn’t want to. Through my stepmom’s affair, I found my way out from under the dysfunction that plagued my family. From that point forward, I gave myself permission to say no to any family member or gathering that would put my safety or sanity at risk.
Over the years, that would mean saying no to Christmas Eve dinners at my aunt’s house, missing a grandmother’s funeral and never again feeling pressured to sort out Mother’s Day brunch reservations or flower deliveries. What at first felt taboo became a level of freedom that both boosted my confidence and gave me the space I needed to recover from decades of neglect and abuse.
Being single with complete control over when and if I spent time with my family meant that my life was obligation-free. If I wanted to spend Thanksgiving Day in my pajamas eating Chinese takeout and watching season after season of “Sex and the City,” then that’s what I did. During that time, it never occurred to me that one day I’d meet and marry someone like Ryan who sends flowers on Mother’s Day, shows up to celebrate his grandmother’s birthday, and shuttles out to Long Island on Christmas to spend time with both sides of his family. For me, such events have always been optional. But for my husband, it’s how he shows his family he cares.
Back at my apartment, later that night, I got a text from Ryan about dinner: “We’re eating at GBK. You wanna come?”
After Ryan left that morning, I showered and slipped back into my pajamas. I ordered sushi for lunch, I watched a season of “The Trailer Park Boys” on Netflix, and I contemplated making cupcakes. Although my obligation-free single days were over, that didn’t mean that I couldn’t occasionally take a brief day trip back to visit my old life. So I picked up my phone and replied: “Nah, I think I’m in for the night.”