Over the last month or two, this question has come up with increased frequency, doubtless because of the holiday season. Some readers wrote to say that, as they aged, they particularly missed being able to share memories of the past with their siblings, while others highlighted the irony of their regrets, as “Donna” did:
“I keep thinking that it’d be good to talk to my brothers and sisters about the past and then I have to force myself to stop fantasizing since my siblings appear to have grown up with very different parents than the ones I remember. Still, it’s a pity that my recall makes me a pariah in their eyes, the ungrateful sister who dishonors our mother’s memory.”
Yet another bemoaned the loss, writing that “I wonder if I’ll ever get over being pushed out of the family I was born into by my sister who is the keeper of Mom’s flame. My two brothers are nothing more than foot soldiers in my sister’s army.”
Lest you think this is just a seasonal thing, it was one of the questions submitted by readers for my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book. This piece is adapted from the answer in the book.
Now, about those words…
The words “get over” and “loss” are highly freighted. If “get over” means magically rendered good as new, my personal answer would be no. The word “healing” means to make whole but I believe that thinking about healing that way is misleading and is a pathway to kinds of positive thinking that ultimately paper over the hurts we need to address and deal with. Humans are hardwired to belong to communities; evolution selected those who build communities because—duh! —the forebears who lived in isolation tended not to survive. The first community we are hardwired to belong to is our family of origin, and some of our most lasting definitions of self, some consciously perceived and others not, come out of our experiences and interactions with that first tribe. Even with a toxic or difficult childhood, not every memory is going to be negative and that too affects our sense of loss. While we may have hated being the oldest and the focus of our mother’s harsh criticism, we may have relished being our younger sibling’s caretaker. We may feel some points of connection even when we are most defined by our outsider status. Even though cutting these ties is the only way forward to health, we may feel the loss keenly. It’s only when we begin to address why we felt that we didn’t belong that we begin to see how we were shaped by the treatment of each and every member of the house; it’s then that we begin to see ourselves with clarity. We are then empowered to change the behaviors learned in that very first group.
“While I’d long recognized how my mother’s targeting me had affected me, I didn’t see how the men in the family—my father and my three brothers—added on. My dad didn’t protect me and my brothers echoed what Mom said about me at school and elsewhere. Horrible. I have nothing to do with them. I envy people who have nice brothers, in fact.”
What we do next is up to us. We can build a family by having children we raise differently or we can build a family without having children by growing and cultivating close relationships with people not related to us by blood. We can build a family through shared interests and caring. And we can arrive at a new definition of healing. In my view, too many daughters are looking for a solution that would render them good as new in some way, as if the past didn’t happen and as if a wave of a magic wand could disappear their scars. Truthfully, that’s not going to happen. But if healing is understood as unlearning the behaviors which get in your way and altering your unconscious models of how people and relationships work, then you can absolutely recover. And the hole in your heart gets smaller and smaller as it is crowded out by new experiences and joy; eventually, the hole is small enough that it’s just a reminder that you’ve earned all that you have and you have reason to be proud. This isn’t to say that there aren’t moments that evoke old memories with surprising poignancy—there are—but eventually these memories become smaller details in a narrative of your own making and experiences.
As you heal over time, these older experiences become vignettes, not turning points, and your attention turns more to the gains you have made, rather than your losses.
This piece is adapted from The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood. Copyright © 2019 by Peg Streep. All rights reserved.
Photograph by Limor Zellermayer. Copyright free. Unsplash.com