I was going to be a savior of children. As a little girl, I dreamed of growing up and creating a safe haven for lonely orphans and foster kids, set on an idyllic farm in the country where pets and farm animals filled out my brood of dependents, and satisfied my aching desire to nurture.
There was a husband in my fantasy, too. He would patiently co-parent our children, biological and otherwise, and adore us all with a fierce, protective loyalty. Even then, I think I understood that I was pining for the chance to give other kids the kind of family environment that I yearned to live in myself.
Growing up as the youngest of six kids, I never felt safe at home. My blended family was a source of love and fun, but it was also chaotic, short on boundaries, and volatile. The trouble usually stemmed from my father’s frightening bipolar rages that transformed him into an angry creature, who lashed out with words and sometimes hands.
Just as unpredictable was the hostile behavior that might spill forth unchecked from my older siblings. Sexual boundaries were nebulous and confusing in our house, adding to my confusion and anxiety. My misery only increased when I was seven or eight years old. My older brother began sexually abusing me, a secret horror that continued for the next couple of years, and which I kept secret throughout my childhood.
Whenever possible, I escaped to my friends’ houses where I envied the kind of structured, consistent atmosphere that allowed me to feel relaxed. Always on my guard at home, I sought out sources of comfort.
With my dollhouse, I acted out the traditional family I desired and released the frustrations I normally had to hide. Under the soft warmth of my blankie, I felt comforted and secure. And in my daydreams, the promise of a future home and family brought the chance to create safety and protection for others, even if I would never know that kind of upbringing.
Today, I have three wonderful teenagers and a husband who’s a pretty close match to that ideal guy I once imagined. We live in a rural town where neighbors are kind and the crow of roosters is a common sound.
Of course, this is real life and not a fantasy. Our family has had its share of struggles and difficult times. Even so, the life we built is everything I once hoped for. While my husband and I never did foster or adopt, we have managed to create a nurturing, healthy family environment for our kids and ourselves. For all of this and more, I am incredibly grateful.
I am also aware that I need to allow my children to take all these gifts for granted.
My resentment creeps in at times when I consider that I was once desperate to live like they do — a cozy, warm house stocked with snacks, siblings whose main offenses are rudeness or cleaning out the chocolate stash, the comfort of appropriate boundaries, and most of all, the knowledge that their parents can be trusted.
The problem is that I am remembering my dream, not theirs. It isn’t fair to expect my children to walk around grateful every day for a way of life they have always known, a life that they – and all kids – deserve. While I won’t tolerate rudeness or entitlement, I keep in mind that they have their own legitimate struggles, and that includes having an imperfect family.
Their dad and I have made plenty of mistakes along the way, and we are still learning. For my part, I am an emotional person. Due to my background, normal family problems can sometimes feel like crises to me, which causes me to overreact. For this and other reasons like impatience and moodiness, I can be difficult to live with at times.
I also keep in mind that my children contend with the regular factors that make kids grumpy –teen hormones, academic and social pressures, and fatigue brought on by having to get up early for the high school bus. There is also the simple fact that they are deep in the process of learning how to live, love and work with others. Heck, we are all works in progress when it comes to understanding and expressing our emotions and getting along with our fellow human beings.
Part of adolescence involves sizing up one’s parents and deciding which qualities to emulate and which ones to reject. Though it might be nice if our kids were a little less vocal about the qualities they want to scrap, we owe it to them to respect their needs to individuate and forge their own paths (even when it’s tough not to take their criticisms personally). In fact, there is comfort in knowing that our kids feel safe enough to behave like normal, ungrateful teenagers.
The truth is, I know full well that my kids appreciate their home and family. I feel it in their spontaneous hugs and when we get the giggles together over our shared brand of humor. I observe their thoughtfulness when they eat the dinner I prepared without complaint, even if it’s not their favorite. On occasion, they openly voice their gratitude; like the day my teenage son told me “I really hit the jackpot with my parents.”
It helps to realize that creating a healthy family is a gift I gave myself, too. Correcting my past has helped me heal from my trauma. Through the support of my husband, therapists and close friends, I eventually learned how it feels to be safe, respected, and loved without condition.
Creating the opportunity to share these gifts with my children has, in a sense, set me free. That scared little girl grew up and found her real home and family. While I still have my issues (just ask my kids), I am genuinely happy today. I am also extra appreciative of my gifts because I know what it’s like to live without them.
For my kids though, home is just home. While it can feel to them like a safe haven, family life can also be annoying, unfair and at times feels impossible. Other days though, home might just be their favorite place in the world. In fact, now that I think about it, I feel all these ways about our home too — and that’s okay.
Bio: Miranda Pacchiana is a social worker and writer with a blog on the Huffington Post. She lives and works in western Connecticut with her family.