Grieving the loss of what I always wanted: a “nuclear” family

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Have you ever asked a child this question? Their responses often range from common to comical. My son wants to be a football player and a youtuber. My daughter wants to be a hairstylist. Some kids want to grow up to be a teacher, a scientist, a veterinarian or a race car driver. I’ve heard some really fun things, like clown hairstylist, dragon breeder, a mailbox and cat ninja (what even is this?!).

If you asked me this when I was a kid, I would have told you that I wanted to be a dancer on the castle stage in Magic Kingdom and to be a mom with a family. We were just like the Griswold’s; the quintessential nuclear American family with a touch of dysfunction. Sunday meals, annual traditions, sibling arguments, family vacations, family “camp outs” in front of the fireplace. I was eight years old when my little brother Doug was born and I was his “little mom”, as everyone called me. I remember thinking, “When I grow up, this is exactly what I want to have.”

Fast forward to growing up, for real: I went to college, dropped out, went back to college, left again. Though I did work for Disney in NYC, I never made it to Orlando to dance on the castle stage in Magic Kingdom. Yet, my other life goal was coming true. I had met “the one”. We got engaged, got married, bought a house and started a family. My dreams were now becoming a reality.

An insidious disease began to cripple my dream. It slowly eroded my vision for family vacations, Christmas cards, “camp outs” in front of the fireplace. My idea of what I saw for myself was not a reality. My husband was an alcoholic. My life was falling apart. After 6 years of hoping things would change, I realized I had to be the change.

How could this be happening? This was not part of the plan I had for myself.

In 2016, I quit my day job, filed for divorce and pursued my passion by opening up a dance studio for all ages and abilities. During a very dark time, I put my focus on what I could bring to others’ lives.

For a long time, I was grieving the loss of what I always wanted: a “nuclear” family.

I have found happiness in the sincerity of my life. I don’t have the “normal” nuclear family, but, what actually defines “normal” when it comes to how family’s look? I have found an amazing boyfriend who brings me so much joy, love & support, my 2 children are happy & healthy, my extended family is always around, my friends are more like family and I have a career that I absolutely love.

I define my joy and my life by the way I feel, not by the definition of what society says is “successful” or “normal”. Seeing nuclear families smiling on social media has made me feel less than, thinking back to my childhood dream of having a family. How easily we can be influenced by what we see online and how we think everyone’s else’s “perfect life” is.

But now, I decided to rewrite that narrative.

Why can’t my Christmas card be the three of us? Why can’t we take our own family vacations? Why can’t I live in a home on my own, snowblow my own driveway and be a strong, empowered mother? Why can’t I be the one to define what a “memorable childhood” is for my children?

It’s very important for me to say this: my ex-husband is over 2 years sober, is the most amazing father to our children and continues to show what it means to be courageous and committed. I’ve learned many lessons in my life, and one is that alcoholism truly is a disease that cripples families. It’s an evil drug that completely alters a person’s judgment, behavior and personality. But, there is always hope for recovery. Where there is a will, there is a way. I’ve seen the transformation firsthand and couldn’t be more grateful.

Here I am now, sitting on my couch writing this as a single mother in my home, with my two children sitting at their desks, remote learning from the room next to me. If you asked my eight year old self what I would be doing at 34 years old, it wouldn’t be this. And, just because it does look different doesn’t mean I’m a failure. Or that I haven’t succeeded. My heart is full of love and genuine joy in this moment. This life, just the way it is, is a dream come true.