The 'Incomplete' Family: A Short Symposium
Boshemia columnist Ropa is in conversation with her two housemates about their experiences of growing up in single-parent households.
Isabel sips her hot chocolate while Diana eats toast.
‘Are you gonna use our names in it then?’ Diana asks.
‘I’ll use different names.’ I reassure her.
I place the recorder in the middle of us and the comfortable atmosphere morphs into an anxious silence. Isabel puts down her hot chocolate. She squirms in her seat, cheeks flushing. Diana becomes stern, her features fixating into still positions. I’ve known these girls and lived with them for three years now, but as soon as I put the recorder down a wall is built between me and them. As common as this is in modern society, its effects on us personally are something we rarely discuss as adults. Isabel makes a joke to lighten the awkward tension. She was always one to keep the room pleased.
When I first met my housemates, I had my pre-made assumptions about them. I’d done my research and taken it upon myself to align them with the characteristics that were common to people in their positions. Isabel should have had a diminished self-concept, and compromised physical and emotional security. As someone who knew her I could confirm that she did. Diana was dubbed as likely having behavioural problems which caused difficulties with social adjustment meaning she developed an intimidating persona to disguise her underlying fears. That seemed to fit with my perception of her as well. Both had grown up hearing that they ought to have had two parents.
When Isabel was only a toddler her mom had found pictures on the kitchen table of her husband marrying another woman. That had been his goodbye, and neither of them had seen him since.
“It’s a shame, a girl needs her mother. A girl just needs a mother.”
Diana’s grandmother had said that to her whilst they were sat in a kitchen littered with bin bags full of her stuff that her mum had dropped off. Diana had come back from an exam to find this along with the message that she shouldn’t come back home because her mother was done taking care of her and wanted to live her life for herself. She hasn’t seen her mother since.
The world has a lot to say about what the absence of mothers and fathers can do to a child. Most of the time the attitude is that they’re underdeveloped somehow; that they’re missing things that children with both parents have. I wanted to hear it from their perspectives. Did they agree that by missing a parent growing up they had lost out on something substantial as adults?
‘I think it definitely has affected my relationships with people,’ Isabel said.
‘I’m so used to people floating in and out of my life and I’ve never really had a male figure that I could confide in - you know, like have a personal relationship with. Sometimes I think it makes me too scared to open up because I’m scared to be like abandoned, but others I think it makes me too willing to open up and to let people hurt me. It’s strange.’
She made eye contact with me but would occasionally avert her eyes if I looked too intently into hers. Her big brown eyes were inviting. Looking into them made you feel like you were making an earnest human connection. They would glisten up as she spoke every wave of emotion was reflected clearly.
‘I think it's affected my personality, but for the better’, Diana said, her brows furrowed.
‘It was a toxic environment with my mother anyway and I was always closer to my dad. So, she did me a favour to be honest. I think because I went through that I’m a lot stronger. Do you know what I mean? I think a mother can really be a person who shelters you and because I never had that I developed thicker skin you know? I wouldn’t have made it where I am today if she hadn’t done what she did.’
Diana recited this confidently and concisely in an ordered way as if she’d gone through it in her head a thousand times. Her affirmation, her defence; a necessary preparation. She was the kind of person who did everything with purpose, like she had something to prove. The whole time her eyes swayed around the room as if she were addressing a court room but they never met mine.
Isabel smiled at her from across the table. Diana smiled back and then they both erupted in nervous laughter. It continued until it got hysterical.
“Come on guys we’re not done yet” I said smiling, the laughter was infectious.
“Yeah but I needed the mental break. This is pretty intense” Isabel said.
I considered weighing in on the conversation. I technically belonged on the other side of the table with them. What would my answers be? Did I think I had missed out on something that everyone else had? It’s not something I wanted to confront. It's hard to.
'I wouldn’t change anything. I think I’ve really had to step up because of it', Isabel said. 'I’ve needed to be there for my mum. It made me want to be stronger for her because I’ve watched her do it all by herself. I’m very independent because of it.’
I thought about what Isabel had said.
Though they had their flaws they had so many good qualities. They were both very strong in very different ways because of how they had grown up. And of the flaws? At the end of the day I could say the same for all my friends. Whether they grew up with two parents or not. Whatever upbringing, they had they ended up as adults with both strengths and weaknesses.
Family isn’t something that’s neat it comes in many shapes and forms. Being mindful of that way that we represent family is is the way in which we change perceptions of what a ‘correct’ family is. This is something that has already begun as a movement, as we see more and more ‘unconventional’ families in the media, but it is a subject which still has a very long way to go. The cookie-cutter "2.4 children and 2 parents" model is no longer sufficient.