We are not born knowing how to love anyone, either ourselves or somebody else. However, we are born able to respond to care. . . . Whether we learn how to love ourselves and others will depend on the presence of a loving environment.


I’ve internalized so many of the messages we’ve all been fed about how much your family and your childhood dictate the love you receive as an adult. People will say, “You’ll attract someone like your parents,” so if you have great parents who are loving and in love, yay, you win! But if you have absent parents or you never knew your parents or your parents were abusive, do you attract ghosts or no one or abusers? Because that seems unfair as hell. You already suffered through not having that baseline of love and support and now you’re just screwed and will never experience it because you were born into the wrong place? What the shit, life? Not cool. Or people who say, “No one will ever love you as much as your mom,” which might be comforting to people who have great moms but is a powerfully harmful statement for literally everyone else. So if your mom didn’t exist or didn’t or couldn’t love you, you will never be loved? AWESOME. Great. Just what every unloved little kid wants to hear: Remember how you weren’t loved as a kid? Now you’ll stay that way until you die!!!

This also goes for “Date a man who loves his mom,” or “Date someone who comes from a good family.” Because I know what you’re trying to say and I do look for both of those things in a partner, based on my background and the idea that I need someone with a stable attachment style, so that one of us is consistently chill. But it also breaks my heart that we tell people this. What is a good family? Is it money? Because we had a lot of that for a little while, but my home life was anything but good. Is it having parents who are still married? Because hahahaha. I have known so many people who come from very wealthy families and/or whose parents are still together, but twist! No one knows how to love, no one hugs each other, maybe one of them is abusive, everyone’s in therapy, and they all keep their feelings to themselves. So is that family a good family and mine isn’t? I don’t think so at all. Or what about a family who is very poor, but so kind and loving and tight-knit? Is that a good family? Better still, I know so many people who came from stereotypically Good Families but are Bad Partners. We have to erase the idea that if you come from anything less than a Good Family, you are bad. And if you come from a Good Family, you’re good. But we put this bullshit on one another all the time. Everything, culturally, is weighted by whatever you were born into.

This also always pops into my mind when my female friends will tell me they had a hell of a time with dating, but now they’re married or getting married or whatever, so don’t worry, it can happen to you! And whenever they say this, I always ask, “Are you close with your family?” More often than not, they say something like, “Of course. So close,” and I’m so confused. Like, wait, you know what love looks like, you grew up with self-esteem and watching parents who loved each other and supported each other and communicated with each other, you had that model, so why did you date turds for seven years before your fiancé? How did you and I both land here? But more important, don’t act like you’re shocked you’re getting married now.

I know this is probably unfair, but it’s hard not to feel like, “Of course you found love eventually. If you can see it, you can be it, and all that. You saw love, you grew up with love, you have love all around you, you know you deserve it, you can both receive and give it, so sorry if I’m not totally floored you had a happy ending.” But what about the rest of us? Do we get one? I haven’t seen much evidence that we do, and it just bums me out.

We put so much weight on the influence of our parents on our psyches, like everything we get in life is luck of the draw, and if you get less-than-ideal parents, welcome to hell! The way we talk about it, it’s like a death sentence. Like we all had one shot when we were in utero, and we blew it, no take-backs. But there are also so many inconsistencies in the credit we give to our parents for how we turned out.

Every now and then, I’ve had someone smile and tell me, “Someone definitely raised you right.” And I’ll get, without even thinking, very defensive, and reflexively respond, “Actually, I raised myself, so I guess that’s also true!” And then it’s awkward as fuck and I wish I’d said nothing, and then they feel awkward because wait, what is happening? This got dark fast. To get out of this hole, they’ll reply, “Well, you turned out great,” almost as if to say, “Well, they couldn’t have been that bad if they raised you!” And I’ll sigh, because why do we give parents credit for their children automatically?

Surely some kids who became murderers or rapists had pretty A-plus parents—so why did they become murderers and rapists? Maybe they were molested or abused by someone outside the family, or maybe that person was born a straight-up psychopath. We don’t know. But in our culture, if anything happens to you as an adult, good or bad, we assume it’s your parents’ achievement or fault. And obviously there’s just no way that’s consistently true.

At times I’ve struggled to feel seen, to have my history feel seen, to have where I come from feel seen because I “turned out great.” But that doesn’t mean that I Am Fine. I am working every day, tirelessly, like you wouldn’t believe, on being fine, fucking finally, can we get this over with, I’m so tired and I just want to travel and eat and smile and move through the world with a semblance of peace.

Still, it is very commonplace for abusive or absent parents, once their (technical) child grows up and becomes successful, to suddenly become Proud Parents! Because they know they can claim you as Theirs now and everyone will believe them. You’re like a basic black suitcase that’s been circling the baggage claim for twenty-five years and they didn’t want you, sneered at what a piece of shit you were, laughed at the idea anyone would have a suitcase that ugly, maybe even kicked you a few times, who knows why, but then the zipper pulled apart and, oh shit, are there diamonds in there? “Excuse me! That’s my suitcase! Yeah, totally was this whole time!” It will never occur to these people that you became the person you became despitethem. That you, magical, wonderful, holy shit wow you, took the bag of rotting maggots they gave you and turned it into Disneyland. That you took years of physical, verbal, and/or sexual abuse, neglect, being told you were worthless, being told you were nothing, shown you were nothing, treated like nothing, and somehow, in your own way, you became everything. And our culture lets them swoop in and claim, “Yeah, my kid’s great,” and our brains think, “Wow, this person with a great child must also be great!” because we’re trained to all the time.

I was recently at the post office and saw a card that read, “Good moms create great kids,” and almost flipped all of them around in an attempt to spare anyone else who hates seeing that oversimplified shit when they’re just trying to mail an eBay package.

I know people who say “Someone great must’ve raised you” mean it as a compliment. And I know I am grateful every day I didn’t end up living on the street (I don’t wanna brag, but I lived in a car, so it’s like a Days Inn versus a Super 8), or addicted to drugs or alcohol, or other scenarios I don’t even want to imagine. But hearing someone speak about all I’ve achieved, or the person I’ve become, as though it’s the result of a magic wand, or assumed parental support, feels insulting. I made choices no one should have to make, and I still struggle with so many things, so every now and again, I almost wish I hadn’t turned out great.

I’m so glad I am where I’m at and am who I am, but it’s tough because it can seem like a case of “all’s well that ends well,” and it is not. And sometimes people’s assertion that “Well, you turned out great” can feel like an erasure of my whole life, an erasure of my deliberately turning right when my life veered me left, and keeping my hand on the wheel with everything I had. And I wish people were able to be more nuanced in their response. Maybe an “I’m so proud of you for turning out great anyway,” like it’s an achievement, far from inevitable, rare and indicative of courage. Or a “Wow, then it’s even more impressive, by miles, that you’re as incredible as you are now. You should be very proud of how you turned out.” Just to give people who have lived through hell, with little to no help from the usual suspects, if nothing else, the ownership and credit for the magic they alone created from absolutely nothing.

So if you raised yourself, and you’re reading this, I am so proud of you. You raised a hell of a kid. And it wasn’t easy—I can’t even imagine, no one can. (Okay, I kind of can, but still.) But you’re here and you could’ve easily backslid into pain and nothingness and worthlessness and hopelessness, and maybe you did backslide, time and again, but every time, you climbed back up and tried to be kinder and softer and find more room in your heart for compassion instead of hatred, hope instead of defeat. And let me tell you, someone (you) really raised you right.


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