I used to babysit a girl, Penny, whose parents slept in separate rooms. On the occasions they hired me—weekends with short notice and late weekday evenings—I had no idea where the mom went (the dad was always at work).
One night, while biting into a strawberry Chupa Chup, Penny asked me, “Do you think it’s weird my mom never talks to my dad, ever? Kayla’s parents hold hands.”
I was Kayla’s babysitter too.
“It’s not weird.” I answered. “All families are different.”
And I meant it. If she were older and didn’t switch the subject to something Disney on TV, I probably would’ve explained that Kayla’s parents have their issues too. We just don’t know about them.
Because no family is normal. I know that well.
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And if your family is less conventional than usual—there’s a whole lotta positive in that! Having a harder upbringing prepares you for life’s challenges. I’m thankful for mine for a lot of reasons… especially these:
1. Having a weird family can strengthen you.
When my sister and I lived in shelters—being between homes with nowhere to live—I remember being pretty happy. We still did well at school, despite changing schools many times. We saw other families like ours but with traumas far worse—one woman in a shelter had metal forearms because her husband had mutilated her.
Now my sister is a mom, and when one of her kids has to change a sports team or has a challenge at school, she doesn’t freak out, like some moms do. Instead, she says, “When I was 8—we had real problems!”
A harder past means you just fret way less over the small stuff. There’s a resilience that’s built in you. And that sense of perspective you feel—when people melt down over stuff that you know is trivial—is truly comforting.
2. Your upbringing can make you less judgmental, if you let it.
When you experience suffering, you can be more compassionate when you witness struggle in other people’s lives.
Instead of jumping to judgment—”He should just stop drinking!” “She needs to get her life in order!”—you understand that not everyone is capable of a healthy, functioning, stable life. As a drug and alcohol addict, my dad couldn’t live like a ‘regular’ dad. Some weeks—even months—he didn’t get out of bed. It wasn’t his choice. It’s an illness.
This has made me more accepting and kinder toward other people’s problems. Because the more you’re subjected to, the less likely you are to condemn other people’s life experiences. Who knows what lessons other people are here to learn? There’s peace and generosity in being judgment-free.
3. You’re more comfortable with uncertainty.
If you’ve had an unpredictable childhood, you become surprisingly good at handling change. Big moments of upheaval—like moving countries multiple times and getting divorced as a young adult—were hard for me. But I think my young adult challenges were easier for me than they might have been for someone who was used to stability and familiarity.
This is a true silver lining gifted to you by a troubled upbringing because change and uncertainty in life are both guaranteed.
4. Your background can make you more relatable.
When you can talk openly about your less-than-easy past, you encourage others to open up too. When I talk about my family, people wind up telling me things like, “My brother’s in jail,” or “my sister has anorexia, and no one talks about it,” or “my dad’s been cheating on my mom for years—she pretends not to notice.”
And I remember my conversation with young Penny. My words are still the same to anyone now—”It’s OK. We all have our stuff.”
Sometimes the hardest part about coming from a weird family is explaining it to other people. It’s not exactly dinner party talk. “My dad’s dead, and I support my mum financially!” but that’s alright too. We’re not responsible for our families; we’re responsible for ourselves. And it’s OK too if you’re not close with your relatives. A few of my friends have no contact with a parent at all. That’s their adult decision. There’s no right way or wrong way to love someone, and we have to serve our own emotional needs first. Sometimes that means loving someone from afar.
And if you have a weird background, it means you have stories to tell. I read once that the bigger your struggle, the bigger your destiny. I’m not sure about that, but I do believe that your struggle can certainly expand the impact you can have on other people.
What I know for sure is that if you think other families are really nice and normal, you don’t know them well enough. No one has it all together. People often say, “Family is everything.” I don’t agree. Your sense of peace and freedom and a self-directed life are everything. And that’s entirely up to you.
Susie Moore is Greatist’s life coach columnist and a confidence coach in New York City. Sign up for free weekly wellness tips on her website and check back every Tuesday for her latest No Regrets column!