I suprised myself by talking to my dad about it for awhile last night. I don’t remember the whole conversation, but it wasn’t terribly encouraging. He sees me as belatedly undergoing an emotional transition that most people go through a few years earlier. He compared my feelings to those of the 20-year-old who got a girl pregnant, married her, dropped out of school, and now is watching all his friends go off to college. I think he’s right: that’s a good description of how I feel.
All my life I’ve been trying to reshape my surroundings to make them like the life I wish I’d had. Like when I made fancy breakfasts for my dad and me after my mom moved out. Or when I went into youth ministry in order to create a youth group like the dynamic, loving ones I’d seen at other churches. A hopeless attempt to conjure up the circle of close, spiritual friends I never had.
Likewise, when I got married I was trying to recreate the type of family I had come to consider the ideal, as a child. There were these familes I knew – large families, lots of kids. The parents were laid-back, easygoing. They lived in big old farmhouses in the country with dogs and cats and snakes and maybe other animals. The kids were largely home-schooled and bright and all got along pretty well, and at any given time there’d be a few guests spending the night so you never quite knew how many people really lived there. Tough times would come and go, but they’d weather them with grace as a family.
That’s the vision I had, and still have. A benign patriarch, presiding over a big family in a warm hospitable home. But just because you have a vision doesn’t mean you’re equipped to realize it. And those dreams weren’t visions so much as longing for the family I never had.
My dad had similar dreams when he set out to start a family. He bought a place in the country, and was going to raise me on a farm. But he simply wasn’t cut out for it. He’s a late-riser, disorganized, and has a hard time finishing what he starts. There are things he’s good at, but that lifestyle wasn’t one of them. So I grew up in a ramshackle house among half-built projects and unrealized dreams. You can spend your whole life trying to make something a reality and still fail, if it’s not in your nature.
There’s another archetypal household I’ve become familiar with as I’ve grown older. It’s the abode of the perpetual teenager. He’s smart, sophisticated, in his late twenties or thirties, or even forties. It’s a small place, stylishly furnished and kept very neat. If he has any companion at all it’s a cat. He dates a lot but can never seem to find the right girl to settle down with. He’s fun to hang out with, up for anything, interesting to talk to. But he’s kind of uptight, and he’s not very good with kids.
I see a lot of potential in myself to become that latter personality. Much more than I see any potential for the former. I’m so very uptight. I’m a neat-freak. I’m wierd about kids. I want my space, my freedom, and my financial security.
I don’t want to become that person. Neither in actuality, nor a frustrated version of him, grudgingly bound to a family. But I’m beginning to doubt that I am suited to the role of the happy patriarch, either. Which means I have to re-envision myself, come up with a new self-image defining who I am, who I want to be, and what drives me. And where my family fits into that picture.
At this point in my life I’m not able to define myself in terms of my family. I can’t make the family my grand, over-arching life-project. I could try, but I’d fail. It’s just not in me to define myself that way.
I don’t want to define myself in terms of my work, or my music collection, or my diverse knowledge.
I have faint glimmerings of who I want to be, but I don’t really have the words for it as yet.
My dad’s right – this is an existential depression. Who am I? I have to come up with a ralistic answer to that question.