When my fiancé Kelly’s mom asked if she could throw us an engagement party, we said yes. Neither of us really knew what an engagement party was, or what it would require of us, but we were okay with that. If we know anything about his mom, it’s this: She gets stuff done.
After asking our preferences on location (her house), food (BBQ), and guests (small, but kids invited!), she got to work. Kel and I were left with minimal duties. We were just kind of waiting to show up and have fun. We looked at the engagement party as a kind of wedding test; an opportunity to see how well our family and friends would get along — and how much fun we could have at our own big lovefest.
This was the first time all of our parents (biological and chosen) would be in one place. It would also be the first time my mother and father would be together at a celebration that was about me. I never got birthday parties or graduation parties with both of them. I wanted that more than I could admit. I let myself get excited about it. I pictured the photo we’d all take in my head; Kel’s parents beside him and my parents beside me. One family, one photo, all together for once.
Then, I found out my father was sent back to prison on a parole violation and obviously wouldn’t be able to make it. One of my brothers was afraid to drive on the highway. The other’s girlfriend was due to give birth the same weekend as the party. And finally, my mother was dealing with an illness that would prevent her from coming as well.
She asked me over and over if she should try to make it, but I said no. I couldn’t imagine asking her to make a 2-hour drive that would make her sick. I knew she wanted to be there for me, and I knew that her being there would not be good for her. I love my mother. I asked her to stay home.
My favorite cousin had a wedding the same day, other family members couldn’t come for various (understandable) reasons, and soon, it hit me that I could end up at my engagement party without one member of my very large biological family present. My sister said she would be there, and Kel encouraged me to take heart in that. “You sister always shows up,” he said. But I dared not hope too hard. I didn’t think I’d be able to handle it if I relied on her presence only to be disappointed later.
My fear of disappointment goes all the way back to my childhood. Surprise, surprise. As a kid, one way or another, I got the message that I could not emotionally afford to get excited. I was afraid of the way I reacted to being disappointed. I once worked really hard to win an academic award (I was smart, but not exactly known for my work ethic in school), and when no one showed up to the awards ceremony, I skipped it and hid in the bathroom. But there would be more awards ceremonies, plays, and performances. Sometimes people I invited would come. Most of the time they didn’t. Eventually, I just stopped inviting anyone.
It’s scary to ask someone to show up to something important to you, and when they don’t, even when they have a perfectly good reason, you literally can’t stop crying. Even when it’s embarrassing. Even when it physically hurts to keep crying, you can’t stop. I was too young and uninformed to recognize the symptoms of my depression and anxiety. I responded by teaching myself not to count on anything or anyone. I’d convinced myself that every good thing was a happy accident, but every bad thing should be expected. There would be no string of disappoint, no incessant crying, if I paid enough attention and was honest enough with myself to always see the bad coming.
Then I grew up, and cultivated not only a community, but an abundance of love from people on whom I could depend — my fiancé, Kelly, being one of those people, of course. When Kelly first moved to Brooklyn to be with me, he was almost instantly annoyed that he had to find out about events where I was reading or speaking from Facebook or strangers. I didn’t even think to tell him or ask him to show up. My self-taught ambivalence about people showing up for me had become second nature.
For years I described myself as someone easy to feel close to without actually being close to. I’ve always been warm, and willing to talk about tough shit. That gives the illusion of openness even when I’m not actually being vulnerable. I relied on that. I was proud of that. Then I went to therapy. Then I read The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. Then I talked to my friends and family about my relationships with them. And finally, I started to understand what I had been doing to myself.
More importantly, I started to understand what I had been denying myself; the pleasure of mutual closeness in a loving and safe environment. Once I got that, unraveling those behaviors became a bit easier. Being more open and vulnerable has added an element of enjoyment, and real excitement about my life (and my wedding!) unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. However, it’s also brought back those intense emotional reactions to disappointment, and I nearly let that ruin my engagement party.
I spent the entire week before the event breaking into random sobs at home, at work, and even over drinks with friends. I went from feeling like the successful, creative, self-assured woman I am, to the 14 year-old version of me who cried herself to sleep because no one in her family showed up to her awards ceremony.
The night before we left for Indiana, I called my “college dad”, Mitch, crying so hard I was hyperventilating. He assured me I wasn’t being ridiculous. “Your feelings are real, and understandable,” he said to me. And here’s where all that emotional work I’ve been doing over the past few years really kicked in, because to my surprise, I believed him. I didn’t stop crying right away, but at least now I knew enough to know that my tears weren’t a sign of weakness. They were reasonable. It was okay that I was worried about what it would look like when Kelly had family flying in from California for this party, and all of my family who lived 2 hours away couldn’t be there. It was okay that my feelings were a bit hurt, even if nobody did anything wrong. I was and am allowed to feel however I feel.
By the time we landed in Indianapolis, had our engagement photos taken, and partied a bit with my friends — now our friends — I was feeling a lot better. The next morning, we helped set up for the party and I threw myself into helping decorate. Watching Kel’s mom and aunt pot a few plants, I made an off-hand comment asking them to manage their expectations about my family showing up. They both laughed and dismissed my warning. “We came from the same stuff, Ashley,” his mother told me. Then they continued to tell me about all of the times the people they loved didn’t show up for them in meaningful ways.
“We wanted that to be different for this generation of our family, so that’s what we did,” his aunt explained to me. “And that’s what you can do, too.”
It was a short conversation, but it meant the world to me.
I can sometimes arrogantly believe I’m the only one dealing with the shit I’m going through. I love it when life puts a hand on my shoulder, leans in, and whispers to me with a smile, “Girl, you’re not that special.” The party went on, and we all had a fantastic time. My college family (Mitch, his wife Becky, and their two sons) were there, as were my closest friends, and many of their children. The food was phenomenal, the decorations were a hit, and everybody got along. Our first real test run putting our people together, and it worked out. I was so happy. And even though much of my family wasn’t there, I could clearly picture how well they would fit.
An hour or so into the party, when my sister arrived, I hugged her a little too long, walked her around, and made her meet everybody. She and I are part of a new generation in our family, and we’ve promised to do whatever we can, however we can, to show up for each other. We believe that we can be different, too. So we will be.
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