What It Means to Be Family

Image: Castello di Montebello, Bellinzona, Switzerland, © Boris Stroujko (Fotolia.com)

Putting Family First

One Christmas in high school I bought my boyfriend at the time two small gifts. The problem? I had purchased only one gift for each of my family members. When my father found out, he was livid. Usually the “good” kid, i.e. the one who didn’t get into trouble because she was too afraid to make people angry, I was not used to getting lambasted the way I was that night.

How dare I do more for others than for my own family?

That is only one example of my dad instilling the “family first” motto into my life. Loyalty to those who raised you. Allegiance, fealty, even obedience. It meant a lot to him.

It may be one of the reasons Ed Sheeran’s song “Castle on the Hill” resonates with me so much.

I was younger then, take me back to when

Sheeran sings about growing up and how the people he grew up with, the people who “raised him”, made him who he is today. By singing about his “family”, the song reminds me of home. It also makes me question what it really means to be family.

The Blame Game

Birthday money, as any school-aged kid knows, is better than Christmas. You save it up for a special occasion, and you dream of spending it on something that an adult would likely see as absolutely frivolous. Too bad I never got the chance to spend mine, not really. I would be ready to head to the mall to FINALLY buy the latest Wham! album or ruffled denim skirt (yes, I am a child of the 80s) but my money would be mysteriously gone.

My dad took it from me, but let’s not be semantic. The truth is he stole it because he took it without asking and never intended to return it, not if he could get away with it. What’s worse is how he made me feel when he did it. The truth is I didn’t care about cassette tapes or skirts. I cared about how my father judged me as a person. I wanted him to love me.

Found my heart and broke it here

In his attempt to shift the blame, he would make me feel guilty for not giving it freely (“Why don’t you want to help your father?”) although he never asked me for it. He would also gaslight me into thinking I had lost it somewhere (“You’re always losing things, Tanya”) when oddly enough the only thing that ever went missing were my savings.

What’s Mine Is Yours

As I got older and started to earn my own money — babysitting, working as a camp counselor, or playing cashier at Wendy’s — I tried to hide my money in my room. I had creative spots, boxes within boxes buried inside drawers inside socks, but he always managed to root it out. It came to the point that I had to keep my money at a friend’s house.

It seemed I was a terrible daughter, at least that was how I felt. I was made to feel selfish, mindless, and hollow because I did not put “family first”. To a young mind, family first twisted into money first because that was the emphasis he put on it. I was my father’s child and what was mine was his. Money was the name of the game, not love, not trust, and as I got older, I intentionally withheld it from him.


Because I loved him despite his faults.

Because I didn’t want that money to feed his addiction.

A Foundation of Limited Beliefs

My father denied taking from me until he knew he was caught. In those times, the first words out of his mouth would always be “don’t tell your mother”. He would ply me with false promises, “I’ll pay you back”, “I’ll get something special for your mother”, or “It’ll be like nothing ever happened”. Whatever he would say to keep my silence is what he would say.

Tell me, was my loyalty supposed to be to my father or to my mother? Was I supposed to hide his secrets or to tell my mother the truth? Was I supposed to be disloyal to him in the hopes that he would get healthy or was I to be disloyal to my mother by withholding information? Family first? The lines get blurred.

When we did not know the answers

As a young girl, his actions made me feel I did not deserve anything that I earned. That I should expect to sacrifice everything for the sake of what other people want and need. That I should put my needs and wants last. Sadly, it is what I have come to know and it is how I lived most of my life.

What It Means to Be Family

For me, family extends beyond blood relatives. My family are the people who were there for me growing up — relatives, friends, teachers, priests, and more. The people who made me laugh even as I struggled. The people who supported me not only when times were good but when times were hard. The people who believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.

Not everyone knew what I was going through back then. We all have our crosses to bear. The truth is I have been too ashamed to speak of mine until now, but these people were not there to hear a sad story. They were there to help me build a story all my own, one of perseverance and hope. Thanks to them I am the strong woman I am today.

But these people raised me and I can’t wait to go home

In my eyes, friends are family, and I am grateful for each and every one of them. I do not hesitate to put them first.

Working It Out

Now I can see that the trouble with my dad’s philosophy for family first is that he did not live by it himself. His addiction made him put himself first. He did not realize the limited beliefs he was burdening me with as a child, how they would shake my confidence, how long it would take for me to peel them away as I grew into a young woman.

He could not know because he was hurting himself too.

My father was not a bad man; he was a lost man. We had painful moments but we had just as many beautiful, funny, and meaningful ones. When he dressed up like Santa Claus. When he sang the wrong song lyrics. When he took me for my first driving lesson. When he pretended he didn’t know I put a dent in his work van. When he dropped me off at college. When he danced with me at my wedding. When he first laid eyes on my son.

I have to remember to not let the pain overshadow everything else, even as I work through it.

And I miss the way you make me feel, it’s real
We watched the sunset over the castle on the hill

If only there were time left to make amends so that we could recover together.