Shortly before our younger daughter was born at the end of August, I turned to my husband and asked, “Is there anything we should do differently this time around?”
Our older daughter had just turned 3 and while she’s far from perfect, if our biggest complaint is that she’s prone to tantrums when she doesn’t get in a solid nap, I’d consider us exponentially blessed.
He agreed. “We’re good.”
We really are. Of course things change, and lots of kids who seem sweet and good when they’re little don’t always grow up to be so sweet and good. I was sadly reminded of that this week when I read Dara Pettinelli’s moving essay on The Huffington Post, “The One We Left Behind.”
Dara’s brother, Donnie, died in his 40s after leading a troubled life. Like, a really troubled life. And hers hasn’t been so rosy either, complete with cutting issues, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts.
After a wholly selfish existence — “Donnie was in and out of my family’s life based on his needs – money, a job, a place to crash, someone to keep his kids for the afternoon. He spent the rest of his time . . . in pursuit of the next high,” Dara writes — he went out even more selfishly: leaving his children fatherless.
Donnie tortured their parents, lied, cheated and stole. The threat of him physically harming their family was ever-present. Dara describes him as embarrassing and pathetic — as the sibling she failed to acknowledge in casual conversation, and the one she wouldn’t admit to herself that she most resembled.
As hard as she tried to be the anti-Donnie, she found there were still stubborn similarities between them. She was self destructive, self-loathing, and the idea of having a hand in her own demise wasn’t out of the question. Fortunately these days she’s found a light in his darkness, and that is in no small part due to her drive to make herself the anti-him. Thankfully she has come out on the other side.
I look at my two daughters — 3 years old and 5 weeks old — as blank slates. Their lives are ahead of them, filled with the promise of happiness and opportunity. My husband and I feel as if we have a solemn obligation to ensure they are fulfilled and enriched at all turns.
But the truth is that you just never know when you’ll be unlucky and end up with a Donnie. It’s among the gambles you take when you have kids, I suppose.
I’ve known phenomenal parents who gave life to babies who turned into troubled teens and adults, and it had nothing to do with how they were raised, but how they were wired.
Donnie couldn’t happen to us, I think. We’d just never let it happen.
The reality, however, is that while we will forever hope for the best and paint our little clean canvases with the most rich and vibrant colors, the final portraits will take on lives of their own no matter how we stroke the brush.
Read “The One We Left Behind” in full at The Huffington Post.