Getting Real About My “Perfect” Family”

What if we all just started to get real with each other about the fact that our lives, our jobs, our families, our relationships… are not perfect? And furthermore, that the absolutely universal feeling of “something’s wrong with me” and “I’m not good enough” that every single human being suffers from in some way or another is fed by this lie: that other people are not suffering as much as me. The pervasive idea that there’s something uniquely bad or wrong with me pops up every time I look on Facebook or Instagram and see pictures of beautiful smiling families with their gorgeous children and perfect pets living wonderful lives. And if you are anything like me, it might leave you wondering why yours doesn’t feel quite so wonderful all the time. 

Like most of us, every December I get masses of holiday wishes from no doubt very well-meaning friends… but 95% of holiday cards have now become photographs of the perfect family looking extraordinarily happy and perfectly put together. While I enjoy seeing my friends’ children getting older and checking out what everybody’s up to, the past few years I have looked at the picture for a second and then put those directly into the trashcan. If you are someone who has sent me one of these, I apologize and I mean it with no disrespect- but I have no interest in looking at a picture of your perfect looking family, because I know that your family is not perfect. I would much rather see a picture of you looking real, or to just get a card that doesn’t have a picture on it at all! How about going back to the old days where we just wrote something by hand that meant something, rather than printing out 300 photoshopped pictures with an impersonal printed insert. Our personal lives have all been reduced a machine that is cleverly designed to make us look better than we really are. This constant comparison feeds the “not good enough” or “something’s wrong with me” part that each of us shares- yet so few of us talk about it. Many of us think that we are the only one who doesn’t have a perfect life, and I’m sure as hell not going to tell you about my imperfect life when yours looks perfect… because after all we are in some kind of competition. This is the culture that we live in, and it’s vital to see through it and understand what’s really going on so that we don’t swallow this lie hook-line-and-sinker, and continue to live miserable and unfulfilled lives based in scarcity, constantly trying to make ourselves look better than we are, driven by a deeply ingrained sense that were not good enough.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no judgment as I played this game at a very high-level in the past, making it an annual priority to get a perfect holiday picture and sending it to as many people as I could, making my family look as care-free as possible. But I wonder, looking back, what my motivations really were, if I ask myself very honestly. Part of it was that everyone else was doing it and it just seem to be the socially acceptable thing to do. But certainly part of it was to make sure that I kept up with the Jones’ and that my family looked as good as the other holiday cards that I knew I was about to receive. And I sure as hell didn’t want anyone to see through the cracks, especially not me… because if I had looked at my life through honest glasses, not the rose colored ones that our culture perpetuates with Photoshop and face tune and every other kind of “making things look better than they really are”…then I would have had to admit to myself that something in my “perfect” family was wrong. And for many years I wasn’t ready to do that.

In 2014 when I had my great awakening, midlife breakdown or whatever the politically correct name for it is at the moment, I got divorced, and I stopped sending out those holiday cards. I also stopped posting “perfect” pictures on Facebook. First of all, unless you are a widow it’s definitely not socially acceptable to have a single parent family in one of those pictures… and who would I have sent the cards to anyway? The majority of my address list was comprised of friends shared by both my ex-husband and me. And looking too happy after you’ve been divorced certainly isn’t socially acceptable! There’s something that one of my women’s circle attendees called “divorce juice” that people are afraid might rub off on them, so once you get divorced a lot of married people don’t want to hang around you in case they might catch the disease. They certainly don’t want to see pictures suggesting that you could be happy, because this might cause them to have to look closer at their own relationships, and few people want to do that.

So could we just drop the armor and the constant desire to send messages out into the community that we are doing so much better than we really are, and just let people in on the truth? It doesn’t mean that you can’t be happy and that you can’t have a happy family, but there’s not a family that I know that doesn’t struggle, and not a person that I know who doesn’t have deep insecurities about their bodies, their future, their relationships… and in as much as we refuse to share these insecurities, we keep each other locked in our own private prisons thinking that we are the only one who has something wrong. Once we can start sharing our truth, we realize that almost all of these fears, concerns, struggles and worries are shared by so many others. We are not alone. And we’re also not in competition. Maybe from that place of truth we can genuinely be here to support and lift each other up, rather than this subtle (usually unconscious) way of trying to keep other people down by being “better than.” 

That might sound harsh, but I ask you just to think about what part of you is just a little bit happy to find out that another person’s marriage has failed, or that another person has a child with a learning disability or has gained weight or has had financial problems… and that doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a human, because on some level we start to connect with the fact that “it’s not just me.” 

As a fairly public figure with plenty of cute selfies and touched up photographs on my website and floating around the universe myself, I can tell you that I understand this very well because I have participated in it and in many ways continue to participate in it.  But the difference now is that I understand deeply that it is not real, and that social media is an illusion. You cannot capture a person’s essence in a photograph or a rehearsed video or anything except just sitting down and speaking honestly from the heart and getting real.

It’s also incredibly scary to publicly admit that you and your family are not perfect, and that any suggestion otherwise is an illusion. So… because I talk about walking headfirst into fear and doing difficult things, I’m going to put my big girl panties on and see if I can model this for you right now. Here goes. 

Here’s a true story about my not so perfect family. Before you read this, I invite you to look at the beautiful photo that we had taken on Mother’s Day 2021 and study it just for a moment, notice the thoughts that come up in your mind and the assumptions and judgments that you make about the people and animals in this picture. Probably you know me a little bit already if you’re reading this blog, so notice how you’re combining a little bit about what you already know about me with what you’re seeing in this photo, and what your mind does with this information to make up a story about my family. If I were in your shoes my story might look something like this- “Oh my gosh she has such a beautiful family and look at how happy they all look together on Mother’s Day! I bet she got some amazing gifts and cards from those gorgeous kids. Even the dogs are cute and her outfit looks casually perfect, and everybody is thin and their hair is gorgeous, and they must just have everything figured out. Obviously there’s no man in this photograph so it’s even a little bit more intimidating to me because apparently she has figured out how to be truly happy as a divorced woman (maybe I secretly wish I could do this too), and so have her kids, but they have obviously gotten through this divorce and figured out how to manage it with so much peace and happiness.” And maybe taking it even one step further… “I could never do that because I know a little bit about Dr. Susan and she can do incredible things that nobody else can do, so no wonder her family is so perfect and she’s so happy! But my family could never live up to that because I’m not good enough and I couldn’t possibly ever relate to her as an equal because she is just better than me and just clearly has everything so figured out.”

So let me tell you the real story about my Mother’s Day picture and my not so perfect family. I got divorced in 2014 and I haven’t had a professional family picture taken since the years back when we used to send out those holiday cards that I mentioned above. My son is leaving to go to college in a few months, so I decided that for Mother’s Day what I really wanted was just one picture of us all together, in case that opportunity didn’t come around ever again, or perhaps for a really long time. My son and I are not connected right now. In fact, we are completely disconnected. We used to be really close, and now he barely speaks to me, and I have a deep fear that he is going to leave and not come back. This photo was mostly a reaction to that fear.

I presented this idea to my three teenagers and told them that this was all I wanted for Mother’s Day- and framed it as more of a demand than a request. As a little background, all three of my kids are incredibly intrinsically motivated students and were right in the middle of final exams- which becomes an obsession and absolutely everything they care about during finals weeks. So the idea of taking 30 minutes out of their day to dress up and have a family picture taken sounded like about as much fun as being stabbed in the eye with a knife. But I made it clear that this was going to happen, and also made a deal that this was all I wanted for Mother’s Day. My dear friend Kristi Zontini (who is my lifelong photographer) agreed to come over to my house on Sunday afternoon… and one way or another, we were going to get this picture! After getting my hair professionally blow-dried (because no, I do not wake up in the morning with my hair looking like that) I rushed home late with the sun rapidly going down, threw on some make-up in five minutes, tossed that outfit on and then checked on the girls- who both told me to get out of their rooms because I was bothering them when they were trying to get ready. When I checked on my son, he had totally forgotten about it… and all three of them were dragged downstairs with various levels of complaints about how I couldn’t possibly understand how inconvenient this was for their schedules and could we just get this over really fast.

Anyone with dogs knows that trying to get three teenagers and two dogs looking happy in one picture is not easy… but the result you see below is miraculously what Kristi was able to come up with in the given five-minute window. One second after Kristi said “I got it,” everybody was upstairs again, slammed their doors and were back into their normal M.O. of ignoring me and studying. I immediately washed my face, put on comfy sweats and put my hair in a ponytail. Then I poured myself a glass of wine, surveyed the silence in my back yard and thought, “well, that was not the way I imagined it.”

A note on my perfect dogs. Tara on the left is a gentle giant who has been expelled from two different doggy daycares for protecting (potentially to the death) other dogs who got in fights. As several different trainers have said- she doesn’t start it, but she will finish it. And Maia, my gorgeous black and white puppy, has chewed up over $10,000 worth of shoes, furniture, rugs and cushions, as well as digging up thousands of dollars of landscaping and otherwise just having a great time destroying the house.

And my children, who each is unconditionally loved, magical, incredible, amazing, strong and beautiful … guess what? None of them is perfect either. Each of them struggles with their own demons of not being smart enough, pretty enough, successful enough, straight enough, well-liked enough … All the same versions of “not enoughness” that their parents struggle with. They all went through a horrendous several-year divorce and custody case and have parents who do not communicate (at all) and have zero co-parenting. They are all in therapy, and their lives are not perfect.  

Then there’s that conspicuous lack of a male partner in the picture, which I seem casually, completely and confidently happy about. But the truth is while I’m extremely at peace with not being married and have finally found a way to be happy as a single mom, I am still looking for my forever person and I haven’t found him yet. I can talk all day about how I don’t need a man to make me happy, which is absolutely true, but I sure would like to find the “perfect” one. Some other things you might not notice in the picture are that all of my plants died in the freeze, my landscaping looks like shit, my fence is rotten and needs to be replaced, and the first thing I said when I looked at this picture was “holy shit I need to get some more Botox, look at those crow’s feet!”

So, I got what I wanted and I have a snapshot of more or less what my kooky and very individual family looks like, right before my son is heading to St. Louis to go to college, with his twin sisters just a couple of years behind. The point of this picture was simply to remember what we looked like at this pivotal stage, not to pretend to be different than we were. When I showed the pictures to the kids and asked them to choose one that they could tolerate so I could put it in a frame, the girls (who are masterful social media posers) were quite happy with many of them, but my son said he absolutely hated all of them, and that he looked terrible.  And furthermore, they all took my statement about “this is all I want for Mother’s Day” completely literally, because let’s just say I didn’t get breakfast in bed, flowers and a nice present. I got this photo. And to be fair, that was exactly what I asked for. Without a husband or partner to remind teenagers that it’s Mother’s Day and make them buy a present or say something nice, most single mothers will agree that Mother’s Day is not quite what it used to be. Like the majority of teenagers, mine spend about 30 seconds a day thinking about me and the rest of the time thinking about themselves- just like I did when I was their age- and the only thing that mattered to them on Mother’s Day was their AP geography test the following day. It was certainly not the top of their mind to tell me how I was the world’s best mother, write a list of all the things that they were grateful for or anything of that nature- but goddammit, I got my picture! 

And to be very honest, although this picture was purely and only for me, a part of me did enjoy the fantasy of creating a picture of a perfect family that I could look at during tough times when I felt alone. Our family went through a divorce and several subsequent years of absolutely horrendous custody litigation that should never have happened and caused unimaginable damage to every one of us, and while that is in the past now, I look at this picture and wonder how much that hurt these precious children and how unfair it was to have them dragged through that shit for years. I’m happy to speak about this candidly because I am certainly not the only woman who has been in this position. I know hundreds of other women who have been through this or worse, other’s whose husbands have cheated, disappeared, or died…and feel so isolated and alone- and the point of me sharing the story is simply one wish, which is this:

In as much as you feel alone or isolated or not enough or whatever you are struggling with, I want you to know this one thing. You are not alone. And nothing is wrong with you. You are enough. Worthiness is a birthright that does not have to be earned. You were born with it. It’s yours. There is not one single thought, feeling or experience that you have been through, or are going through, that has not been shared by hundreds (or possibly millions) of other women. And if we could all just quit the bullshit and share our stories we could connect as a giant international sisterhood, instead of fighting against each other, one-upping each other and continuing to feed this monster of “not enoughness” and “something is wrong with me.”

To quote an excerpt from one of my favorite poems by Alison Nappi:

To the one love
I am and you are.
You are holy.
I love you.
You are a miracle.
Your life,
your feelings,
your hopes and dreams–
they matter.
Somebody failed you but you will not fail.
Somebody looked in your eyes and saw the sun blazing — and got scared.
Somebody broke your heart but your love remains perfect.
Somebody lost their dreams and thought you should too, but you mustn’t.
Somebody told you that you weren’t enough or too much, but you are without question the most perfect and holy creation of God’s own hands.