There’s a saying that goes, “If you’re not sure who the black sheep of your family is, it’s probably you.”
My father, who was a black sheep in his own right, walked out of his entire family’s lives at the age of 19. It happened after his mother died because she was the only one who ever showed him kindness and love. He never spoke to a single one of them again. It was as if they never existed.
As his young daughter, I’d bug him for answers to an exhausting degree. What was his family like? Did any of them look like me? What did they do for work? To his credit, my dad would answer every single question while I was oblivious to the pain they caused him.
“I just want to know this stuff,” I explained to my dad. “It’s like you have this whole past, but you sound like your life didn’t start before my mother and me.”
“It didn’t,” my father responded. I never forgot he said that.
On my mother’s side were my grandparents and my aunt and uncle, who were the siblings of my mother. My aunt was married but never had children. My uncle was single for most of his life. During family gatherings, there were never cousins to play with and no kid tables to sit at during holiday dinners. It was always me hanging out with the grownups.
My mother gained the title of “black sheep” first, way before I was born. She suffered from severe mental illness that ended up in a long hospitalization. After that, she ran off with my father to Hawaii after he’d gotten her pregnant with me. They left no clue where they were and even changed their names. My grandmother was heartbroken and put up signs all over Troy, New York, in an attempt to find her daughter. This lasted for years until my mother finally picked up the phone and called her.
I met nobody in my mom’s family until I was about five. By the time they learned about me, I could already read, write, and ride a bicycle. My grandmother, aunt, and uncle flew out to visit us soon after that. I thought they were nice people, but I didn’t understand what the fuss was about. It wasn’t like they ever fed me a bottle, sang to me, or cuddled me when I couldn’t sleep. With no bond between us, our interactions were stiff and formal.
I took my mother’s place as the black sheep of the family around the time I started middle school. If most of my family was drunk during Christmas (which happened a lot), I was the snitch who pointed it out. I saved the worst for my mother because we had so much bad blood between us even at my tender age of twelve. Whenever I told the truth and asked somebody to help me because my mother was abusing and neglecting me, they would pat me on the head as if they didn’t know a thing about what I meant.
I retained my black sheep title even as an adult. When I got married for the first time, my mom’s whole family came to the wedding. I was so excited that I blocked out time on my schedule so we could all hang out, but they made other plans instead.
Once I visited my mother out of state when she got really sick and was hospitalized with bleeding ulcers. I called my aunt to give her the bad news about her sister.
“Well, I hope your mom improves,” my aunt said. “Then you can both go back to…whatever normal is.”
My mom was discharged a few days later. Shortly after that, she called my aunt who began badmouthing me. I was sitting in the same room, and I could tell by the way my mother was answering that she was trying to defend me. My aunt never asked to talk to me that day, so I guess talking about me was all she really wanted to do anyway.
Nobody liked the fact that I told the truth. They accused me of being rude or lying, even if the truth was impossible to deny. I knew at a young age that if they believed me, it would mean they couldn’t sweep it under the rug with everything else that made them uncomfortable. They kept the secret of my grandfather’s alcoholism his whole life because it brought them embarrassment and shame. Everyone had secrets, and no one was willing to share them with a girl who would just blurt them out.
I especially didn’t let my mother get away with “rewriting history.” It took me a long time to realize I was my own person and not just an extension of her. I tried to share with the rest of the family how she put me in danger with her drunken behavior, not to mention the verbal abuse and neglect. None of our relatives ever said a word in my defense, just waving their hands away as if it were that easy.
Even though I got the brunt of it, the members of my mother’s family didn’t seem to like each other either. My aunt had written my mother off a long time ago and barely tolerated her when they were together. She felt like she’d always been ignored because my mother had so many problems
My uncle had always been nice to me, although there was a barrier between us, too. My mother confessed to me that her brother was gay. Unfortunately, this was right after I made a lame attempt at middle school humor by making a gay joke. I inadvertently hurt my uncle’s feelings so badly that he broke out in hives and had to call in sick from work.
“Why didn’t you TELL me?” I demanded of my mother when we were alone. “Don’t you think I should have known that?”
I felt mortified by having caused my uncle pain, but my mom just shrugged her shoulders. “What can you do?” she said as if it was just one of nature’s occurrences.
In later years, I’d see my family a handful of times. Every event felt like we were all just robots instead of people who adored each other. I’d learned by now not to state the obvious. They couldn’t be trusted, and so I shared as little of my life as possible.
I don’t think I’m a bad person. I have a husband and three children, and I worship the ground they walk on. Still, I can say anything to them because our relationships are strong enough to survive it. I’ve also come to find out that I’m not always right because they can say anything they want to me, too. Part of me wonders whether my mother’s family merely sees me as an extension of my mom, the one who started causing trouble in the first place. It makes me feel closer to her.
Best of all, I no longer think being a black sheep is a bad thing or that I should be ashamed of it. Black sheep are the truth-tellers, the ones who won’t tolerate lies and family gaslighting. We expose the myth of unconditional love, the kind that only exists if you keep the family secrets and fall in line. Real love is about so much more.
Here’s to the “black sheep” of our world for making it a better place for everyone. We should be proud of our honesty. We are the survivors of dysfunction and the heroes of our own stories. We know what truly makes a family and often break the cycle and go on to create loving families of our own. We are brave souls.