Huge family milestones that involve introducing a new family member, like getting married or having a baby, seem like they should elicit nothing but happiness in one’s extended family or family of origin. And they usually do bring great joy. But often family members (parents or siblings) of those celebrating these milestones may feel an inkling of sadness or even grief—even though they feel nothing but love toward their new family member. This grief can be confusing, as it may seem misplaced. How can something so joyful and celebratory cause even a tiny bit of sadness?
What it looks like
Put simply, adding new members to the family—either through marriage or birth—can make other family members acutely aware of how their identity is changing or what changes will be felt in the whole family. Often, these are welcome changes: a parent overjoyed at seeing her daughter find a spouse who brings her so much happiness, a sister elated at becoming an aunt. But sometimes family members also feel a twinge of sadness. A parent who is grappling with the reality of her own age and feeling old as she becomes a grandmother. Siblings who are sad that their married sibling won’t be around for every holiday tradition anymore. Parents or siblings who are mourning the end of family road trips as they once knew them. Sometimes, a family member may feel embarrassed that she feels a tinge of sadness, but doesn’t exactly know why.
The night of my rehearsal dinner, my parents had put together a short slideshow of pictures capturing moments throughout my life. Before the guests arrived, I remember standing next to my parents, watching it. As it ended, I looked over at my parents, who were both in tears. Their tears reflected a sadness and disbelief at how fast time had passed. Gone were the days of seeing me walk down the stairs in my pajamas for Saturday morning pancakes, snuggling my beloved pillow. My childhood and time at home had ended years before, but a child leaving the nest, although it may be a difficult transition, is rarely marked for parents with quite as much solemnity as a wedding day is. Although a joyous occasion—and my parents were as joyful about my marriage as anyone—a wedding cements the (often un-grieved) fact that their child’s childhood is really over.
Why we feel this way
The truth is that it’s possible, and completely normal, that people won’t feel one hundred percent “one way” about something—especially about this big of a change. It’s much more likely that someone will have many different feelings about such an event. It is possible, and should even be expected, that some family members will feel both joy and a hint of grief at these momentous occasions. The key word here is “and.” Sadness does not mean the family member is not excited about the milestone or doesn’t love their new in-law, grandchild, niece, or nephew. It simply means they are human.
As a culture, we generally don’t do a great job recognizing the complexity of human emotions. We like to see things as either black or white, good or bad, this side or that side. This makes it difficult to understand when someone experiences both joy and grief—and possibly a whole host of other emotions—especially at what we think of as a happy occasion.
Another reason for that inkling of sadness at otherwise happy milestones could be that a family member is experiencing a shift in identity. With every new marriage, a mother becomes a mother-in-law, a sister becomes a sister-in-law. When the first grandchild is born, a parent becomes a grandparent, a brother becomes an uncle. These are more than mere titles—they involve real life changes. Sisters who may have enjoyed being roommates no longer experience that same, everyday closeness once one of them is married. A parent who becomes a grandparent may go from being an empty-nester to caring for a new grandchild.
Family members may feel excited about your milestone but also sad or scared for what it means about them. For example, a parent may be overjoyed about her new grandchild, while at the same time she is struggling with the idea that being a grandparent means she has entered “old age.” Likewise, an older sibling may love her new brother-in-law, and at the same time feel insecure about the fact that she’s not married yet. Younger siblings may be excited to welcome their new in-law, and at the same time feel like their childhood was pushed too quickly into adulthood.
Realizations about one’s shift in identity due to these milestones can be seen in a positive light. It’s important for family members to recognize that these milestones do change them in some way; a wedding isn’t just a big party, and having a baby isn’t just the expected next step in a marriage or family. These are huge events that affect every aspect of the couple’s life, and the reverberation of those effects are bound to be felt by those close to them.
If you’re the family member
If you are a family member of someone celebrating one of these milestones and these feelings sound familiar to you, first, know that this is a common experience. But it’s important not to take out your emotions on your loved one; recognize that these feelings are not your loved one’s fault. At the same time, you shouldn’t just bottle up these emotions. Find ways to express what you’re feeling appropriately. You can express it to your loved one in a kind and loving conversation if you feel comfortable. You could also write your loved one a gentle letter. If you are worried that sharing these feelings will hurt your loved one, you can write out how you feel in a journal, talk to a therapist, or bring it up in personal prayer. Allowing yourself to cry can be particularly cathartic, especially if you’ve been holding it in because you feel this should be a happy occasion. It’s okay to acknowledge that things have changed and you’re not always happy about it.
If you’re celebrating the milestone
If you sense that a loved one is having mixed emotions about your celebratory milestone—either leading up to or in the months following it—the best thing you can do is to ask her about it directly and kindly: “Mom, I’m wondering if you might have some feelings—in addition to your excitement—about becoming a grandma. I understand that this is a big life and identity change, and it makes sense if you’re feeling a lot of different ways about it.” If someone senses you are angry or defensive, they are likely to respond in the same way, or deny the feelings in the first place. Hopefully a soft conversation start-up will invite them into a loving conversation rather than leave them feeling accused.
If you don’t feel comfortable broaching the topic with them, or they don’t want to talk about it or simply deny it, that doesn’t mean you can’t process these emotions. Whether your loved one has acknowledged these feelings to herself or not, her feelings have made their way into actions and affected you on some level. Whatever you’ve noticed and whatever it’s brought to light for you can be discussed with a therapist or a trusted confidant.
When it is a big deal
If your happy milestone was, unfortunately, not celebrated by your family as the joyous occasion should have been, that can be deeply hurtful. Whether or not you are able to discuss this directly with family members (individually or all together), remember that their reaction to your life event is a reflection of their own shift in identity or identity crisis, not necessarily a reflection of you, your spouse, or your new child. If this topic causes a seemingly insurmountable chasm in the family, this is a fitting opportunity to go to family therapy. It is common for old wounds or unhealed hurts from the past to be reactivated by a big transition like this, bringing out unpleasant emotions or patterns of interaction for the whole family. A family therapist can help you navigate both past and present concerns.