As a young girl growing up in a military family, I went to a lot of ceremonies and parties…nothing ever fun or life-changing though, I promise. I remember seeing all the other families, smiling ear to ear, dressed to the nines, every hair in place, and who all possessed an almost robotic ability to position themselves in a picture-perfect pose. Call it naivety or ignorance, but to the best of my knowledge, all of these families were seemingly perfect. They probably all agreed on a radio station to play in the car on the way home. They probably sat around the fireplace at night, sharing old memories and planning future vacations. At least that’s what it looked like to an outsider like me.
One day I made the mistake of mentioning to my mom that I wish our family was “normal” like all the other families I saw. We were in the car on the way home from gymnastics, and my mom chuckled before nonchalantly capitalizing on a teaching moment. We drove through the house-lined streets on the Army base. My mom let me vent, then said, “Raquel, I want you to look at these houses. See how some are bigger than others? Some have more cars, others less. Some have bikes in the grass, others have a perfectly manicured lawn. Some people’s lights are on, while others’ are pitch black. It’s dinnertime now, right?”
My mom continued, “From the outside looking in, we will never ever know what is going on inside any of these homes. We can look from the outside and make assumptions based on what we see, but what appears to the eye can sometimes never be further from the truth. It’s dinnertime and we don’t know how many families are eating together right now. We don’t know if someone inside is feeling sick, or feeling pain. But what we do know is that we are all human beings who know what it feels like to be loved and to be hurt. So you just need to make sure that you love the people around you and not make any judgements on what you think you know about their life.” Sure, she could’ve just responded with the classic “grass is always greener” quote, but this conversation stuck with me.
When I was 18, I moved to New York City without knowing a single soul besides my acting agent. I remember walking past beautiful townhomes on the Upper East Side while interviewing for jobs. Compared to my $800/month room in Harlem, these homes looked heavenly. From the outside, all I could see was expensive artwork, extravagant light fixtures, perfectly draped curtains and an occasional housekeeper making rounds. Even as a young adult, I still caught myself thinking, “Wow, I bet whoever lives inside doesn’t have to stress about paying rent, and probably goes on vacation whenever they feel like it.” It wasn’t until I started working for the 1% when I realized, no family is perfect…everyone is going through their own stuff.
When I started my first nanny job, I’d schedule my dinner preparation so that the food would be ready on the table by the time the parents came home so the family could have dinner together. After all, that was the way I grew up. We sat down for dinner as a family every night, joined hands to bless the food, ate a home-cooked Mexican meal and no one left the kitchen until dishes were done and the floor was swept. However, I learned that the culture in Manhattan is very different. The parents explained to me that they would love to have dinner with their children every night, but that is a sacrifice they’ve had to make in their careers. They shared, “When I come home from an exhausting 12-hour work day, I just want to read my kids a bedtime story, put them to sleep, eat a quick meal, squeeze in some more work, then fall asleep to wake up and do it all over again.”
It hit me. Here is this family, living in a beautiful Manhattan building. Both parents have high-paying careers and beautiful children with lots of toys. But from my perspective, it was unfortunate that there were intimate conversations and moments I shared with the kids that the parents would never get to experience. It broke my heart that the parents were only seeing their kids for a few minutes everyday at bedtime, typically when they were most rambunctious. Meanwhile, I got to hold their hand down the street as they smiled ear-to-ear talking about their day at school. I was at the playground when the 5-year old finally got across the monkey bars all on her own. I was the chaperone on the school field trip where the little one said, “this is the best day ever! Thank you Raquel.”
At first, it made me sad for the family. That they will never experience the family dynamic that I had growing up, and grew to appreciate over time. Here I was, an 18-year old aspiring actor and freshman college student, feeling bad for two successful Manhattanites in their 40s with three kids. The truth is, every family is different. What may be important to me is not going to align with the values of every other person I meet. Just because I value a home-cooked meal with the whole family, doesn’t mean that is what is important for everyone else.
Every family encounters opportunities for learning and growth, and our individual experiences are just a reflection of how we navigate those moments. We are all navigating life for the first time, and just trying to do what we think is best for our own happiness and health. When we open up and connect with each other over our shared human experience, we can show up better for one another. And that is probably the most perfect way you can help others while helping yourself.