Conversation with my future son-in-law this morning reminds me that every family is different. He and his family of origin is big, boisterous, close, determinedly close, and … overwhelming. My daughter has issues with it, because ours is a tiny family unit. For me, my family is 4 – me, M, C, and G. Adding in C’s fiancé A and G’s fiancé K, we are up to 6. For A, it’s aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins – all birthdays, all holidays, all the time.
Of all he things I have done in my life, the only regrets I possess relate to my children. In the overall big, bigger, biggest picture, I have been and will continue to be a good mother all the rest of their lives with the exception of those 3 moments in time. But I am happy and relieved to report that my regretful moments were also learning experiences, where my anguish over my loss of control lasted a single second each time and has altered, changed, and improved me forever.
While both my parents had siblings and I have many, many generations of cousins – I would not know any of them in pictures, if we came face-to-face at a party, or if we passed on the street. My sister had 2 sons, 1 in prison and 1 disconnected from me and pursuing his life somewhere in Colorado. My parents and my sister are all deceased now. But when they were alive, these were not loving, caring, Leave-it-to-Beaver type relationships.
My dad was an alcoholic most of my life. I was in my 30s before he got cancer and subsequently got sober because of it. Long before the cancer, though, the alcohol was taking a toll on his system. What I remember most about my dad – his intense anxiety and fear that was medicated with alcohol. He had a good heart, and as I grew up and understood him better, my crushing disappointment with him for his failings as a father morphed into sympathy for a person so emotionally crippled.
My mom was a pretty classic codependent. I have long thought her buttoned-up coldness and passive/aggressive personality was more cultural (Chinese), yet maybe combined with my dad’s alcoholism limited her ability to express anything other than fear, anxiety, and anger. Probably 98% of whatever love and affection she possessed was lavished upon my older sister. I always thought this is what families were really like, that there was one golden child destined for greatness and one shit child destined for jail or worse. Guess which one I was? Whereas my sister received praise and brags about her academic and social accomplishments, any and all good grades I brought home or successes I achieved were met with surprise and skepticism. Grading on a curve? Easier exams? Lucky guesses? Cheating? Applied for and got hired for my first job? BIG surprise.
When my daughter died my mother brokenly told me my grief paled in comparison to hers, because she “raised” that child and her pain surpassed my own. Even in the moment of some of the most paralyzing pain in a life filled with lots of paralyzing pain I recognized that this woman was really broken in ways I could not begin to comprehend much less understand. Her comment was just another series of hurtful words in a long string of hurtful words.
In my adult life I can count on one hand the number of times I ate with my parents in their home once I left home. My visits to them consisted of dropping off or picking up the kids, Christmas days for an hour or two, stopping in to see my sister when she was in town, going by to help with some problem my mother, in her state of learned helplessness, was beyond dealing with one her own. We are not talking leaking toilets or electrical issues; I mean meeting with contractors or plumbers or electricians to obtain estimates for repairs.
I am sorry to say my contempt and impatience was difficult to conceal much of the time. Always there was an expectation of what was “owed” her in time or energy or listening to her explain to me why she herself could not take care of what I perceive as simple tasks.
Consequently, I do not keep score on favors in relationships. If I do something nice or a favor, I do not have expectation of repayment. Favors are things given freely with no expectation of repayment or reciprocation, just because it makes me feel good about the doing. Because I can. Because I want to be nice and advance myself on the good personhood scale. So again, it is all about me, selfish me. *smile*
My sister – not close at all. My sister always wanted to pretend that our family was a model for Norman Rockwell paintings, and the reality was a cruel and stark contrast to that. She and I had nothing in common, and in some ways my modest success eclipsed her in real and uncomfortable ways. I never understood that. She was a legal assistant and did well for herself, but I was apparently not enough of a failure to make her appear brighter in the family skies. Once she married and moved away, every time she came home there was always a major explosive event with my parents. Until she and my mother found a common theme of deriding me.
When my first marriage blew up, I think my parents and my sister were again surprised that I managed to get along with minimal financial or other assistance from them. While there was a year where I at peanut butter sandwiches 3 meals daily for 3 or 4 days out of the week to ensure the kids had nutritious food, I was far too proud to ask for help from my parents. My mom would buy groceries and treats for the kids, which I always appreciated, but if I ran short before payday I would be the one who took steps to ensure the kids were covered.
So I have a real understanding of how family members want the family they want and not the family they actually have.
I love my kids to the moon and stars and back. While we live in the same town, we do not see each other as frequently as we all might like. Not because it is uncomfortable or because we dislike each other, but because we are busy people with lives of our own. This is by my design as much as the way it should be in what I perceive as healthy families.
My kids are people I genuinely like as well as love very much. Both are smart, funny, kind, compassionate, and quirky in their own ways. I love conversing with them, hearing about their interests and their separate lives, asking questions and researching what I fail to understand so I am more knowledgeable next we meet. When they left home, the only thing I asked is that we get together, break bread together every month or so as a family. Bring your friends, significant others, roommates, whoever – just let me know in advance so I make enough food. Or we go out for a meal. We celebrate birthdays and holidays in our own unconventional ways, and for us it works.
My future son-in-law struggles with a relationship with his biological father. I cannot understand how a father could abandon and ignore his child, but maybe growing up means learning to accept there are some things, some people you cannot change.
For A, I wish a larger measure of peace. With his large, boisterous, extended family, I hope they will come to understand that he has made an amazing choice in future wife and that the path they may choose is different and independent of the nuclear family unit. While I would never dream of exerting pressuring on anyone I love to ensure my picture of family is complete, I do know what I value and how I demonstrate it differs from others all around me.
If my kids chose to not speak to me ever again, I am hopeful I would understand their reasons why. But I raised my kids to be independent adults, not extensions of myself clinging to my apron strings until the day I die. My identity as a person is not intwined with my being a consultant in their adult lives. I am here if they need me, as they are for me. Is this not one of the tenets of being a family?
I have close friends I love like people are supposed to love family – my tribe. Maybe we are not always close, maybe we do not stand together until one of us falls. But our lives are entwined and we have history. They need to talk, I’m here to listen. And vice-versa.
While I have no new thoughts or ideas for my future son-in-law on his relationship with his father, I know he, A, is worthy of love and the care of both his parents. It is not an unworthy desire by any stretch, and his pain at the continual rejection is also understandable. Sometimes we just have to cut our losses and continue with our lives, no matter how impossible it feels to let go of the idea and dream of a relationship we covet.
Family. It’s loving, it’s hurtful, it’s messy, it’s frequently complicated. And I suppose I would not have it any other way. Because I love my family and my tribe.