Making Family Where You’re At

The holiday season is a great time to realize, once again, everything that is wrong with your family. This used to be a really hard time of year for me. I have a very small family of origin that fled our shared memories of misery and abuse. I haven’t spoken to my brothers in over a decade. My sister, who is considerably younger than I, stays in touch, but we have an uneasy relationship, much of which is tied up in mutual ambivalence about our mother. My normal is like a lot of people’s normal. It’s not.

As I continue to write my novel, Phoenix Rock, the character relationships are complex, alternating between deeply ambivalent and complete apathy. But I have created some loving relationships between siblings – relationships tainted by a secret, but relationships that can heal. It has made me think about my siblings and the past and the complex emotions we have shared. I am revisiting a sadness that I have not felt in a long time. After years of trying to awkwardly, painfully talk to each other, we gave up. There was too much geographical and emotional distance between us. We see each other as the children of thirty years ago, frozen in a time when there was incredible unhappiness.

A friend pointed out to me that I am trying to resolve those issues in writing this novel, but I believe that there is no resolution in real life, only acceptance. Like a Lifetime movie, one of us would need a unique organ transplant before we’d be able to unfreeze and move forward. We’re beyond blame and recriminations. We have lives and families across the country from each other. When what you share is an overarching unhappy story, there is little to motivate you to try and start again. Maybe one of us will need that organ, but like mending the past, it’s a long shot.

Over the years, as I’ve traveled and moved about, I have spent very few holidays alone. Early on I developed the skills to create a family wherever I was at the time. In the Army, I’d organize parties for many of us that weren’t traveling home for the holidays, cramming people into my small German efficiency apartment or serving a holiday meal to 30 people from the closet-sized communal kitchen in the barracks at Ft. Ord. Like my childhood holidays, it usually involved a lot of booze.

When I was single, I’d make a big meal on Valentine’s Day and invite disparate people like me, from work or school or the neighborhood. I’ve had some oddball gatherings. When I was struggling financially and didn’t have a car, I would still make a big Thanksgiving dinner and friends would travel to see me. I learned to appreciate the relationships I had and how to meet my needs for a sense of shared camaraderie – a sense of belonging somewhere in the world.

I have a small family now as well, but it’s a loving one. Even though both my husband and I came from relatively big families, we married late and that determined that we’d only have one child. She’s enough for us, but I often worry about the task we’ve set before her. She was disappointed at Thanksgiving this year. She’s always been the youngest, but the other kids have grown into teenagers who are not so interested in playing with an eight year old. She is an outgoing child who has had to learn how to live in a world peopled by adults. We have a lot of play dates for her, but the holidays are different, highlighting a lack of similarly-aged companions.

My husband and I console ourselves by recognizing that the presence of siblings is no guarantee of friends or playmates. But in the end, when we are gone, they would be the people who would have shared her collective memory of her childhood and family life. I’d like to believe that if she’d had siblings, they would have had happy adult relationships.

There are a lot of ‘only child’ myths that persist, but my daughter has a wide open heart that says she will be loved by people other than her parents. I hope that as she grows up and begins travels of her own that she can make home where she finds it. I hope that we will have helped her develop the skills to seek out those people who would be her family. I hope that she can find her sense of place in the world. I hope…

26 Comments

Filed under Parenting, Personal, Uncategorized

26 responses to “Making Family Where You’re At

  1. It is difficult being the youngest in the family. I used to be the youngest in my HUGE family and being surrounded by 50 people that are way older than you and no one pays you attention. Yes, that can be hurtful.

    When I look back at my childhood, though, it was mostly my parents that emphasized my loneliness. It was my fault that I didn’t try to blend in and remarks like “Maybe you should try harder?” didn’t help either.

    I think it really is the strength of the parents that help the child through a period like this. If the child is perfectly fine with being by herself for now, then why not? If you, however, all the time tell the child that she looks ridiculous being alone, then yeah, the child will feel bad and will only remember the loneliness about that holiday.

    Don’t worry about it, because if you don’t worry about it, she won’t either.

    That’s what I think…

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    • I don’t think we focus on her being alone. Both my husband and I are pretty independent, so she has done a great job developing those skills as well. It’s the Hallmark syndrome – holidays emphasize how far from reality one’s own life is. Thanks for reading and commenting – I appreciate your perspective!

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  2. “…but I believe that there is no resolution in real life, only acceptance.”
    You said it all right there. Five kids born over the span of a decade now endure brokenness that has spanned more than three decades. (over four for me) A brokenness which birthday greetings and Christmas gifts cannot repair. No matter how hard I’ve tried to be dependable with bail money, major appliances or a shoulder to cry on, it’s never enough to heal the damage that addiction and anger have done to my family.
    I’ve finally decided acceptance is the only way to no longer allow myself to be frozen in a time of incredible unhappiness. My brothers and sisters are the way they are not because of me, but because of their own choices. I might as well accept it.

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    • Acceptance is sometimes one of the hardest places to reach and I think the holidays have a way of shaking that complacency. Sounds like we have very similar backgrounds. The repercussions of addiction and abuse are far-reaching and while I struggle to work beyond that, I see my daughter as somewhat of a clean slate – a chance to break the cycle and start a generation of new and healthy relationships. I have to be careful not to let her feel the weight of my intentions though, since she has a right to be human and screw up as well.
      I came back from my little blog break with some heavy stuff – this novel is wringing some tough emotions out of me!

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      • I know exactly what you mean. At the end of last year, I was completely wrung out, mentally and emotionally.
        Happy Catharsis Days! Wonder why there’s no greeting card for that!!! :)

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        • I hope that you have a better year this year. The real trick with my family was recognizing that I was not responsible for solving their problems. I give financial help when I can, call or write when I feel like and let everything else go. As the oldest, I always felt a strong sense of responsibility. After years of a one-way street, having my own family and child was a wake-up call to step into the future and to let of the past. It’s catharsis, but a tough one to reach.
          It’s a pretty flush market, but I think you could start up a dysfunctional greeting card line!

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  3. I totally relate, I’ve been “orphaning” for years and it’s great. :) I’m glad you’re working through confronting and being thoughtful about and embracing your past. From where I sit it can ONLY be right.

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  4. Families are difficult… I am from a a modern family… Everyone has different last names. Never excepted by my father’s wife I have decided to no longer speak with them. My mother is mentally ill. My brothers and I get along on my mother’s side but I don’t speak with half brother and half sister on my father’s side. I have healing with my own children. One boy and one girl. Life is just not perfect. Love in a family should be a basic which it is in my house with my children but sadly that is not the case in many families… Your daughter will be fine…

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    • Families can definitely be challenging and your scenario is probably more common than not. I think it’s a victory to turn the tide with our own children. Sometimes, even though I know life is not perfect, I wish that there were more people in my daughter’s life that could be there when we are not. Only sometimes, though. The rest of the time, I’m grateful to be where we’re at.

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  5. Wonderful, honest post. That you’re so reflective on your child’s situation itself suggests everything will work out.

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  6. There was a point in my life where I thought that family bonds were the most important of all, and that family members are the ones who will be there for you in the hard times. I’ve got some great relationships with some of my family members, but I see now how easy it is for family to fade away due to personality or addiction.

    It seems that good people are able to make close life long friends without a problem. I’m surrounded by many people who were single children, and they have always seemed to be the ones that reach out and make the most friends because they have had to learn that skill from an early age.

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    • I think even “normal” family relationships can be tough to negotiate, but if you throw in addiction and mental illness, it’s a lifelong challenge.

      The skills to make friends are good ones to have. You’ll see that a lot with kids who have parents in the military or who are diplomats. I appreciate hearing about ‘onlies’ that you know. I have a lot of hope about my daughter – she is able to engage people pretty easily. Thanks for the comment!

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  7. I’ve been to that place of acceptance – I think got there by deciding I could live without resolution. I’m glad to have my siblings in my life but my path is not the same as theirs sometimes. I have learned that we see things so differently. My NaNo is bringing up a lot of these same things as I look back to find the sweet and funny moments. There were lots of not so sweet times too – many more than the sweet ones. I like the way you put it – creating family where you are at – I seem to do that too. I was the one who left home and made my way away from the chaos – my self created families have been invaluable to me.

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    • I have often wondered how my siblings and I ended up being so different from each other. Troubles attended all of us after leaving home, but I seemed to have shed mine more quickly. Perhaps it is the family I found along the way that helped guide me towards a less self-destructive life. It reminds me of the advice of gravitating towards friends who are people you could aspire to be – they lift you up.

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      • I think there’s a lot of truth in that. I also think building community that is separate from the situation gives you a different perspective. I know that my siblings and I could describe the same events and have completely different takes on it.

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        • That’s something about family relationships that I find fascinating – how each member of the family, in the very same circumstances, has a different experience. It’s something I am exploring as I write – seeing the same situation but through different characters’ eyes.

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        • I think as siblings we play different roles and they color our thinking. Hero, martyr, clown, screwup – I think we see things through the role we assume. Your project sounds fascinating.

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        • Many years ago, I read The Family Crucible: The Intense Experience of Family Therapy by Napier and Whitaker and one of the things I found interesting was that each family member is, as you commented, assigned a particular role. My novel project is being forcibly drug out of me, kicking and screaming, one slow word at a time!

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        • I’ll have to check that out – I took an Adlerian course in college and some of the ideas on birth order hit home. I don’ think you can pigeon hole anyone though. Good luck with your project. I can relate in some small way.

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  8. Pingback: Its Holiday Season again… Does it make you warm and mushy or give you the icky feelings of dread? | bluepearlgirl's world

  9. Lots to think about here.

    I also come from a family that’s about as unhelpful — or usually has been over the years — as anyone can be: nasty stepmother, passive Dad doing her bidding, spoiled half-brother, alcoholic/mentally ill mother. Enough! I learned very early — as an only child who could not retreat to some cosy “home” whenever things were tough (and they often were) — to find and make dear, close, long-lasting friendships wherever I lived.

    Only children can gain tremendous emotional and intellectual resources that those with multiple siblings do not. You’re terrific — why wouldn’t she be too?

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