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All Families Are Messed Up (W&F II)

In the fall of 2006, I moved to Vancouver. My first weekend there, I made an IKEA run with a friend to purchase furniture for my tiny new bedroom, as one does. We were walking out of the store, pushing a trolley with a stack of boxes, when my phone rang.

It was my older brother and his wife, calling to tell me that they were pregnant. I remember being so excited, but also very aware that the distance between Vancouver and Ontario was significant enough that I wasn't going to be present for most of the milestones this would lead to. I wondered how to involve myself from far away. I started realizing that it's my responsibility to contribute to these relationships, that I needed to be intentional in what I wanted to build.

This phone call kick-started a change in how I think about family. It was the first moment that I realized being an adult in the family is completely different than being a kid.

(this post, I realize, is less of a woman's issue and more of a grown-up issue, but I'm a woman grown-up, and the topic leads into all the other lady topics, so I'm sticking with it.)

My family has its share of problems and complications. We have conflict. We've had crises, and they have been tough. Terrifying. We don't always see eye to eye, and quite frankly, we drive each other batty at times. But in the nine years since that phone call to Vancouver, I have seen our family grow - not just numerically, as we've added 2 more spouses and 4 babies - but but in depth, in honesty, and in friendship.

Because this is the main thing that I believe about families: if you want healthy, grown-up relationships with your family of origin, it requires work, relearning, and a whole lot of forgiveness.
That's me in the floral one-piece, in case you weren't quite sure.
(Caveat: I believe that there are situations and families where the best choice someone can make is to remove themselves from an unhealthy environment. Unfortunately, not all families are safe. Maybe some members are, but others aren't. Maybe no one in your family of origin is. If there is any sort of abuse - physical, sexual, emotional, or spiritual - my strong belief is that you need to get out of Dodge. And find professional support and help to figure out how to proceed and heal.*)

Here are a few things I value as I build grown-up relationships with my family:

1. I want to be myself with them. A few years ago, I was having a conversation with one of my siblings about a topic I have strong opinions and convictions in, and it occurred to me that they had no idea about my experiences in this area, or how I'd wound up with the beliefs I hold. I realized I could be annoyed by this, or I could open myself up to share more of who I am and what my life holds when we're not stuffing our faces full of home-cooked goodness at a birthday or holiday celebration.

2. I want to be my best self with them. For the first 17 years of my life, my family got to see all the glorious weaknesses, inadequacies, and flaws that young Beth had. It's easy to revert back to how I was at 17 (and sometimes even 7...), to assume the roles and patterns that defined my childhood - but that's not who I am anymore. At least, that's less of who I am. I think. I hope. So am I making a conscious effort to treat them with the same courtesies I treat the rest of humanity?

3. I want to look for their best selves. This is the other side of the coin. I have seen a lot of glorious flaws and weaknesses in my family. But do I believe that is the sum of who they are? Or do I look for the good, the unexpected, the encouraging, and the surprising in them? Do I expect them to be the 17 year-old version of themselves that I loathed, or do I give them room to grow in the same way I hope they give me space to change?

4. I try to remember that they also have wounds and memories and lives outside our little circle. My sister has explained to me more than once what the company she works for does, but if you pressed me, the best I could come up with is that I think they sell pressure gauges to factories? I don't even know. As for what she does there... I think she does some officey stuff. And maybe payroll. My younger brother is the baby of the family; at twenty-six, I'm quite sure he's sick of being called "the baby." When I tease him about this, I imagine it might invoke the same sort of fury that I feel when I'm called "the sensitive one." We all have wounds from our childhood. We all remember different things in different ways from our growing up years. And we all have lives and do things and know people that our siblings and parents don't understand. In this, we're all the same.

5. And finally, I remember that space is okay. It is okay if I don't communicate with my parents every day (I have never been this sort of daughter, and I have felt much guilt about it - but there is no one I communicate with daily, outside of my roommate-at-the-time). All my relationships have space. There are ebbs and flows, there are rocky patches and there are phases, and there are deep bonds that bring us in more frequent contact for a time, and there are shifts, and there are fights - and all of that is normal.

Reading back through all this, I guess I'd summarize my family philosophy in two statements: be intentional, and treat them like they aren't your family. Treat them like the rest of humanity, like colleagues, or friends, or people from your ultimate frisbee team, or faith community, or wherever else you interact with humans.

What about you? What shapes your interactions with your family? How do you navigate these strangers whose lives have been plopped down next to yours? What's been the best and the worst of it? What nuggets of truth have I overlooked?
*Actually, I'm a big fan of professional support in most situations. It's been very helpful to me to have an unbiased sounding board with whom I can process my stresses and fears. I've definitely talked about family things with therapists; it has been profoundly insightful and a catalyst for change.


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