Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Family of Origin

I am very close to my family. My parents are still married, and my grandparents were married, too, until, one-by-one, they each died. That sounds confusing. But I don't mean that my grandparents were in an unusual 4-way marriage. I think you know what I mean. Moving right along. I have two younger sisters.

We have each had our personal problems, of course. But up until relatively recently, I would have told you that as a family, we were pretty much perfect. Growing up, we had family game nights, and we still do. We had family bike rides, all in our matching helmets. (Oh, how I hated that. No one wore helmets back then.) We still go on family walks when we get together at the holidays, each sub-family - all three girls are married now - with its own dog loping alongside.

After I had Ellie, and she was so sick, and things were hard, I began to turn inward. Gradually, I began to define "family" as Paul and Ellie, and define "home" as St. Louis rather than my parents' family, my parents' house.

Perhaps I began this process when my mother insisted that we come to their house for Christmas that first year, when Ellie was 2 months old, had been diagnosed with failure to thrive, and had heart surgery scheduled for a couple of weeks after Christmas. Our house was clean and decorated - we hosted family for her baptism a few days after Christmas - but my mother wanted us to drive 300 miles with that sick little baby, through the snow, to her house for Christmas. In retrospect, I can't believe that we did it, but at that time, not having Christmas with my family seemed inconceivable.

Over time, I've begun to feel uncomfortable with other things about my relationship with my family, specifically about the role I play.

When we go to visit my parents, it's hard not to be lazy, to feel like it's a vacation and surely someone else can take care of . . . the cooking, the dishes, whatever. (Exception: the kids. I never expect someone else to change diapers, help Ellie onto the potty, or watch the girls, unless they offer. The girls are my - and Paul's - personal responsibility just like going to the bathroom and showering myself are my responsibilities, iykwim. Baseline expectation of myself: basic hygiene and taking care of my children. Though I do expect my family to want to spend time playing with my girls. After all, they don't get to see them every month.)

It's also hard not to fall back into the predictable patterns of interaction, especially when people are treating me like they expect me to react the way I used to. You know, when I was a kid. This is uncomfortable, because I'm not a kid, and I don't want to be the kid I was.

I also don't like the specific part I've been assigned. People like to do things; we all reflect back happily on fun things we've done as a family, and some people complain if we sit around and do nothing, but getting the large group of easily distractable people to mobilize in concert is a Herculean (or Sisyphean) task.

I am the cheerleader, the ringleader, the bossy first child, the A-type personality, the boss. Just roll your eyes and follow along, folks.

If I don't start the conversation and marshall it along, the conversation often does not happen. I'm not just talking about which movie we should see on a Friday night, I'm also talking about which dates everyone is planning to be there, so that we can adjust work schedules and overlap our visits to my parents' house. So it's chaos and last minute scrambling and lots of time just sitting.

And it's become a family joke that Sarahlynn always wants to play board games. Of course, everyone likes playing games, and they frequently play even when I'm not there to suggest it.

But when I'm around, it's done with a let's-humor-Sarahlynn attitude, because that's my role. I don't like that role. I don't like being cast as the one who wants, who needs, the family and its corny-but-fun activities more than everyone else. It makes me feel like the worst parts of being a very young teenager again, with the seeking to belong, the fear of rejection.

It's not like all these issues are new. Some of them have been around for a long, long time; I've just been denying them. One summer, when I was home on break from university, my middle sister kept her diary on my computer. She didn't bother to password protect it; she just typed out her thoughts and plans and frustrations into my keyboard all summer. "I hate Sarah," she wrote. "She's such an ugly fat pig." And so on.

Over Thanksgiving, I overheard her talking to my mother. (When will they realize that I have always had very good hearing?) "Sarahlynn is acting just like she did back in high school," MiddleSis said. "She's totally . .. blah blah blah." I don't choose to remember it anymore; it was ugly. Also untrue.

So I decided to leave that afternoon and come back to St. Louis early. (That wasn't the only reason; there were lots of good reasons to come back here on Saturday, rather than Sunday, and we were all glad for the extra night's sleep in our own rooms, the extra day's rest at home before Monday.) In the car, on the way home, Paul and I talked a lot about what happened, and the ways in which being with our families can be stressful. The end result is that we can't and don't expect anyone else to change, and that we're all imperfect people. We can only monitor our responses and adjust our expectations. Hopefully, the Christmas visit will go more smoothly.

It seems that, perhaps, my picture-perfect family never really has been so picture perfect underneath, no matter how much I wanted that to be so, and believed that it was so. Here I am, in my 30's, surprised that we're an ordinary family with ordinary problems, after all.


Orange said...

I was the quiet kid nobody expected to say much. (Bossy dad, bossy and talkative older sister, meek mom, and then me—that was the order for talking at the dinner table.) But when I went away to college, I found my voice and I do expect people to listen. My extended family of origin still thinks I'm the quiet one, which is frustrating.

I have an aunt who uses the N word, too, so that's another thing that keeps me from jumping at every chance to spend time with my relatives.

Tracey said...

I can understand why you went to your parents' house that first Christmas, you were doing what you always did/do...your duty. I am amazed that I allowed my parents to force their way into our house the day I got home from the hospital after a C-section with Baby #1, even though they'd never visited me before (they were across the country). They moved into my house. They helped with NOTHING. We had to cook/clean/deal with two other human beings who couldn't do much more than sit on the couch and occasionally hold the baby. They didn't change the baby. When I asked if mom could watch him while I napped, mom talked SO LOUDLY in the next room that I couldn't sleep a wink. They were so proud of themselves that they were here and 'helping', they STILL talk about it and I still bite my lip to keep from screaming at them that they did nothing and were a huge pain in our collective butts!

Baby #2 arrived with much drama, but parents were already living locally now. This time they were more helpful, keeping child #1 and helping with other things. My dad was even so thoughtful as to make dinner at my house the very day I came home, causing much consternation as he fumbled about. He was so proud of himself, that the next MORNING he called practically at dawn to ask, not about me or the baby, but about the freaking pot roast (which was largely inedible because seriously, you do not need a STICK of butter to saute some veggies). "Was it the best pot roast you ever ate?". Um...WHAT?

Family is family. We all come with baggage and insanity. Crazy expectations. Rudeness. Hurtfulness. But hopefully with a lot of love. Always the love. *hugs to you*

Kristi said...

I understand the chaos, and how mobilizing a large family into action feels like herding cats. I've got 4 sisters, 3 of them in long term relationships. When everyone comes to our house some years, Merl and I started making iteneraries with events scheduled so that everyone knew what we were doing when (and could then opt out without doing some passive-aggressive foot-dragging at the last minute and annoying the rest of the group). Funny, I was never the organizer (I'm the 2nd child), but I've gotten more into that role. I'm the only one with kids...maybe that's the difference.

It has been a very long time since my family looked "picture-perfect" from the outside, so maybe I've had longer to learn to live with everyone's mess. And a mess we frequently are. But once you start learning to accept that mess, it gets better.

Nowadays it's kind of fun to go home and wallow in our chaos (and yes, all of the old roles we get trapped in), knowing that we have our own home to come back to when we've had enough.

Lady of the house said...

Hello, Sarahlynn!!!! Do you remember me??? I'm one of your cousins from KY -- Jenny. I'm Ada's granddaughter and Alex's daughter. I grew up on a farm that belonged to your grandfather.

I'm a stay at home mom and feeling very lonely today. I've been thinking a lot about family and just thought I'd do a Google search of folks I'd been thinking of. I can't believe I found you!!! What luck!!!

Do you mind if I hang around? If this is a private sort of thing, I'll not come back.

Anyway, Merry Christmas. I sent a card to your folks with a pic of my little boy -- Ben. He's 2.5 now. How are your little ones and your husband?

I love the name of your blog.

Sarahlynn said...

Jenny! I'm so glad you found me. Aunt Martha keeps me updated from time to time on how you and your brothers are doing. Once, she sent me a picture of Ben with her grandkids. :) I'll see the card you sent my parents when I go up there for Christmas next week. I am so glad to hear from you!

My second daughter is half-named after your grandmother. My two girls (Ellie's 4 and Ada's 10 months old) and my husband, Paul, are all doing great. I stay at home with my girls, too.

Welcome to the blog and feel free to read - and email - anytime! Merry Christmas!

Sarahlynn said...

Orange, gah! Yeah.

SK, isn't it amazing how having children reveals fault lines we never realized were there before?

Kristi, I have definitely noticed a dramatic shortening of the length of visit away from home that I find "comfortable!"

I can imagine myself in 30 years as the crotchety old person who prefers to stay in a hotel so that I have more control over things like clutter, noise, and schedules.

ccw said...

I clearly remember when Mr. MFBA realized that his family was not truly as he had been perceiving them all through his life. It was very difficult for him but not that he accepts the flaws and knows what he cannot change it is better for him (and "our" family).

His sister is the one who corrals and makes he decisions. She drives me absolutely f*cking nuts. Unlike you, she makes the plans and expects everyone to adjust to her decision. Making it worse is that she never ever considers our schedule but will consult the other two siblings.