First thing’s first. There has NOT been a recent drama in my family, other than my beloved Uncle Brownlee’s death. For once, things have been pretty peaceful in my world (knock on wood). However, a friend shared with me an email she got from a distant family member that has inspired me to write about this subject today. Out of respect for her privacy, beyond the most basic of details, I won’t go into specifics about what the email said, only that it reminded me a lot of my own family dramas, which I feel alright in writing about. God knows I’ve done it plenty of times.
The basic gist of the story is that a few years ago, my friend and a couple of her family members got together for a “vacation”. For at least one party, it was supposed to be a “grand” trip, involving a lot of money and international travel. I don’t know how much or what kind of planning went into the trip, but it sounded to me like there wasn’t much communication before the traveling happened. Family relations were already strained from stuff that had happened for years prior to the travel.
I suspect that when these folks came together, tensions arose and there was a lot of fighting. The trip was an expensive disaster for everyone, and it ended badly, with many hard feelings. Years later, the trip is obviously still a source of “soreness” for everyone involved. My friend recently got an email bringing up that old business, along with a few hurtful remarks that made her glad that this “family member” is literally distant, and lives on the other side of the ocean that separates North America and Europe.
Beyond a few Thanksgiving reunions, the last of which I attended in 2014, I’ve pretty much sworn off family gatherings myself. I don’t remember the last time one of them went well. When I was a child, I guess I liked spending time with my sisters and parents… even though there were often fights. When you’re a kid, you’re more resilient about these things. It’s easier to forget slights and petty shit; because when you’re a kid, you often have to get along just to be able to survive.
But most people eventually become adults, and when you’re an adult, you start to see things differently. Your relationships become more complex. You have an enhanced ability to see beyond the obvious. You stop wanting to yield to other people’s desires, especially when they’re clearly wrong. You may or may not be just as wrong about something yourself. You may even be willing to talk about it with the other people who are involved. Unfortunately, getting past this stuff usually takes cooperation and mutual respect. A lot of families are unwilling or unable to acquire the perspective that makes mutual respect and cooperation possible. I’ve found in my own family that I often get relegated to the dreaded “baby of the family” role, even though I’m 47 and have always been perfectly competent. I get spoken to as if I need “special help”, which naturally pisses me off. I can take that in limited doses when it’s just one on one, but when I’m around the whole family and they’re all doing it, it drives me absolutely batshit crazy. I’ve tried to explain this to my family members, and they usually claim I’m just “too sensitive”. Since I’m so “sensitive”, I stay away.
As I’ve written about many times on my old blog, Christmas 2003 was the last time I spent time with most of my entire immediate family under one roof for longer than a few hours. I was pretty wary about attending the gathering because history had shown that they never go well. I couldn’t remember the last time we were all together as adults and there wasn’t at least one huge fight. I don’t enjoy fighting with people, especially when the fights aren’t productive. I have a sister who, no matter what, just can’t seem to understand that I’m not a stupid person. When I try to be assertive with her, she becomes really fake and placates me with niceties. Then, within hours, she’s back to criticizing and questioning my life choices, telling me how much she hates my laugh, or giving me unsolicited advice in an insulting way. I’ve tried so many times to get her to understand my side, but she never seems to get it.
Despite this dysfunctional family dynamic we have, my sister has often tried to organize family events. More than once, she’s come up with the “bright idea” to rent a house and hang out together for a week. I swore off these types of gatherings after our Christmas 2003 debacle and, despite tons of pressure from her to give in and “chip in” on a house rental, I have so far refused. These gatherings just plain don’t go well, at least not for me. And until everyone involved takes a realistic look at what could happen during a gathering and actively works together to make it go well, I refuse to spend precious time and money on “forced family time”.
However, despite the disaster that was Christmas 2003– which culminated in Bill and me leaving one of my sisters stranded at our parents’ house and forced her to take a Greyhound bus home– I am grateful the disaster happened. It was a good life lesson on several levels. First of all, I finally learned to assert myself and realize that I no longer have to go along with what immediate family members try to demand of me. I’m an adult, and free to make my own choices.
Secondly– and this is the more important lesson I learned– I also don’t have to go along with what extended family members demand of me. Christmas 2004 was an even more dramatic holiday, mainly because my husband’s ex wife tried to insist that Bill and I spend it with her at my father-in-law’s house. She made it clear it was the only way my husband could see his daughters and she wrongly thought I’d cave in to her shit in an effort to “get along” and “assimilate” for the sake of family solidarity. I had absolutely zero desire to spend the biggest holiday of the year stuck in a house with my husband’s ex wife, particularly since she and her husband had brazenly claimed the one guest room (her excuse was that the kids were staying with the grandparents, so she should be allowed to stay there, too). Bill and I were expected to get a hotel room, which was actually fine with me– in fact, I highly recommend that people gathering for reunions stay in hotels, preferably in different ones, and that they bring their own transportation.
As regular readers know, I refused to attend Christmas 2004. I was blamed for the fact that it went badly, as if my presence would have made that holiday a huge success. If I had attended, I can pretty much guarantee it would have been way worse for everyone involved. My primary concern, of course, was for my own well-being and for that of my marriage. I knew that no one there, aside from Bill, actually wanted me to be there simply because they actually wanted to spend time with me.
Ex just wanted me there so she could see what buttons to push. Everyone else just expected me to be there to make the situation seem “okay”. None of them specifically wanted to visit with me; this was all about placating the ex and letting her use her children as leverage to get what she wanted. I didn’t want to be a part of that dog and pony show, spending money we didn’t have and precious time on what I knew in my heart would be a fiasco. So, I became my own advocate and stayed home. I had only met Bill’s kids once anyway, and figured they’d rather have him to themselves.
But Bill went. He saw his daughters. We didn’t tell Ex I wasn’t coming, which reportedly really upset her. She made Bill pay for it. It was the last time he’s seen his children in person, although the younger one now Skypes with him regularly after many years of no contact. Despite what some people might think, I don’t believe it’s my fault Bill’s ex wife punished him by withholding visitation. That was entirely on her. I had nothing to do with that decision. She’s now paying the price for that decision, and many other bad ones she’s made, as her three eldest children are adults and can see what kind of person she really is. Yes, Bill could have gone to court to fight for visitation. He might have won. But it would have meant spending years fighting a person who is insane, but not insane enough for the courts to keep her out of our lives. He chose not to fight, and life continued to be worth living. In fact, it became a lot more fun.
Anyway, the point is, Bill’s ex wife often has these kinds of “pie in the sky” visions of gatherings that resemble Hallmark movies. They NEVER go that way, but she expects everyone to go along with the bullshit, even though it means they’ll spend time and money they don’t have, and recovery from the psychic trauma will take weeks. Those who don’t go along will be punished… at least for as long as they give a shit. I don’t so much anymore. Maybe that’s the beauty of getting older. You realize that you don’t have to cave in to family pressures unless that’s the only means of survival. You can say “no”.
When I read about my friend’s situation, it occurred to me that– just as Bill’s ex has unrealistic “visions” of perfection when she comes up with her harebrained family gathering ideas– when more normal people plan these kinds of gatherings, they often have a picture in their minds of what the gathering should or actually will be like. They don’t often share these visions of family bliss with everyone involved. There’s usually little communication among the people involved about what’s expected behavior. I think, a lot of times, people just have it in their minds that these reunions will somehow be as magical as a Hallmark movie. They just expect that everyone will come together in harmony, with nothing but peace, love, and goodwill in their hearts. Unfortunately, unless everyone is already close and has a respectful relationship, that is rarely the outcome. Life is not a Hallmark movie. When there is mental illness, drug addiction, or alcoholism in the mix, you can count on things going south in a hurry.
People often have overly ambitious and mismatched expectations when it comes to these kinds of family reunions. The more money and time a person spends on a gathering like this, the more they’re going to want to get their money and time’s worth. When things don’t go perfectly, they get angry and blame other people rather than taking an honest look at their own contributions to the problem. My sister, for instance, doesn’t want to hear what would make me want to spend time with the family. Instead, she wants to try to dictate to me how I should look and behave. She doesn’t want to relax and accept me for who I am, simply cherishing the time spent together. Instead, it’s like she wants to try to fix my flaws. This is the same sister, by the way, who for Christmas has given me exercise videos, makeup kits, and Proactiv.
While I do think family reunions can be fun, I also think that until everyone is “close” and has mutual respect for each other, it’s a terrible idea to have them in locations that involve a lot of time and money for travel. My first rule is that if I can’t drive to it, I don’t go… unless it’s for something like a funeral or memorial of an immediate family member. I did go to Virginia from Germany to attend my dad’s memorial at Thanksgiving in 2014. Dad died five years ago tomorrow, but we had his memorial during our annual Thanksgiving reunion in 2014, so more of the family could attend. Since he was my dad, I made an exception and went “home”. I don’t think I’ll be doing that again, unless my mom dies while I’m abroad.
My second rule is that I have my own transportation and lodging. I have seen way too many family fights erupt after someone has had too much to drink or spent too much time cooped up with people who rub them the wrong way. One of my cousins went home for Thanksgiving a few years ago, got into a fight with his dad, who had been drinking, and got kicked out of the house in the middle of the night. I kicked my own sister out of my car for throwing a massive temper tantrum when I said I wanted to leave early. I refuse to let someone else have control over my transportation or lodging. Now, I make sure to book a hotel and have a car at my disposal.
Thirdly… I am always prepared to leave when things start getting shitty. I have stayed too long at my fair share of parties. It’s never a good idea. I usually take weeks to recover from the trauma. So now, the minute things start to go south, I get the hell out of Dodge.
And finally, although I know it’s tempting to combine long awaited trips to save time and money, I don’t mix family business with pleasure. If I wanted to plan a trip for my completely hypothetical retirement, I would not combine it with a trip to see family. There’s just too much risk that something will go wrong and ruin what should be pure celebration. God knows I haven’t worked for 30 years in an occupation, but Bill has. If he wanted to celebrate his retirement by taking a trip to, say, Japan or South Africa, I wouldn’t take that opportunity to include family with whom we’re not close. Take the big celebratory trip to where YOU want to go. Don’t use it to see long lost family, especially if there’s a lot of unfinished business. You will likely regret trying to combine trips, because there’s an excellent chance it will lead to catastrophe. The other people involved, unless you’re close to them or dear friends, simply aren’t going to place the same value on your retirement as you will. So celebrate that with someone who values your retirement as much as you do and wants to celebrate it with you.
But really… and maybe I’m just super cynical… I think people should spend as much time as they can with people who make them happy, and minimize contact with those who don’t. Simply sharing a family bond doesn’t necessarily mean that you will get along with all of your family members. Most of us would like it to be so that blood is thicker than water, but it simply isn’t… I have many family members with whom I would never choose to be friends, and I know they feel the same way about me. So I don’t feel obliged to hang out with them. I think it spares us all a lot of pain and money.
So ends today’s long winded diatribe. Hope everyone enjoys Monday.