Separately Together

WARNING ALERT: This post drips with honesty and vulnerability.

I’ve had my time of emotional upheaval and draining this morning. It’s actually been going on for 24 hours now. And I’m now in the wake of its hangover. I wish I could tell you this was new territory, but it’s not. Not by a long shot.

There are volumes of worthwhile books, articles and blogs, not to mention gazillion unwritten materials about holidays and their effect on mental and emotional health. But so what? All the knowledge and understanding in the world, does it keep the thoughts, feelings and triggers from invading subtly and not so subtly? I’m here to tell you, no.

In our house, we get it. It shows up every year, and I do mean, EVERY year. In one form or another, to one degree or another. And every year we hate it. And every year we determine to be aware, and prepare ourselves, and vow to not let it get the better of us. And every year it does.

So it’s Christmas day. My husband and I are enjoying coffee and quiet time reading. One of us says something about a message from one of the kids. And so it begins. ALL of that “stuff” comes up and out. Memories, history, grief, pain, anger. It’s annoying, uncomfortable, hurtful, sad…and messy. Tears. Silence. Calm returns. Then later, pancakes and bacon.

Our backgrounds are different and yet similar. Missed through childhoods, twenty-year relationships destroyed, restoration of selves. Then brought together. Oh joy! Yes, there is that for sure. But those carry-on bags…good thing they had expandable zippers. Because some things showed up that had to be packed in. Things that others dropped off along the way, for which we were apparently going to have to pick up the pieces. True, it wasn’t all things we needed to pack because it was our responsibility. But it was things that showed up that belonged to our family, and so, like a mom remembering to pack that special blanket or toy, we stuffed it in.

I’ve written before about the dynamics that come in various layers (Layers, Dynamics, Investment…and Love). But it’s crazy how the more blogs, books and comments I read, and the longer I live, the more I continue to see about how these dynamics and layers seem to pop up at one turn after another. Two such turns showed up just recently like this.

My dad has not been physically healthy this year, and has been declining steadily. We have had several “close calls” and at this point it is pretty much day by day. We have kept the grandkids up to date on the basics when things change. In November, one daughter who has known no other grandfather but my dad, and who (at least in the past) has had a warm, friendly grandpa relationship with him, after hearing he had been hospitalized, sent a note, “How’s your dad and ____?” Seriously? “Your dad”? When and why did he become not Grandpa?

Never mind the circumstances under which I received this other text, but it was, “You all have been wonderful to accept us as a second family and we appreciate it very much.” Seriously? I have a “second family”? I was in my mid 20’s when my dad remarried after my mother was killed in an auto accident (when I was 20). I did not ever live in their home, and I don’t care much for the “step” terminology (except when “required” for context), so my dad’s wife has never been “mom” or “step-mom.” I have referred to her by first name and “dad’s wife.” BUT, she has ALWAYS been Grandma to all of the children born to me and my siblings. In fact, she is the only Grandma all but two of them have known. AND, her daughter (who did live with them) and I have ALWAYS referred to each other as sisters, not step-sisters, not his/her daughter, but SISTERS (and so, we refer to “mom” when we talk together). I did not meet the other sister until much later, in fact, it was only several years ago really, but she too has been my sister all this time. In fact, in the moment dad got remarried, I was no longer the baby of the family, but became the middle child, smack dab in the center of the five of us.

Here’s a turn that had a little different effect. We found out our (adopted) sons were spending time this weekend with some of their (biological) family. We are immensely happy for them to be able to do this and think it is very healthy at this point in their lives. But, we feel a “loss,” a “hole.” And yet, I know that in a way, our family is bigger now, too.

I don’t know that I ever really thought of it as anything but “family.” If we are connected by birth or by marriage or in some other specific way because of relationship, then we are “family.” I understand and recognize that not everyone thinks or sees things as I do. And I respect that, really I do. I realize “family” can be defined in a lot of ways, and my way is not the only “right” way. But I have to admit, it amazes me what people will say, and then how differently it is lived out. And again, I understand dynamics and layers, and so, perhaps a better reference point was spoken by the oldest of (our) six children, who said, we have an “expanded” family. Perfect!

So now we have something we can call it. But will we? Ever? At least collectively? Once again, it shows up in glaring reality how what I know and believe just does not change what is in some cases. And this is hard. Because I’m not naive and I don’t live in a fantasy world, but I do have wishes and hopes. I believe and know that there are things that could be different. But it is not just up to me. It is up to others who have the freedom to make their own choices.

I’ve discovered through much personal introspection (and having to be very honest with myself…UGH!), that there are times when frankly I do want things to work out my way because, well, it just makes sense! But I know that I would be OK if everything isn’t my way, if it would just work out, well. If it would work out so that the dynamics and layers of inequity, unfairness, ignorance and lies would just go away. I believe you can be true to yourself and honest with others. There are ways to talk about hard things while being open about realities. In fact, sometimes I think having those conversations can defuse some of the discomfort around “taboo” topics. For example, when I am wiling to openly talk about or even ask about a (biological) mom or dad of one of my kids, I have seen some discomfort and even wariness in their reaction. But I honestly feel it is so much healthier for my own relationship with them when they realize that I’m willing to openly acknowledge a reality. This doesn’t mean I’m mining for information, or that we all have to become best friends or start spending holidays together, but facts is facts, as they say. No reason to act like they aren’t there.

There are many places where it is absolutely OK to agree to disagree agreeably, and then be able to enjoy those around you without the “shadows” that lurk beneath every space inhabited at the same time, and even those spaces in memories. Yes, I know about all the research and studies done on “non-traditional” families, and this isn’t about “can’t we all just get along.” And yet, at some level, it is. Getting along doesn’t mean agreeing on everything. And it doesn’t even mean liking someone or making them your “friend.” It’s about acceptance. It’s about doing your best to understand (which often requires being able to see a perspective other than your own). It’s about stepping away from selfishness. It’s about recognizing and doing something that matters to someone else. It’s about risking a little, putting yourself out there for possibilities that may be unfamiliar or unknown. It’s about…well…expanding.

I haven’t seen even close to enough of this in my (expanded) family. There’s so much hiding behind excuses and silence and avoidance. It wouldn’t have to be this way; it’s really about choices. I’m sad to admit I’ve had my part in some of this mess. It’s hard not to feel selfish or slighted (and react from it) when your feelings and even your stated desires go seemingly ignored or treated indifferently. I don’t always do it right, and I’m sure I’ll do it wrong again, but when I am part of the mess, I want to own it and do something about it. (And let’s not even start with where guilt plays its part in messes.) What hurts is that we are all missing out on having more fullness, richness and joy from and with each other.

I’m not unaware of the realities of our circumstances. At the “head level” I completely get it. All of it. But I have a “heart level” too, like every other human being. So I have feelings, and things that happen affect me. Here are some realities I know and believe.

  • Titles are given to family relationships.
  • Each of us only has one “father” and one “mother.” No one “takes their places,” because it’s genetically designed. We may choose to call those people “mom” and “dad,” but that doesn’t necessarily preclude us from using those titles for others as well…or not…it is our choosing.
  • Parents come to hold that title in various ways, sometimes by birth of a child, or by acting as a father or mother to someone.
  • Children of the same parents are siblings. The number of siblings one can have is not limited.
  • Which then also means one can have unlimited aunts and uncles.
  • There are remarriages and new relationships. This puts individuals in “positions of title.” Notice I did not say individuals take the place of anyone, just that there can be multiple people in “positions of title.”
  • Titles don’t necessarily denote responsibility, but perhaps maybe respect, and at the very least acceptance for what they are.

Let me personalize this. I have six kids…2 that can call me mother (but call me mom), 2 that choose to call me mom, and 2 that call me Michelle. I’m OK with that. And as for siblings and aunts and uncles and cousins, well yes, we can each choose who we give “titles” to. But the thing I want to put out there is that maybe in the course of all this we should go back to the part where maybe we need to think about acceptance, understanding, doing things that matter to others. And maybe add in a big dose of equity and fairness. And here’s what I mean by that.

Each of us may not have a choice in how our family expands. But we each have a choice in how we accept and understand (or don’t) that expansion. And as importantly, how we treat it. We can go into our selfish hole and choose to ignore or disregard realities, or we can choose to open ourselves to possibilities that may be unfamiliar or unknown and even feel risky. Possibilities of expanding our world through our (expanded) family. This is where I see inequity in my (expanded) family. Why is one person accepted and allowed a “title” when someone else in the same position on another side is not? Here’s an example of what I mean. In my (expanded) family there are 14 individuals in the position of title of “grandparent” for the children of my six kids. (How great is that for the little ones?!) Yet, out of those 14, there is one person who is not allowed what I would call a “title of endearment” for one of the grandchildren. What?! Oh, right. I know. Because we each get to choose who we accept, blah blah blah. But before you go psychology on me and start pointing out answers, just stay with me at a personal, emotional level for a minute. Because ultimately that’s what this is about (remember, my “head level” is completely functional…but my “heart level” is intact and functional as well…and just as important to my full being).

Isn’t it about time to get things turned around and on a different path? This is not just about one individual or another or even about what one thinks about another. This is about all of us. Everyone is effected is some way. Because we’re all part of the (expanded) family, like it or not. Even the best relationships aren’t easy, but healthy relationships do require effort from more than one side. One person can’t create nor maintain a healthy relationship. Isn’t it about time each person realizes this and takes a good look inside and owns what they can do to make a difference? I know, I know, I’m repeating myself, but this is where the whole “recognize and do something that matters to someone else” comes in.

Our (expanded) family includes a lot of people. And each individual is part of other (expanded) families. How much could we each enrich our lives and enjoy having lots of siblings, aunts and uncles, and multiple grandparents who love us and love being with us just because. At this point, go ahead, call me idealistic or Pollyanna. Would it be so wrong? Maybe this should be my Christmas wish…but then again, I think it’s been my wish all along.

Merry Christmas! to my six kids, to my grandchildren and their 13 other grandparents, to my siblings, to my parents, and to the rest of my (expanded) family.

And so, there is calm in our home. There are two of us spending Christmas together, and we are at peace. We both know there is a bittersweetness. As closely knit together as the two of us are, for now, unless and until those we care about choose to expand, we must remain separately together.

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