Cary’s classic column from Friday, Sep 30, 2005
We’ll sit around with nothing to say, eating takeout food.
I know this is pretty early, but I’m already freaking out about hanging out with my family during Christmas. My family consists of my mother, my father, my brother and me, the daughter/sister. My brother isn’t married, but I am; I have a husband and two kids. My husband and the kids get along fine with my family; actually, my parents love my husband to pieces. The problem is with me.
Whenever I get together with my parents, which is only once a year or so, I get the feeling that they don’t really want to be with me. I mean, we drive six hours, they fly for four hours and my brother flies for four hours (don’t ask why we are all traveling…that is another long story) and then we spend the weekend together by doing a lot of nothing. My parents go to sleep at 7 or 8 p.m. and get up at 5 a.m., and by the time I get up at 7:30 a.m. or so, they have already left to go to doctors appointments, to fix the roof on a rental house, to go to the DMV. They don’t show up until noon or so. My brother stays in bed until 2 p.m. and parties with his friends until late. Our “quality time” together consists of eating from the same takeout places over and over again.
Now that I have toddlers, there is something to entertain us, but without the kids, there is nothing to say to each other. My parents are very private people; if you asked me what their biggest worry was, I would have no idea. When I ask about their work, I just get vague answers and sort of sarcastic replies. I know this is just par for the course because I have the same problem getting all defensive about choices I made and things that I do; when they ask me questions, I hedge as well. I’ve made some career choices that bother them and they let me know that they don’t like it, so I shut up about the details. My mother also recently told me that she would like to divorce my dad because he’s kind of a control freak and generally a rude man, except that she takes her wedding vows seriously and that she’s used to him and, heck, what else would she do? This was a shock to me (even though I think I could never live with my dad) as I thought that their marriage was fine, even stellar.
I just have this feeling that we are at an impasse, that all of us want to be closer but we don’t know how to be. Right now, I feel that hanging out with my parents is an obligation rather than something I enjoy. Is it to be that way always? If it is, I just want to know that and that I shouldn’t expect any more closeness from my family and I should look elsewhere. I’ve been reading a lot of Zen stuff recently and I’ve been trying to let go of my “attachment” to having a close family and have no expectations of ever having one, but I have to say, sometimes I read stories of people’s relationships with their parents changing on their deathbeds and their wishing it had happened earlier. My relationship with my parents isn’t terrible—it’s just not very much fun. What should I do?
Out of Sorts
Dear Out of Sorts,
You can change your eye color. You can change your sex. You can change the temperature of the planet. But you can’t change your family.
What you can do is introduce small variations in the activities you engage in while visiting with your family. These activities may have the effect of changing how you feel while you’re around them. One of the things you might try is just to be a positive, supportive witness. See if there are ways you can be helpful, without getting in the way. You might offer to drive your parents around on their early-morning errands, or to accompany them in their car to expedite the parking and waiting as they go in and out of places. As you accompany them, perhaps riding in the back seat, observe them. Look at them closely. Think about who they are. Consider them as individuals. Let your mind wander. Be Zen-like about it.
There will probably be a lot of stupid and boring stuff coming out of their mouths. Try not to get any on you. Let it pass. Be a supportive witness to their experience. Hold a place in line at the DMV. Hand your mother a magazine. Hold her purse while she looks for her other glasses. Be unobtrusively helpful, and observe. Observe your mother and observe yourself. What are you doing as you stand there, holding her purse for her? Are you resenting her for being so befuddled? Are you mad at her for telling you she’d like to divorce your dad but probably never will? Does it give you a sinking feeling? A feeling of rage? Are you wishing you were somewhere else, anywhere other than here? Where is it exactly that you would like to be? Make a mental note to go there, later, after Christmas. Then get back to what you are doing, holding your mother’s purse, glancing at the magazines in the waiting room.
The idea is to get your bearings. Get comfortable being around your parents. Lower your expectations until they touch reality.
You may wish to make some breakthrough by talking about the things that are on your mind—why doesn’t the family come together like a family, dammit?! But you must be careful. A family is a delicate thing, wrathful and sensitive to disturbance. If there are certain things that you feel need to be discussed, it might be best to approach them not as emotional or spiritual questions, but as tasks that need performing. It sounds like your parents are practical people who value getting things done in a timely manner. So if, for instance, there are questions of health, or life and death, that you feel your parents and your brother avoid talking about, you might approach them by attempting to square away financial concerns, powers of attorney, investments, the will.
For certain kinds of people, a troubling spiritual question is best addressed in its physical embodiment. For such people, the proper disposition of such an embodiment can, in itself, constitute a spiritual or emotional experience. I know that sounds rather arid to those of us who breathe deeply of the bracing air in the world of ideas, but in my experience it is often the case.
You must go slowly, respecting the depth and complexity of the family as an organism. To be realistic, in this first year of trying to make it better, you might only accomplish small variations in your own activities.
Because of your dissatisfaction with how the family performs, which you probably have not successfully hidden (we can hide little from our family), other family members may already fear that you are going to try to “bring the family together.” They may not want to be brought together. In fact, such enforced togetherness can be so excruciating for its victims that they find some pretext never to return.
Anything that smacks of trying to bring the family together may have the undesired effect of tearing it apart. It is, as I said, a fragile thing.
So I suggest you make such changes as you can in your own activities, quietly, meditatively, without attachment to result. Try to be a reliable, supportive witness to those around you. Hope for gradual improvement.