Family stuff

An honest talk about my (not so positive) Mother’s Day reflections:

I’m not a mom and I don’t live near my family, so I didn’t spend Mother’s Day with them or anyone else.  I did call my mother, who turned out to be spending time at my uncle’s house with his family and with my grandparents.  She seemed caught off guard when I called, possibly because I hadn’t called or answered the phone in months.  We have emailed back and forth during this time, but I think she feels personally insulted, probably because our relationship is rocky (or barely existent) anyway.  I don’t think she understands that I am just not a phone person with anyone.  I have that kind of personality, for better or worse, that means I don’t like small talk when I’m trying to get something done (definitely inherited from my Dad, so unfortunately my Mom has a lot of it to deal with), and at other times the stress of a phone call that doesn’t serve a tangible purpose is immense.  Sometimes I will put up with it, but it frequently leaves me feeling more uncomfortable afterward than happy that I spoke to the person.  Most of my friends, once I don’t live in the same place as them anymore, eventually learn that I’m not a catch-up-via-phone person, and while maybe we’d stay closer if I was one, I appreciate that we can jump back into things when I see them, or that we can have pressure-free catch ups with email (I’m also not a facebook person nor an online chatting person).

Back to Mother’s Day.  I spoke with my grandmother as well, since she was with my mom, and she kept saying “We haven’t seen you in such a long time!” and “We keep asking Mom if she’s heard from you”, which are things she and my grandfather (before he got Alzheimer’s and stopped being able to talk coherently) have been saying to me every time I’ve seen them for the past few years.  And that might be true now, because (1) I’m busier in grad school than I’ve ever been before in my life, (2) I live farther away from them now, and (3) I’ve felt more comfortable as I’ve gotten older making the decision to avoid family situations that I don’t think will be good for me.  However, when they first started saying these things, it certainly wasn’t true.  I was attending most family functions that everyone else in the family was attending, and probably more than one of my brothers was attending–why did I get singled out as the one to accuse of not spending enough time with the family?  I don’t know if they mean it as an expression of love or an accusation (or both), but it really doesn’t make me want to oblige.  To me, if feels like it doesn’t matter to them that I decided to show up for this one event (because usually they say this to me in person), because if I’m not willing to be there often enough, it’s no good.  Which is essentially what they’ve always said to me, about everything–that nothing but perfection is good enough.  Their comments seem like a small thing, but there’s so much more behind why they bug me.  My mother’s family (the family who lives closest to me and who I saw most often growing up) is a financially successful family, with my grandfather rising up from a poor family to owning his own construction company.  Growing up I was so impressed by this and their success that I idealized the family, and internalized any criticism of me as justified.  There was one memorable incident in high school when my best friend and I were staying with my grandparents for a weekend, and my grandparents criticized us for not making our beds (they just said it to me individually, and not to both of us, which left me with the task of telling my best friend that we had to make our beds).  I had stayed at my grandparents house many times, and I can’t think of a time when I’d made my bed, so I could tell that they just didn’t particularly like something in the way my friend behaved, and they wanted to criticize something (part of this is my interpretation now…at the time, I don’t think I could verbalize why they were acting the way they were acting).  It may seem trivial, but it was a very memorable moment, because it brought to light why I always felt tense when friends and family combined.  Judgment was always just beneath the surface, and the only crimes my friends committed were acting differently from my family.  I had “good” friends growing up–their personalities and social traditions just varied a little from my family’s.  In my family, sending a thankyou note late was a huge offense.  I realize that the things I’m describing are not child abuse, but that’s just what’s so frustrating for me–I always had feelings of tension and shame, but nothing specific to point to as a cause.  I’m not wishing I had been abused, I’m just saying that I was a child in an ambiguous situation, even from the outside.  I had several friends express discomfort with my family, so I knew I wasn’t crazy, but even today I have a hard time understanding why I am so angry at and emotionally removed from my family.

As an adult, there are some members of my mother’s family who I enjoy spending time with, and others who–while I hope that they will have happy lives–I wouldn’t mind if I never saw them again.  They’re not terrible people, but they’re not people I would be friends with if we met randomly and weren’t related.  I feel guilty rejecting them, because I understand how it must look from their perspectives, but I know it is healthier for me to be distant.

I have explained my feelings to my mother, but she negated them by saying that she didn’t view my childhood in that way.  I fully believe that she was accurately reporting her own perspective, but just because mine is different doesn’t mean it’s wrong, and it doesn’t mean that she should expect me to put it all aside for the sake of the family.  I appreciate her need to be close to her family and to bond over commonly held beliefs and traditions, but I can’t get past the tension it causes in me.  I feel bad for her sake that we can’t have a good relationship, but for mine I am quite happy being distant.  I know that sounds weird, but I don’t think the dynamic could be altered.  I would like to have a mother I could be close to (I think of my favorite aunt on my dad’s side when I say this), but it just wouldn’t happen with the personalities that my mother and I have, let alone the circumstances.

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4 Responses to Family stuff

  1. JennyRose says:

    That’s too bad but it definitely sounds like you are doing the right thing for yourself. It sounds to me like your family cared more about appearances (the thank you note) than about people. Some people feel very threatened when others do not do things the exact same way. Different, even a little bit, is scary. Is it possible because you didn’t perfectly fit the mold that you were the scapegoat?

    You should be proud of yourself. It sounds like you have limited your exposure in a diplomatice manner. It is their turn to respiect your boundaries.

  2. fattery says:

    Thank you! It’s so hard to be sure what the right decisions are in these kinds of situations. And yeah, I do think I was scapegoated for not fitting the mold, but I’m still a “core” member of the family who would not easily be cut out. Others who married into the family haven’t fared so well.

  3. After spending a lot of years trying to figure out what was wrong emotionally in my family– there was some obnoxiousness, but as emotional abuse goes, not that intense– I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that the problem wasn’t so much the amount of attacks as the absence of emotional connection and affection.

    • fattery says:

      Interesting perspective–could very well be the case for me too, but I’m still not sure. Sometimes I literally think my head is making things look bad in retrospect, but then I do think about other happier families who enjoy spending time together and think “no, there was definitely something not right about mine, or at least not right for me”.

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