The Thing About Family

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March 3, 2017 by Julia


There are days when I look at my family and marvel at how lucky I am. I mean, really: We are all healthy and good looking in our own perfectly less-than-perfect ways, we don’t have to worry too much about money, my husband and I are still in love with each other. A few days ago, when I volunteered in Jack’s kindergarten classroom he was affectionate and proud to have me there. At lunch, he hugged me for long moments, and held his cheek to mine, unashamed. I am my own definition of lucky, with this family.

And yet later that day, at Fiona and Jack’s bedtime, I found myself crying in despair, because I did not know what to do, as a parent. Sometimes all I can do is cry and hope it will be better the next morning. That’s the thing about family – you screw up, they screw up, and we still wake up in the same house, still stuck with each other, needing each other. Love conquers all, right?

There really is nothing like being a parent. If nothing else, it keeps you humble. If you have more than one and they are incredibly different from each other, you see how little control you have over who they are. You see that “good” or “bad” behavior on the part of a child usually has less to do with their upbringing than you may have assumed. On the other hand, you’ve seemingly passed down certain less-than-desirable genes, and while you can empathize with your child as he or she struggles with anxiety, pessimism, passivity, mood swings, shyness, sensitivity – you still cannot take away the suffering associated with these, as they must learn their own lessons just like we did. Of course, we gave them some generally positive qualities, too, but it’s easier to be blinded by all your own issues in your living, breathing nine-year-old than it is to remember the silver linings of those issues. And what does it mean that she is so self-aware at nine? She is beyond me. It must be the job of the next generation to confound.

Fiona said yesterday, “Mommy, I miss you so much when you are not near me, like when I’m at school. But then when I’m home, around you, I hardly pay you any attention.” She stated this like a psychologist assessing her own well-being, a little puzzled and saddened. She was examining longing and reality, side by side. It’s impressive, I think; also, a little sad. I reassured her that’s a normal way to feel about your own mother. But then, like any mother, I worried: she is too young to always be disillusioning herself. Or maybe I’m just not trying hard enough to connect with her after school.

Later, after breaking up a discouragingly common physical fight between her and her brother, she was lying in her bed next to Jack (they sleep together in her bed because they are both scared at night, but it seems to be a trend on its way out), and she said in angry, tearful resignation, “I always look forward to when it’s YOUR turn to put us to bed, Mama, but I don’t know why. Because it’s always terrible, like this, EVERY time!” She has a point that tonight I am irritable and fed up with her treatment of her little brother. But we have had some very nice bedtimes over the years, and I say so. And then she goes on a venomous rant about how life would be so much better if Jack did not exist. He’s been part of our family for five and a half years; you’d think she would have adjusted by now. We go through our usual routine of me reminding her of how much she loves Jack, she yells that I am always picking on her but never Jack because I like him better (that one always stabs me right in the heart, and she knows it), I tell her that it’s not possible for me to love her any less than Jack, that I love them the same and always will, and then I look her right in the eye and tell her she is saying incredibly mean things about Jack while he sits right next to her in bed, and she needs to say sorry to him. She says, “NO!”

She is not very good at admitting when she’s wrong, which drives me up the wall, because I say sorry all the time. Why hasn’t my modeling of a behavior worked yet? I sighed, covered my eyes and started crying.  My hands started to put away books, which were in a big pile on the floor in the corner next to her bed, because sometimes moms can’t turn that impulse off. I was morally offended by this disrespectful, massive pile of books. I put some in the library bag, some on her bookshelf, undecided if we would manage to read any of them before this particular bedtime. I had been cleaning all day since getting home from Jack’s classroom, but you can never stop putting things away, or the things will drown you within a few days or even hours. Tears are going down my cheeks and I feel hurt. I am so tired of the meanness and negativity. I don’t know where the mean-spiritedness comes from, or the unhappiness – is it her or me? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Jack got out of bed and leaned over to hug me from behind, as I was sitting on the floor, his skinny little arms over my shoulders and his head on the back of my neck. His sweetness shattered me. He is only five, and here he is, trying to comfort me. He seems to worry more about my reaction to Fiona’s insults of him than he does about his own feelings. It’s not fun to be fought over, if it puts everything else on hold, and you just want everything to be okay-ish. Besides, he could leave the room and we would keep fighting over him, at which point anyone might begin to feel irrelevant. Sometimes I wonder if I make things worse for Jack by sticking up for him. These are the confusions of real parenthood.

Jack is a people-pleaser, like me. Fiona is not. She can’t be even if she wants to be; she has too much integrity. I think she might be proud of this as well as supremely frustrated by it. Like me, she cannot tell a lie. Jack can. They both break my heart in their own ways. I relate to Jack more, as he tries to smooth things over. That was and is often my role: peacemaker. But I am also honest to a fault, and I also relate to Fiona in her inability to pretend things are okay when they are not; she shows her sadness, frustration, pessimism, unnecessary anxiety, and I recognize all these unpleasant feelings as common ones in myself. I worry that I have passed down my capacity for misery, but I also try to remind myself of the things she inherited from me that bring us closer: high, almost romantic expectations, which we fully expect to be dashed, over, and over again. This lends itself to a dry, morbid kind of humor. A need for depth, for real drama, rather than melodrama. A boredom with surface things. In our debates, we keep each other’s brains firing away. I love these things about Fiona. She is smart as hell about people. We are both fascinated by human nature.

I was never as angry and stubborn as she is, though. She knows I was a “good child” and she recently flung this in my face as proof that I could never understand her. (Actually, her words were “perfect child.”) Dennis tries to take credit for her more challenging qualities. He says he was a good boy for everyone except his family at home – he nearly drove them insane. He tells me this apologetically, as though we are both suffering the karma of his childhood behavior. When we began dating, I didn’t understand his family’s laughing references to him being a challenging child, because he is such a conscientious man. I think he used to be what you might call “a handful.” I believe most people who know Dennis would be surprised by this, just as they are surprised when I talk about Fiona’s difficult behavior with only her closest family members. But I don’t let him shoulder all the blame, as I said before. I see myself in her all the time, the good and the less-than-good, and I suppose this means I must learn to love myself better so I can be more patient with my daughter.

When I look at Fiona, I see a range of emotions I never dared express at her age, and I do resent her for it. I never got to be this angry and mean. But I also realize envy is a lie. She’s right in that I don’t know what it’s like to say such things at nine years old, so I don’t understand her frustrations. And who is better off? The raging nine-year-old, or the well-behaved but somewhat repressed nine-year-old? I don’t know. I’m not convinced one way is easier, or morally superior.

Last summer, Jack was going through a phase of extreme whininess, dragging his feet everywhere we went, acting as though he had no muscles or bones in his body, hitting me when he would get frustrated. One day I had to take both kids grocery shopping. He was so bratty, whacking at me and even trying to knock things off shelves, that I hissed at him in the store that I wanted to hit him back so badly, after which I walked angrily away, assuming he would follow. He kept it up, unfazed. By the time we reached the frozen foods, I made a conscious decision: I can either start crying right now, or I will start hitting him; I guess I’d rather cry than hit him. Okay, then. So, I let the tears stream down my face, openly (surely it happens every hour in Walmart). And then when he hit me again I crouched down to his level and said, “Jack, I am crying right now because it’s the only way I can keep from hitting you. You have driven me to the edge.” And he was finally stunned into silence. He kept looking back timidly at my face as we checked out.

This was a stand-alone event in that it may be the only time I’ve stated my desire to hit one of my children, but it is not stand-alone in its drama, not by any means. And I believe every parent has similar stories of shame, loss of control, disappointment in their child and in themselves. And we survive.

Family is hard, but always better than the alternative of no family. I realize this more as the kids get older, especially with them both being in school now. I was not prepared for the level of emptiness and loneliness I feel at home sometimes, because I am living my dream of being a mom and a writer, and I have the time, now, to do both. (Sort of – is there ever enough time? I am always failing at least one aspect of my life, while succeeding at others. And even if I had endless time to write, would I be able to? A solitary retreat in the woods strikes me as a recipe for disaster.) I don’t think my circumstances are the problem. And I love school days – sending them on their way, looking forward to seeing them when they get back.

But there is a larger sense of sadness, with them gone, that has nothing to do with how I would like to spend my days, nothing to do with what’s easier. School days are easier for me, so I am surprised that they can also be sadder. I think this loss of purpose, times ten – that must be how it feels to have no family or community you are forced to “deal” with. Possibly easier, but also infinitely sadder. It is better to be challenged by loved ones. Much, much better than not having loved ones.

Bedtime the following night, after the night of despair and fury, went much better. We were all nicer. Well, Jack was a little wild – to be fair, he can be crazy – but Fiona was handling it better, and she and I had a kind of unspoken peace between us, like the calm after a storm. I was happy to see them when they came home from school, and I told them so. Fiona looked pretty in her fancier-than-usual shirt, and I told her so. After reading books, squeezed in-between them in Fiona’s twin-sized bed, I leaned over to turn off the nightstand light and then curled an arm under each of their necks, like a mama bird using her wings to draw her babies close. I like to slow my breathing and meditate on them as they fall asleep. They fall asleep so fast that way. And it stops time for me, gives me gratitude and peace. I thanked God for them, lying there in that tiny bed, their damp bath hair under my chin, their drool and breath on my chest. I often think in those moments that there is nothing more I could want, in that moment.

Love conquers all, right? Right.



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