There’s a disturbing trend I’ve noticed over recent years of parents putting their own well-being before their children’s. I’m talking here about children who are still under 18 and living at home. This trend is coupled with a horrid expression: “me time.” Don’t ever let me catch you using this phrase.
The fact is that when you decide to have children (whether it’s a conscious choice or an accidental one), part of the commitment is to put your children before yourself. You’ve only got to stick it out until the youngest is 18, but until then your hobbies, career, free time, and all the rest takes second place.
Here’s a case in point, and one of my particular complaints. Children really look forward to spending time on vacations with their parents. With school, work, and all the rest of it, it’s often the best time for getting their parents’ undivided attention. What do some parents do? They stay in hotels that will look after the kids for them all week so they can do their own thing. Now one morning is fine, if the kids are happy with it, but not a large proportion of the entire vacation. I know being a parent is exhausting, but that’s the nature of the job. That’s what you take on when you become a parent.
I’m not saying you can’t ever go out for the evening, of course you can. I’m not saying you should only be about your kids. That wouldn’t be good for them or you. They need to learn consideration. However, they also need to know that they are the top priority in your life. While you may want or need to work, which is fine, at least one parent needs a job that broadly fits round the kids, rather than jetting off on some fabulous career that takes you away from them for long periods.
If you put yourself before the children, not only are you not giving them the love they deserve, you’re also telling them that all through life, looking after number one is more important than anything else. Believe me, that’s a philosophy that won’t make them happy.
My mother and my grandmother didn’t speak to each other for the last 15 years of their lives. Some families are like that; strained relationships all over the place, siblings who don’t speak, cousins who everyone has lost track of and no one even has their address.
It runs in families. We learn by example, and if you grow up in a family where people have long-term feuds with relatives that tends to become the norm. That means that if you stop speaking to your own mother or father, one of your kids may spend 20 years not speaking to you. It’s a childish form of behavior to demonstrate to our children, but some people do it.
It’s such a shame, too. Not only is it a bit pathetic that we’d rather cut off diplomatic relations than sort out the problem, it’s also sad that we end up without a parent/sibling/cousin who will be there for us when we need them.
Good family relationships are the strongest relationships there are. When things go wrong, your family should be there to get you through more reliably and longsufferingly than anyone else. It’s not like that for everyone, but it can be like that at its best. Whether you’re badly injured, divorcing, redundant, widowed, having your home repossessed, facing a court case, have a desperately ill child, have a problem with drugs or alcohol, or whatever might come along in your life, it’s family who will stick by you even if they don’t really approve. Family will continue to stick by you for months or years until you’re back on your feet.
Frankly, that’s worth a hell of a lot. It’s worth forgiving and forgetting whatever it is that tempted you to stop speaking to them because that’s the deal. If you want your family to be there for you, you’ve got to be there for them. That means letting go of the frustration and the angst they can sometimes cause, turning the other cheek, and realizing that the families who stop speaking to each other are the ones who will leave you in the lurch when you hit times of trouble.
It’s very tempting to respond to this by making them feel the same way. If you do this, however, you are heading off into a spiral of recrimination that can only lead to more quarrels and unpleasantness. This is not what Rules Players do. They do not go off and find a cave to hide in and cut off communication for the better part of a year. In fact, the only acceptable way you can behave in these situations is to put yourself outside all that pettiness and behave exactly as you would if these people were your friends and not your family — in other words with understanding and sympathy and a little bit of forgiveness.
No, this isn’t just about being morally upstanding and honorable. It’s also the only way to break the cycle and to forge a better relationship with your family. Yes, family stuff can be difficult from time to time, but this is the only family you’ve got. You can find new friends if the ones you have now let you down, but you’ll never get another family.
So do as you would be done by, because if you do anything else you have no legitimate grounds for complaining when your family does the same thing back to you. Be the one to set the positive example, and show the rest of them how to rise above all that pettiness.
One of the things that contributes to family problems is that we sometimes treat our families in ways we wouldn’t dream of treating anyone else. They get irritated by this, and rightly so. If your friends ask you to take your shoes off before you come into the house, you do it. If a family member asks you to do this, we’re much more likely to reply, “You shouldn’t be so precious about your house,” or “It’s fine, my shoes are clean.” This is entirely unfair, and your mother or brother or whoever it is will be rightly irritated. None of their friends make a fuss, so it’s not fair that you do it just because you can.
That’s quite a small thing, but families pressure each other over big things, too. Parents put pressure on their adult children regarding child-rearing: “You shouldn’t let them watch so much TV,” or “That child needs a bit more discipline,” or “You should hurry up and start a family.” I hope you wouldn’t dream of saying such things to your friends’ children, so why should you say them to your own? It’s even tougher on your own children, who don’t want to disappoint you, but have their own ideas about how to run their lives — and so they should.
Siblings put pressure on each other, too. In fact they can be the worst, as even grown up brothers and sisters vie for the attention of their parents. Mothers and fathers take note — you have to make sure you are as fair and even with grown-up children as you were when they were little.
The pressure game is also played by aunts and uncles, in-laws, and grandparents. Whoever does it, it’s not okay. It’s unreasonable and unfair and it puts your family under emotional strain. They don’t want to damage their relationship with you, but they’re not actually happy to do what you’re asking, and you know it.
I’m as guilty here as anyone. It’s so easy to think, “I’m tired. I’ll give them a call tomorrow,” and before you know it a dozen tomorrows have gone by and you still haven’t called.
That’s really not good enough. If you want a strong relationship with your family, you have to work at it, just as you do with your partner. That means investing time. You need to find time to see them even if they live a long way away, and you need to put effort into calling them between times to keep in touch (note to self). It’s so easy to fall into benign neglect. You didn’t mean to not speak for three months, it just sort of happened. Well, don’t let it.
Of course, your family may not be any better than you at finding time. They may even be worse. That doesn’t let you off the hook: Two wrongs don’t make a right. If they’re useless at it, all the more reason why you need to make the effort. Otherwise, you’ll find eventually that you don’t have a family worthy of the name any more — and that would be really sad.
So forgive your sister for being hopeless at calling and your father for being forgetful, and make the call or the trip yourself. They’ll appreciate it and you’ll be glad you did it.
Every family has its stray sheep who wander off without telling anyone where they’re going, and don’t get in touch for ages. They all have their “sheepdog” who rounds everyone up and counts them and checks to make sure they are okay. Don’t resent the fact that you’re doing more of the work than someone else. It’s the way of the world–and the important thing is that between you all, you manage to keep in touch as much as you can.
Do you look exactly like your mother? Your father? What about your brother, sister, and children? No. Of course not. You may have your mother’s nose or your father’s smile or your sister’s funny little toe, but although you share half your genes with each of them, you have another half that are entirely different. You are unique. I always tell my children (jokingly, of course), “You’re not really my child. You’re just my half-child.”
Same goes for personality. You may find it difficult to express emotion like your brother or be tidy bordering on the neurotic like your mother, but your combination of personality traits is unique.
So why is it that we assume that our family will feel the same way about things as we do? Why do we get irritated or disapproving when they do something we wouldn’t? Not only are most us of prone to taking our family for granted, we also rarely do what we should–stop and think “What might mom be feeling now that this has happened? Is there anything she would appreciate me doing or saying?” Note the emphasis on what they would like, not what you want to do.
I have an older brother I’ve always got on well with. Even though we’re both grown up, there’s still a tendency for him to play the role of older brother with me. It’s bearable, but quite irritating. So a couple of years ago, I raised the subject diplomatically and asked if he could drop the big brother act. He got the message and said he would do his best. A few weeks later, he explained patiently to me that although he was trying, it was very difficult because I was still doing the kid brother routine. Do you know, I hadn’t even noticed, but he was quite right.
When you’ve spent 18 years in a role, it’s so easy to sink back into it. Try as we might, people get pigeonholed in families: the clever one, the absent-minded one, the shy one, the bossy one, the unreliable one, and so on. These roles play off one another — you’re the clever one, or the bossy one, in relation to your siblings. After you leave home, it may well be that that you’re actually not so clever, or silly, or funny, or considerate in relation to everyone else.
So you find your own level in the big wide world, but whenever you’re around the family, they expect you to revert to being funny, bossy, pompous, or laid back. Because they expect it, you do it. The role is so natural you slip into it without thinking. Meanwhile you’re expecting them to be whatever-it-is they always were, and they’re obligingly cooperating.
None of which should be a problem, except that it just is. It’s frustrating when your family treats you like they always did, as though you hadn’t grown up. In fact sometimes it goes well beyond frustrating, to the point where it can cause real trouble.
So if you want them to drop the bossy act, you need to stop acting dopey. If you want them to take you seriously, stop playing the joker. If you’re fed up being patronized, stop behaving like a kid. It will take them months or years to notice and respond — it won’t happen overnight — but in the end they’ll learn to judge you by your behavior now, not the way you used to be years ago.