I know that families are unique to everyone. But because of my upbringing and family dynamic, I sometimes find understanding other people’s family units to be challenging.
First, and this is important in case any of my family reads this (and they might) that I make the following disclaimer: I love you all. Do not take anything I write here as some sort of attack, harsh judgment or indictment of anyone’s lives. This is my perspective, my perception of our family. If anything written here is hurtful that is in no way my intent.
That out of the way, let me tell you about my family.
A nuclear family — after the bombs dropped
My immediate family is both unique and not the most original story, either.
In 1979, when I was 5, my parents chose to get a divorce. My father relocated halfway across the country. My sister, who is 5 years my junior, and I were raised by my mother in the burbs of Minneapolis. We would visit with my dad several times a year.
Frequently this would involve either flying out to New York City (where he lived), Chicago, or Scottsdale, AZ to see him and his side of the family. This was usually during Christmas Break, Spring Break, Thanksgiving, and a few days to a few weeks of summer.
Both of my parents are from small families. Each has a single sibling. On my mom’s side, I have one cousin and on my dad’s side I have 4 cousins. My mom’s sister and her family were local to us, while my dad’s brother and his family were in Chicago.
In 1983 my dad remarried. Then, in 1994 my mom remarried. Both are still happily married to their second spouses.
My younger sister got married in 2007 and has 1 child. I got married in 2015 and we have no kids.
I have had the privilege to have known two of my great-grandmothers on my dad’s side, my grandma on my mom’s side and my grandpa and grandma on my dad’s side. Unfortunately, they have all since passed, the last being my dad’s mom in 2005.
Still with me? Ok, so that’s the basics of my family. Now let’s get into the parts that have had a tendency to have an effect on my psyche.
Unique for our time
In the 1980s, in the Midwest, growing up in a single-parent home was unusual. What’s more, since my dad was halfway across the country and not frequently in my life, my mom did a lot to help me belong.
Didn’t help that I was a heavyset, short, un-athletic, brainy, sensitive kid. Back then, moms did not participate in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, so all the father-son activities tended to be awkward for me.
To be honest, my memory of much of my childhood, mostly around the first 5 or 6 years after the divorce, is sparse. This has been both a blessing and a curse throughout my life.
I was already an awkward kid, and then I came from an awkward situation.
Over time I developed an odd relationship with my dad that didn’t get resolved until just before college.
For college, I relocated myself to the East Coast, where I have remained since. My sister eventually also relocated to the East Coast for Grad school and also remained. My mom and stepdad are now additionally out here, too.
We have never been super-close as a family. Between actual distance, struggles with depression I think all of us have, and various and sundry communication issues — which we have largely worked out.
Unfortunately, none of us are great when it comes to forgiving and forgetting. We’ve managed to hurt one another emotionally and mentally over the years in some rather ugly ways. For all our similarities we tend to be quite different.
So of course, we do not fully get one another. While this can be problematic, for the most part, we have peace between us most of the time.
Odd dynamics of the past cast a shadow in the now
My wife, brother-in-law, and many of my friends have very different relationships with their families. Where mine tends to be independent and disconnected — theirs are interdependent, and even to some degree codependent.
My wife and brother-in-law are from large families. Not only are they different dynamics from what I know, but they are massively different cultures, too. For what they are, in that regard, they’re not so atypical.
Overall, including extended family, they live mostly less than 3 hours apart from one another. They have a dynamic where Family Comes First, and they will drop everything to help each other out, from immediate to extended family.
This is an alien concept to me. While my immediate family is currently inside of 4 hours from one another, this is a fairly recent development. Extended family is still hours away by flight, for the most part.
Due to our independent natures, and other differences, we tend to put ourselves and those in our immediate orbit first, rather than family.
Also, I have 2 very different families. The lifestyle of my dad and stepmom is very divergent from that of my mom and stepdad. I suspect this is part of why they divorced so long ago — different needs, desires, and preferences.
They are so different in their dynamic to one another that it does still cause some conflict, 40+ years after their divorce (specifically with regards to one side more than the other).
This has, over time, created for me a disconnect from my family. As I stated in my disclaimer at the beginning it is not that I don’t love my family, because I do. But because we do not fully understand one another, I tend to give them less attention than other aspects and people in my life.
Blood versus chosen family
In college, I was introduced to a certain medieval reenactment society. Twenty-eight years later this is still very much a part of my life.
The people I have met through this group have become more than just friends. They have become my family. My chosen family. Because we share a love of the game we play, the history, and many other related aspects of geekery, this has been a source of comfort and connection through the years.
What’s more, no offense to my blood family, but they tend to get me.
What does that mean? It means that support and understanding come more readily and easily from my chosen family than my blood family.
My wife, because of her family dynamic, finds this difficult to understand. My blood family also tends to find it a head-scratcher.
The trouble is that, and I am generalizing here, for the most part, my blood family and I have drifted apart due to time, distance, and other factors. Because we never had the same close dynamic that my wife and her family enjoy, I have found my place within my chosen family.
While I know my blood family cares about me and my wellbeing, because we do not fully “get” one another, it has complicated our relationship. The people of my chosen family have their quirks, foibles, and incompatibilities…but they are there for me in many of the same ways blood is there for many others.
Overall, I do very little in this life “normally.”
Family doesn’t mean understanding
I do know that it is perfectly normal for family to lack understanding. Whether chosen or blood, because nobody else can get inside anyone else’s head there will be misunderstandings.
One of the other big issues here is that disappointing family is unavoidable. Again, it doesn’t matter if its blood or chosen, because you have no control over how anyone else thinks and feels (and acts), you’re going to be a disappointment.
Sometimes this is big, obvious, and even comes with words! Other times this is subtle, hinted at, and passive-aggressive as all get out.
It’s good to recognize and acknowledge this, but remember that you cannot live your life for anyone else. Family may not understand it all and may be disappointed at times, but they are still your family.
What matters most is to be as true to yourself as you can be. This is not always easy, of course, but I believe that it’s worthwhile.
I love my family and am happy for the overall good of our relationship. I also recognize and acknowledge that in order to change some of the odd dynamic I have to make choices — choices I am not currently willing to make.
Does that make me a bad person? I don’t think so…but your mileage may vary. This is my one and only life, and it is an ongoing work-in-progress. When we understand one another and not, family is still an important part of it.
Family is an odd entity for me, and I know I am not alone in this. How about you and yours?
You are worthy and deserving of using your mindfulness to find and/or create the reality in which you desire to live. When all is said and done you matter, whomever you call family.