Tuesday, 25 October 2016

It's A Family Affair


That one word holds so much meaning and emotion for people that it is hardly surprising to find that family units are rarely simple or perfect or describable things. If you know someone who claims to have a ‘perfect’ or ‘simple’ family then you know a liar.

It is often a ‘loaded’ word. One which infers what you should do, how you should behave. I do not like being told what I should do or how I should behave. I like to take the word "family" and fit it around what it means to my life and the people I love. I do not believe in the tribal, Mitchell-esque, loyal-to-the-day-that-I-die and ostracised if I am not, model one iota. I would like to think I am intelligent enough to judge for myself what family means to me and I absolutely will not be made to feel guilty for that.

Platitudes Ahoy

My family is absolutely, 100% dysfunctional. And I bloody love them for it because, guess what folks? It makes them human.

My central family group could be defined as the people who will invariably sit round my mothers table for a Sunday lunch and treat the place like Picadilly Circus, swanning in and out, pillaging for food and tea and begging for trousers to be turned up (or is that just me?) and it consists of my mom, my step-dad, my brother and sister in law, two step sisters plus their partners, my Nana, my step-nan, my nephew and my niece. Oh, and my husband of course, who manages to cope with the eccentricities of us all, so different to his own, quieter and much smaller brood.

Only four of these people are blood related to me but it matters not a jot, I love the bones of all of them. However, I remember when my (then) 7 year old nephew asked me whether I was blood related to one of my step-sisters and it suddenly became a bit tangled. He was at that age where he was seeking to figure out how it all fits together. I didn’t blame him for being confused; our tribe is a bit of an unorthodox jumble to say the least.

It is the one social grouping in life which we do not choose, but inherit. A very close friend of mine always says ‘friends are the family we choose for ourselves’ and I think this is bang on the money. I have written extensively about friendships and how I think they should work in an earlier post and to my mind my friends are indeed the family I choose. Many of them know me much better than the majority of people I share actual DNA with and I value them as highly as members of my family. I would also add that depending on your workplace, colleagues are an additional ‘familial’ group in your life. My team at work spend more time with me than anyone else does and invariably some of them know my day to day life very well.

This applies even more so now that Stu and I live 10,000 miles away from where we grew up. Our Adelaide (and Australia in general) friends have become a massive safety net, a reliable infrastructure and a source of untold support and pleasure since we moved here nearly 4 years ago. 

With our blood relations it stands to reason (as we have no choice in the family group we are born into) that some of these people you would never naturally cross paths with or choose to spend time with. This is normal. Obligations to stay in touch only mean something and work if you actually happen, purely by luck, to genuinely like the person anyway - but this is not a given. 

We understand this dilemma even more now that we live so far away, on two levels; firstly, maintaining relationships is much harder and we sacrifice many hours a week to keeping in touch with people in the UK via Skype. Also, whenever we visit the UK we spend all of our time visiting people and catching up and it feels NOTHING like a holiday (it pisses me off enormously when people suggest that is what a UK trip is). It's brutally honest to say this, but intense catching up in this way often means repeating the same thing over and over again (for us) and as time goes by some friendships just don't weather the distance. Increasingly, our lives are so different and so hard to relate to that conversations can be reduced to platitudes and small talk unless you (and they) make a huge effort. It really does sort the wheat from the chaff whether you want it to or not.

Going back to central family groups though, the ones you are deeply embedded in and (unconditionally?) love - essentially your parents and siblings. You may be given a place within this for free as a child but as an adult, I believe that you earn your place in a family. In the same manner you can also lose it. To keep it healthy you have to nurture it, like any relationship.

This means that when you screw up or let go or lose contact there is generally always a way back, but it takes work on both sides, forgiveness and the ability to move on and stop raking up what happened in the past. Unfortunately some people are simply not equipped to do this. In fact, some people believe holding a grudge is an Olympic sport.

What matters to me is the well-being of my central group. After that I have a lot of time and love for other members of my family and would always do what I can for them if they needed me, although I may not see them or speak to them on a frequent basis. Then there are the members I do not really know but have nothing against and will happily be civil to. Finally there are those that I literally, teeth grittingly tolerate at events where I cannot escape. Now, be honest, you just read that and mentally identified which members of your family fitted which group. That’s fine! That’s normal.

Unless you live in cloud cuckoo land of course where everything is awesome and everybody loves each other and lashings of ginger beer flow freely and people really say ‘golly gosh’. 

Anyway, blood means nothing unless you are lucky and I cannot tell you how lucky I feel to have my step dad in my life. To say he is ‘like a father to me’ is wrong. I already have a dad and he is ace and I love him loads. My step dad gives me a ‘bonus parent’ role, one which is brilliant because you get the best bits from both a best friend and someone you are allowed to ask to fix your car and know they will do it because they love you. My parents divorcing was a blessing, both are now in happy, healthy relationships and I have two ‘bonus’ parent roles, both of whom I love. I was lucky.

My mom is an amazing person in so many ways. She is an amazing role model to me as a woman and the person I always want to run things by in my life. We can quite happily spend hours on skype talking about anything and everything. As I get older I value this more and more. As she gets older I find myself adopting the parent role with her more and more (“you really should stop smoking/go to the doctors about that/stop reading the Daily Mail”), I can amusingly see she does the same with her mother, my beloved Nana. The three of us would often sit and chew the fat when I lived in the UK and I am glad I got to do this. I miss it, living this far from home. This mother-daughter-grand daughter relationship is precious to me but not because we are blood related – that is incidental, but it gives us the basis of a bond which we choose to embrace and enjoy.

Sadly, human nature means that people are not naturally inclined to just get on. Life was not meant to be simple and the Middle East would be a fantastic holiday destination if everybody would just chill the fuck out. Really.

So…..there was a period, a few years ago now, which was difficult in our family for various reasons, mainly due to the aforementioned human nature issue. I spent the whole of 2009 and 2010 feeling like a cornered tiger protecting it’s young in relation to my parents, defending them and trying to repair damage and hurt. I had many difficult conversations with members of the family and it was a tough road for a long time, but we got through it. On the plus side I think we could probably field a family team at the next Olympics for the Holding-a-Grudge relay. This guide suggests sensible solutions to unresolved family conflicts – unfortunately it takes both sides to make a resolution happen and I am thankful that we got there in the end on the headline issue at least. Other issues continue to rumble on which assures me that we are indeed normal.

No human being is perfect. All of us make mistakes, say things we don’t mean, can be downright hurtful to the people we love and occasionally behave like complete and utter imbeciles. I know I have in the past and I am sure I will again at some point. Admitting it is easy when you put it in context, apologising, picking up the pieces, moving on and drawing a line under it is harder. And far more painful. And sometimes needs time. But it is never really a closed door until you make it so.

And I guess this is my point. Families come in many shapes and sizes. Some are pretty conventional, some are not. All will at some point and on some level go through crises. It is highly normal for Auntie X to not be speaking to Cousin Y or some kind of variation of this. You get arseholes, idiots, absolute gems, comedians, good eggs, bad apples, princesses, petty thieves, dictators, diplomats and the perpetually vacant. It is sort of like the most recent (UK) coalition government but closer to home.

How you make it work is entirely down to you. Stressing about it will get you nowhere. Black and white thinking will not help one jot. Holding a grudge is the greatest symptom of the narrow minded and should be avoided. And sharing blood does not determine ranks of importance within your life, nor should it.

Tell the people you love that you love them as often as you can, spend as much time with the people that matter as possible whether they are blood related or not. Tolerate those you have to and avoid the ones that cannot be tolerated and take no regrets to the grave because seriously, people, life is too short.  

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