Friday, April 9, 2010

Relative-ly Speaking

I had a horrible fight with a relative this week – yelling, name calling – at times I felt like I was arguing with my seven year old instead of someone decades out of high school. I’m sure they felt the same way about me. It was a mean argument. The kind you have very rarely, if at all, where you say things you’ve thought and bit your tongue to avoid saying for years. Each person accused the other of a lifetime of awful things and horrible behavior and oddly, in retrospect, I realized that most of the things they accused me of, were character traits they possessed. Many of the taunts I launched at them like armour piercing ballistic missiles were things I do myself. It was as if two mirrors got into a reflecting contest, but the reflection of one only showed the other.

So this horrible fight, which unfortunately took place in front of my children, colored my entire week in a variety of ways – mostly bad, but in a few cases, good. I was so hurt by the cruelty of what was said to me and how it was delivered, in that sort of passive aggressive, underhanded way that some folks excel in - me, I’m the type to stand up on a chair and call someone a jerk face right out – never been good at being subtly manipulative – that I cried buckets throughout the week, showering down at unexpected moments when a memory of what was leveled at me rose up like the L.A. river about to overflow its banks – that’s a joke for anyone who lives in L.A. and knows that the L.A. river is about as deep as spit. I hated for my kids to see me that way, vulnerable, mad beyond belief, and shocked that people I thought loved me, on some levels told me they felt just the opposite.

The good thing that came out of the fight was that I realized I never wanted my children to experience someone being so verbally mean to them, certainly not family, certainly not me, and the argument made my look at and treat my children in a very different way this week. I appreciated them more, took time to speak with more care, and was quicker to explain things to them than I was to get angry. I’d look at them in the early morning, sleeping, knowing that in a few minutes I’d have to wake them up, disturb the peace that only sleep can bring, and I wondered how I’d feel about them as adults. How we’d communicate, what lines we’d cross as a mother, daughter and friend. Would we even be friends?

I started to think about the accident of birth. Not that the birth itself was unplanned or an accident, but that having a baby is the equivalent of a human crap shoot. For that matter, who your parents or siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins anyone you're going to have to stare across the table at on any given holiday, is the ultimate gamble. You toss the dice on the table, and never know what numbers are going to come up. As parents, you decide to have children. You bring them into the world, love them, raise them, send them off, but you never know what you’re going to get when infant turns into adult. You don’t pick your kids off a shelf in Costco and say, “Oh, I’ll take the one that will grow up to be a Stanford graduate, electrical engineer, have two kids, and live in the suburbs, preferably someplace I'd like to retire to." You might end up with Mother Teresa, Charles Manson or Bill Gates, but more likely, someone in between, much less infamous (good or bad) and probably not as rich. And you have to be mature enough to respect who that child becomes. You might end up liking them, the relationship maturing to a level beyond family and into a lifelong friend. I like to judge if I’ve reached that level with someone (family or otherwise) by applying the martini test – is this someone I’d like to go out and drink a martini with? If so, they’re a keeper. If not, I tend to want to lie, say I’m going to the restroom and then slip out the back door before they’ve even gotten to the olive in their drink. But the thing we never think about as parents is what happens if our kids grow up and we don’t like the person that child has become? Makes it a hell of a lot more difficult to keep the already complicated –okay, let’s be real – messy, emotion filled, layered, contradictory, strained and yet important ties between family members connected. And why should we keep them connected?

I wrestled with that question this week, coming up with reasons such as the need for family, for my kids, for emotional support in our senior years, both mine and theirs. But in the end, I am still not sure that is enough to justify or allow decades of bad behavior just because you’re related. Is that the price you have to pay to be in a family? If so, I’m thinking I’d rather pay the sixteen bucks a head to take my kids to see Avatar in 3D. Hell of a lot cheaper than staying connected with family, and I get popcorn with the movie.

I’m still licking my wounds and a part of me hopes the other person is doing their own emotional triage. I haven’t decided if I can venture back into the ring to do battle with family again. It’s not a well refereed fight. There are often punches below the belt because let’s face it, these are the very people you have known since you were born, who pushed you out themselves or were raised up along side you...they know all your vulnerable spots and often find it easier to take all of their own career, health, relationship, family frustration, anger and disappointment, turn it into a large emotional switchblade and stick it into you where they know it will do the most damage. Why is it easier to dump on family than to really address what’s bothering you in your own life? Good question, one my own children have probably wondered about themselves, if not now, they will one day, probably during an expensive therapy session where their mother will be to blame for all their presumed short comings. So, why is it easier to dump on family? A friend of mine who I’ve known since I was four, summed it up brilliantly. She said, “It’s because your relatives think attacking family is safe. They can dump all their shit on you and believe that because you’re family, you’ll take it and still be around later…until you’re not.” I realized how right she was. At a certain point, when it becomes too toxic, you can step away from your family’s dysfunction, particularly when their dysfunction is screwing up your own. And believe me, I value my dysfunction. I've honed it to a fine art and apparently work on a daily basis to pass it on to my own offspring, who again, will blame me for it in therapy years from now.

The other good thing that came out of the argument was that I realized I never wanted my daughters to be as angry at me as I was at the person I was shouting at over the phone. It made me think about family and relationships with spouses, parents, siblings and all the assorted crew. It made me think about how I want my daughters to remember me when they are adults, long after I’m buried six feet under –by the way, I’ve decided that on what I want my tombstone to read - “I’m so tired, I could go to sleep right now,” which pretty much sums up how I feel almost all of the time. But I digress...I want my girls to know me as a person who allows them to grow up to be who they are and who recognizes that they have changed from children into adults, and that I will not continue to attribute their childhood faults and failings to them long after they have left them in the crib. I want them to know me as the type of person who values them for who they are, not what they (or their spouse) do, what college they attended or if they have a vacation home. Vacation home? Huh? We’re barely able to keep the home we have from completely falling down around us as home improvement projects get pushed aside in favor of those frivolous little things like paying the mortgage! I will have an interest in what they do, emotionally support them when they fall and cheer for their successes. I want Nicole and Natalie to know that our family can love and support each other without them having to compete with their siblings or their parents. And mostly, I want them to know that whoever they grow up to be as a person, that I loved them from the start, will continue to work on our relationships through the ups and the downs, and will always love them no matter what, in a genuine, substantive way. And when I'm old and come to visit them, they should take comfort in knowing that my emotional switchblade won’t make it through the metal detector and will be confiscated by airport security.

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