Some weeks ago there was a link on Facebook via The Guardian.com to an advice column written by Molly Ringwald– an actress who I associate mainly with the early 90s given that the only movie of hers I can name is The Breakfast Club, which was my best friend at school’s favourite movie (I was never entirely sure why but anyway).
I wondered what an ex (?forgive me Molly if you are still acting) actress might have to say in an advice column- so I idly followed the link to find out. She actually seemed to give quite sensible advice, the problem in question was posed by an adult (man or woman not specified, age over 30 but also not specified) who felt their family (mainly siblings) were becoming increasingly distant and disinterested in them. The details of the situation aren’t important but Molly made a point which I thought was quite well put, in saying “The true barometer for family is showing up, telling the truth and treating those we love with dignity and respect.”
My recent revelation to my sister that I don’t think her partner is a good choice for her (compounded by a couple of other fundamentally different opinions on various issues) has been playing on my mind a lot. Things came to a bit of a head over the Easter weekend when she announced their engagement, of which I was informed by text message. Still no attempt to address or even acknowledge my concerns. Neither has there been an invitation to the wedding, nor an express statement that I am not invited. They are getting married later this month, which for me, currently 38 weeks pregnant, makes it pretty much impossible to go (given that we are living in different countries). In fact, her only reference to me going or not was to say “I realise it’ll be impossible for you to come”. What makes me more angry than being invited or not invited is her (to my mind) evident cowardice in hiding behind my baby as a reason to avoid the issue of inviting me or not, not just with me but with other people who will no doubt all just assume (and if they don’t I imagine she’ll tell them) the reason I’m not going is because I’ll have just had a baby. Maybe I’m just being overly suspicious, but it all seems a bit too convenient. I had the decency to tell the truth, she replied with nothing remotely resembling dignity or respect, and now won’t even show up to the discussion.
It’s not the first time I’ve thought about my family, not just my sister, but also my parents, the way our relationship has turned out, the way we deal with (or, more commonly, avoid) issues as a family, and why things have turned out the way they have. Of course, it’s easy to aspire to the cheesey, convenient TV family set-up with its (usually mildly flawed but) functional relationships and thick layer of warm and fuzzies, but I’ve never been under any illusion that that was us. Thinking about some of my friends, (somewhat depressingly) none of them seem to have what I’d class as an ideal relationship with their parents, or their siblings for the most part. Mr L probably comes the closest with his parents, which seems to pretty much fit Molly’s definition to a tee.
My relationship with my parents is harmonious enough, but at times superficial and lacking in depth or honesty. The other thing I really feel is missing is an active interest in my life (and perhaps mine in theirs too). I mean, they ask how things are, how are the kids, how’s work etc but occasionally it becomes painfully evident that my parents have no idea what I do on a day-to-day basis. As was perfectly demonstrated when I passed my second big set of post-graduate exams, marking the “end” of my vocational training and thus signifying I’d “made it” in my chosen career. I even invited them to Melbourne for the graduation ceremony (which they attended). My Mum then told me some weeks later that my grandmother had asked what I’d “become” now that I’d passed these major exams and she hadn’t been sure what to tell her. I’d devoted over 1000 hours of study to these exams, travelled interstate and overseas to train for and sit them, and my own mother couldn’t actually tell anyone the significance of them to my career, what they “meant” to me.
It’s slipped out before that she really has no idea what I do at work, and I very much doubt if she’d be able to tell you much else about my life in detail, like how many marathons I’ve run (two) let alone where they were (the Gold Coast and Auckland). In fact, she probably wouldn’t confidently be able to tell you I’d actually run a marathon at all. In contrast, Mr L’s parents (who admittedly we do speak with more often but I think that’s a result of their interest rather than the cause) will know if I’m doing even a 10km local fun run and will wish me good luck as well as ask how I went afterwards.
At times I’ve felt close(ish) to my sister. It’s usually been when she’s been at a time of change or uncertainty in her life, such as when she left her first husband. I’ve always thought is was quite telling that I didn’t ask her to be a bridesmaid at my wedding. This was partly because we had a very small wedding and having too large a wedding party would have been silly, but also because I felt absolutely no genuine desire to have her standing beside me as I got married, I didn’t think too hard about why not, I simply felt it would have been a bit token and meaningless. And that was 6 months after she’d left her husband, so based on what I’ve just said, that’s when I thought we were closer than usual!
I’ve sometimes blamed the 4 year age gap or the fact that she’s devoutly religious, and I really hoped that as we went further into adulthood and the relative age gap narrowed that we’d maybe have a bit more in common. Then when her marriage broke up and she left her (loser) first husband, I thought and hoped that maybe a bit of her personality had returned, she’d move away from the hypocrisy that so much of religion is and that she might become more “normal” and our relationship more functional or at least meaningful in turn. But sadly, husband-to-be number 2 is even more of a loser than number 1, and the way things are at the moment, the chances of ever being functional are slim…
In many ways, I feel it’s too late to fundamentally change the relationship I have with either my parents or my sister. I think the reasons we’ve ended up the way we have mainly include personality (that’s just the way they/we are), habit (that’s the way things have always been) and communication style (avoidant and minimalist) but the main reason it bothers me is that I don’t want my kids to be saying similar things about me one day. I can’t do a lot to change my personality but I can certainly show up and communicate better than my family has with me and avoid letting apathy and complacency become a habit.
“Showing up, telling the truth and treating those we love with dignity and respect”: food for thought.