Everybody has a different concept of family. I was reminded of this after a recent trip to California where virtually our entire brood gathered to spend a long weekend. As it turns out, the weekend was certainly longer for some of us than for others. Even within the same core family unit, you will find members with vastly wide-ranging notions of connectedness as well as varying levels of tolerance for intimacy. For my part, I find myself growing wistful for a time gone by, when we flew from all parts to be together for significant occasions with greater regularity. In my admittedly rose-hued memories, we all managed to get to the beach for sunset and evenings ended congregated around the fire. What I find increasingly fascinating about being a part of a multi-generational family is how the gears are constantly shifting. There are historical alliances that change in response to marriages and babies. There also seem to be dynamics that are established so early and become so entrenched that no amount of maturity, softening of the years or costly therapy can deconstruct them. There is great universality in the fact that we essentially become our adolescent selves in the presence of our parents and siblings.
The inner teenager is not always the most flattering version of yourself…mine engages in a confusing combination of acting out (often comically) and subverting feelings. Still and all, my default position tends to be mediator and salve. I just want everyone to get along and everything to be OK and everyone to love each other. LIKE RIGHT NOW. My official roles, then (according to the therapeutic community), fall into two categories: “Caretaker”, one who feels great responsibility for the emotional life of the family, and “Mascot”,one who uses comedy to distract from uncomfortable or dysfunctional situations.
There are times when these formative roles serve me well. I have a highly attuned sense of empathy and I am occasionally entertaining at a party. On the flip side, I can have poor boundaries and deny very real wounds. Clinically speaking, the Caretaker is identified as being at higher risk for depression than other family members (it can be tough trying to make everyone happy) while the Mascot is often the person with the most healthy coping. So, you see, it could really go either way for me.
Of course, now that I am a self-possessed adult, I could make different choices. There are many people close to me who have no desire to endure the morass of feelings involved in dealing with their families. It is often the subject of debate with dear friends---even with my husband---the ultimate costs and benefits of being an active member of an extended family. I always land in the camp of “YES,” it is worth it. What else is there? What are the other options? The other options seem to be cut-offs and estrangements. At this age, with this amount of history, it is a take it all or leave it all kind of proposition. While some maneuvering is possible within the relatively fixed role each of us occupies within a family, in due course the choice is to participate or not and to do so either kicking and screaming or enjoying the ride.
I have been accused of glossing over elements of the past when it comes to my family. My ballast is a place where I consider my childhood happy---even the teenage years---and my family close. I have unique touchstones with each member, and some relationships are based primarily in the past and while others continue to develop over time. We have borne and inflicted our share of pain, but it generally pales in comparison to the real suffering of families where there is true neglect, abuse or impairment. We have been largely spared of tragedy and our close calls have functioned to knit us together. While I support the people I know who have separated from their clan, I feel crushingly and beautifully stuck with mine. In fact, I am already dreaming up locales for next year’s reunion. Just don’t tell my husband.