While many people, like Chris, look forward to the Christmas season as a time to escape everyday reality and catch up and enjoy time with family and close friends, not everyone sees the festive season this way. For many, Christmas is a reminder of the pain and anguish that family members have shared in the past. For some, it’s a reminder of who is no longer with us, whether it’s due to severed ties, death, or distance. For others, it’s a reckoning of what one’s family could potentially be, but will never be.
In the beginning of our relationship when we’d come down to Melbourne every year for Christmas, I think I was a bit shocked at how close and how much detailed information and conversation Chris would have with his relatives. None of my conversations or interactions with my own family were like this. Though I did partake in all those conversations, I felt a bit envious that I couldn’t have the same with my own blood relatives. But he reminded me that I was part of his family now, and thus they were my family. I think we all know that it’s never quite the same, even if we do enjoy the time together. But as the years went by, I realized that I had idealized his family, and they actually weren’t as perfect and functional as I’d originally made up in my head. I suppose in my own mind, they actually did seem perfect relative to my own family. But with each passing year, I’d notice little passive aggressions, strange exchanges and comments, factoids shared of previous events, and secrets shared by family members to me in confidence. And I realized that they were just as dysfunctional as any other family, but that at Christmas time, everyone let things go to have a semblance of family, togetherness, and love. And that was totally fine and was good for everyone. Their level of dysfunction was never as toxic or unhealthy as my own family’s, and so it still all worked. Relatively speaking, I’d take his family, immediate and extended, over my own blood family any day, always.
I’ve referenced this line on my blog before, as it’s a quote that comes to my mind every holiday season: “All happy families are alike: each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s the first sentence in the famous Leo Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina. But each time I think about this line, its meaning changes a little bit. I used to think about this when my uncle would try to tell me to forgive my dad for what he had done to Ed and me growing up, as “He didn’t know any better because that was how he himself was raised.” I thought about this when Ed had died, and my parents screamed at me and told me I had no right to tell my aunts, uncle, and cousins he had died. I’ve thought about this when hearing about the double standards that people in Chris’s family have for some people versus others, and the blind eyes turned to this. I have also thought about this when learning of the dysfunctions of Chris’s family and extended family, about those who choose not to be in contact, of those who make excuses not to see each other, and about how many in the family like to sweep issues under the rug instead of openly discussing them as problems. Every family has problems and challenges, some larger and more critical than others.
But at the end of the day, we cannot change other people, especially when it’s already so challenging to change ourselves. We just have to set our boundaries, try our best to put a stop to our own unhealthy patterns, and be our authentic selves as much as possible. No family unit is perfect. How we choose to accept that family unit is probably the outstanding question that will last our entire lifetime. I feel that struggle pretty much every day, and every time I have any interaction with my parents. In the back of my mind, I am fully aware that time with them on this earth is limited; they are, after all, at the latter end of their lives, and we have no idea how much time they have. I feel a little guilt when it comes to how I’ve lessened contact with them. I call my mom now at most once every two weeks; it’s a far cry from calling her every day once upon a time about 10 years ago. I realize it probably angers both of them that I chose not to come home (and let them see Kaia) this past year. But that’s what growing up is about: setting boundaries, even if it means when after their lives end that I may always wonder if setting those boundaries really was the best thing for all of us.