It’s hard to talk about family dysfunction for several reasons. One, it’s considered taboo. There is a strong feeling that family is everything in America* and to say anything to the contrary is outre. There was a thread on the weekend post at Ask A Manager from someone who wanted to know how to tell her father that she’d be spending Thanksgiving with her mother’s side of the family. The original poster (OP) made clear that she saw her father regularly as the only sibling who lived near him. It wasn’t as if she’d never see him again. Many people were supportive, but a surprising number of people scolded her and called her selfish (because she said as one point that her mom’s side of the family was more ‘fun’. That wasn’t the only reason she gave, though.) A not-small number of people acted as if she said she was going to shun her father and never talk to him again. It was so bizarre. Her question was how should she talk to her father about it and more than a few people took the opportunity to scold her instead. Even the context of she was the only sibling who was there (because of pandemic) and her father went on a cruise one year instead of stay for the dinner did not dissuade some people.
My own view which I did not express was that fuck holidays. More nuanced than that is in this case, she spent time with her father (which she noted). It wasn’t as if she was going to cut him off completely (which can be merited sometimes). She just wanted to know how to tell her father she wanted to spend Thanksgiving with her mom’s family. But, no, she was selfish for even considering not spending Thanksgiving with her father.
You can probably guess that I’m not a big fan of tradition for the sake of tradition or ‘but faaaaamily!’. My mother once told mem that tradition wasn’t bad. I agree. Tradition isn’t bad in and of itself. But, it’s also not good in and of itself. In other words, question everything. That’s pretty much my motto.
Back to the matter at hand. If I told you I took a morning walk with my parents, you’d probably think, “Oh, that’s nice. What’s the problem?” Because if I’m mentioning it, you know there’s a problem. I’ll get to that in a minute. The way it works is that I walk as fast as I can on the way out. That means I’m way ahead of my parents because I walk much faster than they do. Then, I wait for them and we walk back at a more sedate pace .Fine. Dandy. It’s worked pretty well. Except in the past few weeks, my mother has taken to saying, “Are you cold?” when we meet at the halfway point. One day she said, “I bet you’re cold!” So one day, she asked if I wanted t go for a walk I said yes as long as she didn’t ask if I was cold halfway through. It wasn’t the smoothest way to bring it up, but it wasn’t terrible, either. A bit passive-aggressive, which is the way of our family.
My mother’s response was that she didn’t know how to talk to me, which, of course, was designed to make me feel guilty. I say of course because it did make me feel guilty. Oh, I hurt her feelings. That’s not good! And here’s where the reference to web comes in because this is not a straightforward situation.
Some background about cold: I don’t get cold. Or rather, my threshold for cold is much higher than most people’s. My parents know this. I’ve discussed it many times with them. In addition, I have lived in Minnesota all my life and know how to dress for the weather. I don’t walk around making myself cold for the fun of it. If I’m cold, I will put on more layers. I don’t need someone else telling me to put on a scarf (which they’ve done) or asking if I’m cold. I’m not a child.
This particular time, the concern stems from my recent trauma, but it’s always there. And while she may or may not mean this, the result is that I think she doesn’t trust me to take care of myself. Which I actually think is true on some level because she has mentioned more than once that since we’re not sure what caused my pneumonia, uhhhhhh, something something I shouldn’t be alone? She tried to excuse herself by saying she was a mom and it was a mom’s worry, but that doesn’t fly. I mean, of course she’s a mom and she’s going to worry, but part of being an adult is knowing when you should share that worry and when you should keep it to yourself. As I’ve told her more than once, you don’t have to share every thought in your head.
Here’s the bottom line, though. The reason I get so prickly when she brings up this stuff is because I’m not sure if it’s truly stemming from her or my father. She’s so enabling of him that she takes on his concerns as her own. So the fact that she was suddenly asking me about the cold was probably influenced by him.
In addition, her not knowing what to talk to me about is kinda bullshit. Or rather, she knows there are things that irritate me like treating me like a child. I’m a grown person. I have been taking care of myself for the last thirty-plus years. I don’t need to be told to put on a scarf. I don’t need to be told it’s great I made it ten steps farther than I had the day before. I don’t need to be observed as I eat.
Here’s one of the main issues. I never know when she’s talking to me for herself and when she’s doing it as a proxy for my father. She’s so attuned to his every mood and feeling, she thinks of them as naturally as she does her own. More so, to a point. She has made it clear that he is number one through ten in her life with very little room for anything else. She’ll talk ad nauseam about his medical issues to anyone who will listen–and to those who won’t. She does the same with my experience in the hospital, which is annoying. If she does it when I’m not around, fine, whatever. She had her experience as well and she’s allowed to talk about it, obviously. What annoys the FUCK out of me is when she talks about it in front of me as if I’m not even there. She really has no boundaries, which is doubly annoying as she’s a psychologist.
Could I be not as brittle with her? Yes. Could she not bring up topics that she knows annoys me? Also yes. Could she stop enabling my father? Uh…probably not at this point. If she doesn’t, could I trust her to be authentic with me? No. And that’s where the whole thing breaks down. She’s ruled by fear, anxiety, and her slavish devotion to my father. He has always been first in her heart and will always be, even after he dies.
That’s the reason I cannot trust what she says to me. It’s always with an eye on my father and his perceived reaction to everything. I can’t tell her anything without the knowledge that she’ll tell him. Which I don’t like. In addition, she simply doesn’t understand, well, anything about me. My life is so different than hers; she has no context for it. Any time I try to explain things to her, it just makes both of us feel worse.
The best thing to do is just live our separate lives, talking once a week or so. Keeping it superficial is the way to go. In a week-and-a-half, that might just be possible again.
*At least, much lip service is given to faaaaaaaamily. Whether or not we actually revere family, well, I have my doubts.