Tuesday, January 9, 2018

When family fails

The day of my grandfather's funeral is one I've been replaying in my mind the past few days. A cold, snowy Minnesota day in the middle of March 2011 that brought all my mom's family together in a church to remember the old man. I had expected to be the center of the gossip given my recent confession to my parents that I had been diagnosed with infertility combined with my sister's pregnancy announcement. Instead, it was the arrival of my estranged aunt, the eldest of my mom's siblings who had been out of the picture for over 20 years, that stole the show.

The moment I've been replaying is after the funeral at my grandparent's house, where all the siblings were sitting at the table. My estranged aunt center-stage, clearly pissed off with everyone around her, my mom's younger sister fawning over the estranged aunt trying to win her approval. My mom and her youngest brother glaring hatefully at my estranged aunt, firing off bitter jabs and retorts. My mom's other brother sitting quietly at the table, visibly spooked by all that was happening. And my grandmother acting clueless to all the hostility. 

It would be later that night, after my estranged aunt had been driven to the airport, that my mom and her brother would replay it all for my grandmother, wondering aloud why my estranged aunt was behaving the way she was and getting increasingly angry over how she had negative interactions with everyone in the house. Everyone except for me.

And it would be moments later that I would silence them all when I answered simply, "She's hurting. Didn't you see the pain?"

The comments from my post last week has had me thinking more about this event and the history I've had with family. This has been mixed in personal conversations, Katherine's post about family drama and on a post by MamaJo23 I've been ruminating over about bitterness. The final icing on the cake was reading about family dynamics in Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson. All of it resulting in a jumbled as each part has brought strong emotions to the surface that make processing things extremely difficult (and advanced apologies for how all of this is coming together), but a theme has been slowly emerging as I've been unpacking all of this which is the power of family dynamics, particularly when those dynamics are less than healthy. Of not only what is considered okay and not okay behavior, but who it is okay to support.

Family is a tricky institution. We define it as a social unit where the connection is based on shared genetics and/or fulfillment of prescribed roles involving parent/child. In the best of circumstances the people involved like one another most of the time and have found a shared bond. But what is often silenced is when the there really isn't a connection or when dynamics have been put into play that leaves some ostracized from the group. 

For as long as I can remember, I've been considered the black sheep of my family. From a young age, my mom was quick to point out how much I reminded her of my estranged aunt from everything from my mannerisms to attractions and even career aspirations. Warnings of becoming like her set the stage for a deep-seated fear of never truly being able to do anything right and being terrified of failing in their eyes and the degree this has impacted me is something I'm still discovering daily. But the most shocking discovery was finding that these warnings of being disowned were not universally held for others in my family; that the shame and admonishment I was warned I would face never fell on my sister or my cousins, instead me being pushed to offer unquestioning support and love during situations I knew would have resulted in me being banished from the family.

It was during a session with David that I learned about that dysfunctional family dynamics are generational, radiating out past the members that were still alive and involving deep hurts that were deeply rooted. That my existence as a black sheep was actually not due to who I was but is instead a symptom of something much bigger than me.

The situation with Moon and me is somewhat similar to this, with there being trauma and loss on her end that has required certain actions and outlooks in order for her to survive. That though all of it has seemed unnecessarily cruel and painful for me, in her eyes doing the opposite would have brought her pain.

To date, my mom's family still is estranged from my aunt with all of them becoming borderline violent when questioned about why they won't engage her and forgive. Granted my estranged aunt has her demons, but getting to the root of the issue that both my grandparents had a role in this pain is something none of them have been willing to address.

And it's this root of family failure that has me the most sad. That it doesn't have to be this way, but habits, insecurities and deep fear dictate for it to be.


  1. Whoa, intense. I can see how conflicts played out across generations would be very, very hard to solve. When you met your estranged aunt, did you get any insights or see parallels to yourself? It would be interesting to know if you saw what others purported to see. I'm making mental notes to try not to set siblings against each other! not that it is all in my control but surely some of it is.

  2. Oy, families. :p My own extended family (both sides) has lots of examples of people who haven't spoken to each other in years and feuds that have dragged on (& off, & on again...), for decades. I'm not entirely sure what's at the root of all of these cases, but sibling rivalry seems to be a powerful factor. I find it interesting/funny to see who sides with who & why... my one cousin has always been a bit of a rebel/troublemaker, & my mother will always make excuses for him. I think she sees a lot of herself in him. Anyway, I have no wisdom to offer, except to say you aren't alone!


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