Defining Family

Exif JPEGMy parents separated when I was 12 years old. Eventually as my father drifted out of my life so did his relatives. In turn my mothers side of the family was reasonably involved in my day to day life. They were and still are a rather eccentric bunch but I can proudly say that they are some of the most interesting people I know.

They do however have problems just like any other family. Though it is unfair to solely focus on their negatives as they do have a number of positive traits it is those negatives that tend to have the deepest claws and seem to take forever to remove from deep within ourselves as maturing adults.

The extended family reminded me of the clans from the old country. Constantly at war with one another. Creating alliances out of a mutual dislike rather than genuine friendship and then when illness or serious cause for alarm would arise everyone would rally against the common enemy only to fall back into rituals of bad behavior as soon as the storm had passed.

I remember very vividly sitting around a campfire with my cousins and my own brother and sister discussing the sad state of affairs within our family and finding it difficult to relate to such behavior. Fast forward twenty years and here I am in the same turbulent waters.

My goal with this piece is not to specifically call anyone out because truth is I am far from perfect myself. But rather to define what family truly is and how I am attempting to remedy this situation.

“The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under one roof.” Richard Bach ~Illusions~  

As a single person I was far more willingly to put up with the bad behavior of others. As a parent of three young children I am far less willingly to do so. The delicate balance, that which Somerset referred to as the “razors edge”, is the ability to discern ones own prejudice in comparison with that which is truly harmful. We all have conflict or arguments among family members. Overreacting to naturally arising frustrations is a negative in and of itself. But eventually when bad habits are displayed for years, decades even, and they begin to affect the mental health of ones household it is time to put the false notion of family aside.

The difficulty that I am experiencing is that as a homeschooling family the family structure is extremely important. I have lost count of all the homeschooling books that I have read that speak of having a grandparent share a hobby or an aunt spend a day with your children. For some of us that is simply not a reality.

Though children should not be involved in the direct confrontation of adults for any reason they do recognize something is wrong when Grandma or Grandpa no longer stops by. When aunts and uncles no longer visit. When their birthday is ignored while other children in the family have very public celebrations. They quickly catch on when conversation is cut short in regards to missing relatives. They recognize the awkward hostility when relatives meet in public places. They are sensitive to the sadness that develops when adults feel the need to remove toxic relationships from their own lives.

So how do we define family when our family is broken? If we continue to nurture negative relationships we are teaching our own children a very unhealthy lesson, are we not? We are teaching them that abuse and disrespect are acceptable ways for family to treat one another when resurrecting the notion that blood outweighs all else. This is simply not true.

It is painful and even frightening to admit that ones family does not provide a solid foundation in their own lives. But when one begins to recognize the bond that exist among families with similar values a level of strength, understanding and true appreciation begins to bloom.

Within family structures there is a tendency for familiarity to breed contempt. I would hope that it is obvious that I am not addressing the trivial frustrations that exist within every family structure but rather the deep rooted multi-generational behaviors that destroy trust and most importantly love. Your family , your children , are at the mercy of your decisions to a certain extent. When it comes to creating a supportive , nurturing , caring and loving network one must make the right decision, not the easy one.

Tobias Whitaker also blogs for Mother Earth News and Grit Magazine.  You can also find him on Facebook at Seed To Harvest: Bossy Hen Homestead which is a central location for his homesteading blogs and his homeschooling blog, A Mile In Her Shoes: Tales Of A Stay-At Home Dad .  



4 thoughts on “Defining Family

  1. I extremely identified with this, Tobias! It reminded me of the journey I have been on with my own biological family, thankfully a lot of the negativity has run it’s course before our daughter was born. The boundaries can still be crossed though, leaving me with the only choice of leaving some walls up. My family and I are doing very well but it is a constant battle due to our religious differences. This piece also reminded me of how grateful I am for the community that my husband and I have found for Katelyn and ourselves. I also have to say I am grateful that I have not had to remove my family totally from our lives, like I know so many people have. To make the decision to remove toxic relationships from your life is a hard one but has become much easier for me now that I am a parent. This gave me so much to think about but also to be grateful for, at the same time. Thank you!

  2. It’s heartening to read this Tobias. I’ve chosen to make a network of wonderfully open-hearted friends into our extended family of choice. While we’re close to most members of my family and see them regularly, we do have estranged family members. That estrangement has been an important form of mental health preservation for us.

    We certainly have people in our lives who are hard to be around—-extraordinarily oversensitive or constantly cynical. Relationships with them aren’t extreme as those you’ve described in your life, but they still lead me to a question in your post that I’ve long asked myself: “If we continue to nurture negative relationships we are teaching our own children a very unhealthy lesson, are we not?” I struggle between the idea of responding to negative people with love (and healthy boundaries) or backing away out of sheer exhaustion. It feels like a larger spiritual question to me, one that I continue to answer imperfectly. I’ve largely chosen the loving boundaries path although not always sure that has been the right choice to demonstrate to my kids. They’re old enough that we can talk openly about this. I see they’ve been primed to react more carefully to people who aren’t emotionally strong but even more so they’ve developed a politely amused tolerance. They also seem less prone to over-empathize than do. (That’s a very good thing.)

    I remind myself of what neuroscience educator Mark Brady calls The Big Question: “This is the fundamental question of our own and our children’s social lives – are you someone who can really see me, hear me, prize me, and be emotionally present for me when it really matters? Can I count on you to come through in a crisis – and there will be crises. In strong, secure relationships, we most often answer this question “Yes” for our children.” I hope I am!

  3. Such a fantastic response Laura, thank you for taking the time to leave it on the page. I can relate, completely. In particular in regards to your comment about it feeling like a larger spiritual question. This tends to be what leads me back into a situation in which I attempt to “see myself in them”. Eventually I find myself frustrated again and look at the long term behavior which is at odds with my spiritual self on some level if that makes sense. There certainly is no easy answer and on occasion time does allow for the evolution of character.

    I also appreciate the link to Mark Brady. Very interesting.

    Thank you!

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