I teach a psychology class on family relationships. I’m fascinated by systems. About what happens between people. I’m fascinated by the between.
I tell my students I grew up in an Italian family. A close-knit family. Wonderfully close, sometimes. Too close to breathe at other times. There were four of us. Four of us packed tightly together. Four kids in four and a half years. Crazy really and yet, my parents were at every game. At every concert. At every theatre performance. They were our staunchest supporters, and our toughest critics.
I loved my family. I loved the closeness, the “friends free” Sunday afternoons when we sat by the fire; Mom doing the New York Times Crossword puzzle and Dad listening to Gregorian Chant, his pipe smoke filling the house. I relished holiday meals that lasted for hours as dish after dish was carried in from the kitchen. The family vacations that began and ended with hours of driving in the car as we headed to the special place on Lake Sebago that we went to year after year for as long as I can remember.
When we shined they reveled in our shininess. When we struggled, they cried shared tears. As a kid, I didn’t always understand the we-ness. As much as I loved it, there were times when the closeness smothered me. “There is an expression, “ I wrote in a paper while in graduate school, “You make your bed, you lie in it.” In my family, the family lay in it with you.
It wasn’t always easy, but it was what we knew. To us, it was family.
Flash forward 25 years.
There are those things you know you want to replicate. Things you loved while growing up. Traditions. Experiences. Shared values. The annual trips to New York City to see the Nutcracker on Christmas Eve. The holiday dinners with both sets of grandparents. The commitment to hard work, honesty and family.
And there are things you’d rather leave behind. Things you swore you’d never do. Never say. Never think.
And then you do. You say them. You think them. It happens. Despite our best intentions, it happens.
Your children take their own path. A different path. A windy, sometimes torturous path along a steep slope. They walk dangerously close to the edge. And they slip. Sometimes they slip.
You try to guide them. You give them maps. You point to them, showing them the road ahead. You tell them where you want them to go, where you hope they will go because you know the way. At least you think you do.
“Stop,” you say. “Get away from the edge. You’re going to get hurt,” but they don’t listen.
Instead, they forge ahead. Naively. Unwittingly. Carelessly. They don’t see. They don’t know what’s coming.
You reach out desperately, grabbing for a piece of them. “Please,” you say. “Get away from the edge. You’re going to fall.” You know that stretch of road. You’ve been there.
But they don’t listen. They slip. They tumble. They get hurt.
And because you love them, because you are reaching out, hanging on for dear life, they take you with them. You are hurt and scared and you wonder why. Where did you go wrong? “Why didn’t you listen?” you say as though there is an answer that could make it all make sense. “Why?”
There is no answer. There is no “why”. They have to find their own path. It is a part of growing, of learning, of living. There are bumps in the road.
For all of us.
Image from here.