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Becoming Family

28 Sep

There are lots of things no-one tells you when you get married. One is that you may never again see those distant relatives your mother insisted be invited to the wedding. Another is the fact that as your mother was never married to his father, there’s likely to be a few misunderstandings in regards to the perceived roles of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. But the institution of marriage-together with its accompanying hopes, dreams and future promise- marks the birth of a new family. What society neglects to mention is that ‘family’ takes time.

Every family is different. Some families are small and quiet and neat and on time. Others are big and rambunctious and messy and very often, late. Some families are broken and hurting and hardly operate in the same universe, let alone share nuances of understanding. So often people related by blood are both incredibly alike, and yet incredibly different. Inevitably, to some degree there is friction.

Family is the connections between a group of people who are related by blood, marriage or heart. We are born into it, and become enmeshed in its fabric. To a large degree, our family of origin defines who we are and what we think. At the core, a family is a place of belonging and being known. Traditions are shared, history is understood and there’s a traceable heritage. A slightly different facet is created with each new addition, but the original essence is retained.

I never realised that my family was what people describe as ‘close’. We enjoy spending time in each other’s company, even when there’s no specific reason to. It’s noisy when we get together. We celebrate anniversaries, graduations, new jobs, new babies, Friday nights, footy grand finals. We make a big deal of Christmas and birthdays. It means cards. Gifts. Lots of food. And it’s not a special occasion without a cake.  Altogether, we are a tight unit.

Enter into this idyll an outsider- my husband. We met, fell in love and decided to get married. I naively expected him to slot into my family, loving and accepting them as I do. But I’d known them for 20 years longer than he had, and he’s a stranger they only knew for two weeks before we got engaged. It was not an easy time.

My husband’s kin live overseas. My relatives were the only local family we would have. When we got married, his biggest fear was that we would be swallowed up and operate merely as an appendage of my birth family. Like a little amoeba, we would just be absorbed into my big, slightly  messy and at times chaotic family cell.

On the road to ‘family’, the initial stages were decidedly bumpy. Establishing our own identity as a family (albeit a family of just two, which in my mind was just a couple) involved some heart-crushing disappointment and steep learning curves.

Just a month after our wedding, my new husband planned a surprise dinner for two for my birthday. He bought red roses and gave me the tiny shell picture we had bought together on our honeymoon. (“Oh, that’s lovely! Give it to me for my birthday!” Little did I think it would be the only gift he gave me that day.) He was so determined to create our own traditions and our own family identity that my parents and siblings were excluded from the day’s festivities. There was no sonorous rendition of Happy Birthday, no stream of small prettily wrapped gifts, no family love or raucous celebration. I felt lonely, isolated and ripped away from the heart of my family.

We have learned a lot from that birthday. My husband and I realised we have different personalities, different love languages and different ideas about what a celebration should be. When we got married, we both assumed we would just know how to get on with things.  In the same way that in-laws need to meet and mix and get to know each other, so too do rituals and ceremonies. It takes time to argue over, discuss, sort out and reconcile ‘the way we do things at our house’.  As the new traditions become realised, a new culture emerges and a fresh family develops a sense of ‘us’.

It’s the little things that can be infuriating when starting a life together. Do you dry dishes with a tea-towel or a tea-cloth? Is it a doona or a duvet? Does the toilet seat really need to be down? Is it acceptable to say ‘boring’ or ‘hate’ in our family? Do birthdays means cards and presents and seeing the rellies? How many times do you have to say goodbye to someone before they actually leave? Is wiping the benches down really a part of doing the dishes? Who decides how many pairs of shoes is too many? Do all these things really matter?

Unfortunately, they do. It’s the small things that fret the holes in life. They all need to be resolved to a degree that both parties are able to live with. Agree, disagree or agree to disagree. Whatever it takes to live in harmony and establish your own house rules. Small rituals and ceremonies make up the fabric of our daily existence and the rhythm of our years. Family traditions are something that develop over time.

Once children are introduced to the mix, a family’s identity really starts to solidify. Now there are entirely brand new human beings to mould and grow and shape and bond with, a new group of people to function in harmony with each other. As parents, we demonstrate the values that most resonate as true and important and work out how to translate them in a practical way, so we can instil them into our children. In the most philosophical terms, this is the most significant way we have to impact the world and make it a better place. How we raise our children is an integral part of the legacy we leave. For the sake of the environment, for society, but mostly because the values and connections we develop in and with our children will impact the way they live their lives and our future great-grandchildren. Generations of people affect the world in different ways. Imagine a population committed to close family relationships, caring about sustainability, caring about world poverty.

So often we start parenting with such lofty ideals. We’ll never make the mistakes our parents did, we thought. We’ll do things differently. We are so often a product of our up-bringing, yet choices always remain.  Do we repeat old known patterns or forge ahead into something fresh and untried?

Brining our first child home from hospital, my husband and I looked at each other over her head and said ‘What do we do now?’ Through those early weeks and months, after reading books, talking to our mothers, the baby health nurse and friends whose kids were older than ours, we eventually found our own rhythm. Despite the sleeplessness and unknown territory, we delighted in the microcosm we had created. Instincts kicked in, and we gave ourselves permission to believe that we could parent our daughter.

We have realised that our highest ideals are authenticity and being intentional. And we’ve raised our kids with those ideals. Our parents have been terrific. They loved us wholeheartedly and have given us a terrific legacy to build on. We’ve tried to take all the great stuff they did and use it again. But we’ve added our own subtle twists. We are different people to our parents. Our family needs to reflect our personalities, and be a comfortable fit for us and our children. Like a fine wine, our concept of family is something that develops with time and maturity, and gets richer and more agreeable as the years pass.


Letting the Cat Out of the Bag

6 Sep

It must be infinitely easier to go through                                                                       life cruising under the radar. Living a life The cat's out of the bagwhere nothing extraordinary ever happens seems a much simpler option that ‘putting yourself out there’ and having people know what you are actually capable of. Because once they know what you can do, the cat’s well and truly out of the bag, and all of a sudden people have expectations of you.

They are formidable, those expectational measuring devices, and they are everywhere. Held up to us throughout our lives, it starts from the moment our creased cranky faces emerge after birth and we ‘score’ on the Apgar test. School is the long-recognised nursery for learning about what society will expect of us for the rest of our lives and even spouses have plenty of un-verbalised expectations they weren’t aware of themselves until you both return from your honeymoon.

The general expectations of good behaviour and tidy bedrooms, being kind to your siblings and calling when you’re going to be late- those are fairly reasonable expectations and not too much of a hassle. My advice is to do what is required. Glide along. Don’t ruffle any feathers. Be beige. Don’t stand up and don’t make too much noise.

Just don’t do anything remarkable. Forget acts  that may be perceived as worthy or admirable or requiring skill or valour or hard work. Under no circumstances whatsoever do anything which may require- do I even dare mention it- gulp- self-sacrifice or better yet, organisational skills??

Because once you’ve given birth without drugs or done the groceries with 4 children under school age in tow or made that really excellent bridesmaid dress or organised that massive function on a shoe-string budget or painted the entire bedroom all on your tod, people will expect that you will be able to do it again. Nay, that you even enjoy doing whatever it was that you did, as you so obviously have such a natural ability and affinity for such a task.

A good friend of mine insisted that I stop showing her how her new espresso machine worked. “Don’t!” she said. “Hubby is the expert.  I don’t want to learn how to make a good coffee. If I show him I can brew with the best of them, he will expect me to make it!” I know just what she means.

Decades ago when my Dad was an eager young boy at work in the sulphide, he was reprimanded by the older men who had worked there for years. His crime? Doing too good a job and working too fast. “Slow down, son. Don’t do too good a job or they’ll expect us all to work like that.”

Regular readers will know that I recently co-ordinated our school fete. The team worked so hard to make it happen and the weather was glorious after being consistently feral. It was a terrific day, a runaway success that brought our school community closer together and raised several thousand dollars.  People continue to marvel at how well the day went and what a fabulous event it turned out to be.

The problem was, now they know what I can do, I’m becoming known as ‘the fete lady’ in the playground. No longer just some kids’ mum, now it’s known that I have skills that can help our school. It’s going to make it incredibly difficult for me now to slide down in my seat and be invisible at school meetings as the call goes out for helpers to organise x, y or z.

What was I thinking? Now even the office ladies know that I can organise newsletters and out-of-uniform days and donations and source excellent jumping castles and foster good relationships with local businesses. Those kinds of people are rare! You don’t let them slink off into oblivion after one good fete. You work them to the ground. Get them on committees. Task them to fundraise. Call them when the canteen helper is sick. Too valuable to drift back into living their own lives, too often the ‘people with skills’ – you know, the busy ones who get things done around the place- they get burned out. Chewed up and spat out by the machine that benefited most from their abilities, their only options is retreat.

Well, it’s not their only option. There is also that little ‘no’ word. And while I don’t want to come across as hard-hearted and selfish, my family and my own life deserve some of my attention. A goodly portion of it, in fact. While it’s been fun and I’m glad everyone is happy with what we did, I’m not planning on becoming a martyr  to the school or to anyone else in society who wants to give me a job that will end up benefiting their organisation. Despite people’s now-inflated expectations, as long as I have a say- and I do- there won’t be a school fete next year. The year after, I might just do it all again, but next year- no.

Part of living that life less ordinary is the ability to savour the precious bits- the people we love, the crosswords and coffee on the deck, sleeping in and being un-available. At times it means putting our hands up to do the big jobs, dealing with the immense workload of it all and then humbly placing it all back where it came from so life can continue on as normal.

Until next time.