Balancing Fear, Love, and Family

Visiting my parents’ house is always strange. There are such happy memories around every corner, mixed in some weird way with memories of pain and heartbreak. And then there are my younger siblings, the majority of them still at home, still living the life I knew growing up. Others have grown and left home, but still return for the holidays.

(There really should be a book on how relationships between siblings evolve from kid-kid relationships to adult-adult relationships. It’s a fascinating process to see played out again and again, and one fraught with the possibility of failure.)

And then there are Sally and Bobby, neither of whom know anything of disagreements, differences in belief, or past scars. They look at their grandparents and aunts and uncles with nothing but smiles and excitement, which is as it should be. And yet. Sally and Bobby may in some sense function as the keys that bring my parents and I together, but they are also a symbol of what holds us apart.

Every time I allow Sally to leave the table without finishing her food, or negotiate with her about her bedtime rather than simply laying down the law, I sense tension surrounding me in my parents’ home. When I mention something Sally learned in daycare, more tension. When I mention without thinking that Sally is looking forward to kindergarten, thus admitting that I we will be sending Sally to public school rather than homeschooling her, there is silence.

It seems that, at my parents’ house, there is almost no topic of conversation that is not fraught with pitfalls and flashing danger signs. Several days ago I read a post called Strangers at the Table, by Dulce. I could have written almost the exact same post.

Seated around the Thanksgiving table, smiling sincere but tight smiles. We are family–it shouldn’t feel awkward, but somehow in their presence any social polish I have acquired is stripped away and I revert to a gawky twelve year old.

Say something. We’ve already talked about how much the kids have grown, work is going well. Um, now what? Not the elections. Definitely not the elections. We didn’t spend the last three months politely ignoring each others’ political posts on Facebook for it to all blow up now.

Sports. Hunting. Cars. I don’t even know enough about those topics to ask intelligent questions. I’m pretty sure I should avoid parenting stuff.

Another bite, another strained smile. Could you please pass the rolls? Wow, your turkey is delicious. What did you put in the dressing this time? We sit at the table together, while I frantically construct a Venn diagram in my mind of topics that we are both interested in. The areas that overlap are ones where our viewpoints are diametrically opposed. I suck at small talk. And underneath it all is so much love and fear of hurting them or of being rejected, but we must not quite be doing it right because perfect love casts out fear and there is still fear here.

It’s so strange. It’s family. There shouldn’t be fear – but there is. And Dulce is right, it’s the combination of love and fear – on both sides – that makes the entire situation so surreal. It’s an odd cocktail of feelings that leaves no one happy but keeps everyone coming back.

As time goes by, though, I’m finding that things are getting better. I’m stronger than I used to be, and am learning how to maintain a healthy balance in relationships with family. My parents are learning too, and gaining experience as they work out what it means to parent adult children. My siblings are growing and realizing their own interests and forming their own ideas about the world. The hurts of the past are healing and fading and, little by little, we’re all finding a new dynamic.

And perhaps we are all simply realizing that family is something you can’t simply imagine out of existence, that even with huge differences and disagreements, family will always be family.

Stop Stressing Out and Give Your Kid a Snuggle
The Radical Notion that Children Can Have Anxiety Too
Why I Take My Kids to the UU Church
Convention on the Rights of the Child: Articles 1-5
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    I had a huge blow-up at my parents’ house this Thanksgiving – not during the meal thankfully. Don’t even remember how it started, but we went from one thing to another to lawyers and how Snopes is a left-wing Web site and how George Zimmerman was right in shooting Trayvon Martin because he was a drug addict. I got up from the table and told my parents I didn’t want to have the conversation, went upstairs and blew up at my sister when she basically told me that I should just know when I shouldn’t talk – I think I yelled “so I should just shut up then, thanks” and slammed the guest room door.

    My father came in later and we talked for a long time about why I’m not a Christian, why I’m a liberal, and all that sort of stuff. My mother acknowledged that I’m not the me they knew growing up, my sister took some time to get over it, but we patched things up.

    Now I’m waiting for the next blow up to be over my gender.

    • JW

      Katherine, you mentioned explaining to your dad why you are not a Christian and why you are a liberal. It sounds almost as if a subtle communication that a soul cannot be a Christian and hold to liberal thinking at the same time. Do you believe that Christian and Liberal are total opposites? Or polar opposites?

      When it comes to Thanksgiving Day my family (and sister n laws family) we play games throughout the day. When we eat we all get in a big circle, hold hands and someone volunteers to say the prayer. We eat and watch football and talk. Before and after this we are out playing games. This year it was just one game which was cornhole. I never heard of it until that day. I played 2 games and lost both. There is an art to that game and I got a few holes in there. I played with my nephews who are so young that they were barely even hitting the board on their throws. Ironically, I bet in some families gatherings that would cause some to get very angry because a player cannot score points if one continually falls short on the board. We had a good time with laughs. At the end my sister n law talked to her sister and her family, in Kentucky, via skype on her cellphone. Never saw that before and I thought that was COOL!. I have no one to skype so I can’t use it. Isn’t that pitiful??

      • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

        No no, I didn’t mean liberals can’t be Christians – sorry if it looked that way. Just that before I moved out of the house I was (somewhat) Christian and (somewhat) conservative. So now almost four years later, they see me as an atheist and a liberal – which is a complete change from how they’re used to seeing me. (I was floating as a sort of quiet pantheist / moderate between college and moving out.)

  • machintelligence

    Growing up in a fairly liberal (but large) family, I seem to have avoided most of this sort of drama. I can’t think of much of anything that would cause me to blow up at a family member, but then…
    And finally a bit of calming advice for those who have been told “Shut up! That’s why!”
    Sorry. I’m not being very serious today.

    • Wendy

      I’m gonna bookmark that second one. It’s good advice.

  • J-Rex

    There are very mixed dynamics in my family that can make things very confusing for conversation. My siblings and I have a wide range of beliefs from liberal Christian to Orthodox to vague spiritualism to deism to atheism, though at least we’re all mostly liberal, so that helps. And then roughly 100% of my extended family are conservative Evangelicals and they range from being very relaxed and conversational to uptight and judgmental. My grandma gave my sister “that look” when my sister gave her a food basket that included vodka pasta sauce.
    I’m very good at keeping track of what I can say in front of which person and I think before I talk, but the poor boyfriends…I constantly end up jabbing mine with my elbow. Stop…right…now! My sister’s boyfriend (whom all of us strongly dislike) once had the nerve to say something about “radical atheists.” I had to focus every part of myself on my love for my sister not to respond, “Yeah? Have you ever actually met any? Did they blow up churches, or did they just want government and religion to be separate?”

    • Carys Birch

      Oh god, this makes me think about my family. My aunt’s poor (new) husband came in like a lamb to the slaughter and had no idea what not to say. Poor guy. I think they ate his carcass for Thanksgiving dinner. :(

  • Tracey

    I actually take this on another way and have started redefining family. Those potluck dinners I wish I could attend every week? -family! Our housemate and one of my closest friends? Family. The child we will welcome into our home to stay who isn’t even genetically related to us, when that finally happens he or she will be family too! Genetics shemetics, no one in my immediate family is linked by anything but love.

    • Holly

      this works until it’s a child and g’child who are diametrically opposed to what you believe. I don’t want to alienate my kids. I want to watch my g’children grow up. It’s walking a fine line to do that.

  • Lana

    Good posts. i am impressed that you are handling your parents with grace in this process. I also grew up in the homeschool/patriarchal movement. I turned my back on it, and in college did not come home much. But through it all, my parents also softened. Today it is much better all the way.

  • Jenn Dyer

    I know exactly that feeling. I visited my family earlier in November for my dad’s 70th birthday. I managed to avoid a fight until just before my flight at our last lunch together. It wasn’t about religion or politics, but about finances. Ugh!

  • smrnda

    If a member of my family stated that Zimmerman was right to shoot Travyon Martin, I’d disown my family. Just because someone’s related to me doesn’t mean they deserve a place in my life.

    Then again, I never was very close to my family so I don’t feel bad that I haven’t seen most of them in years ;my extended family is very spread out and so I haven’t even met some of my relatives, and when people in your family aren’t Americans the same issues don’t come up.

    The other thing is that the conservatives viewpoints many Americans have probably don’t have a counterpart in other nations, so those conflicts are probably worse here. Conservative Christians in the US also make a battleground issue out of everything, so there’s hardly anything you can talk about that isn’t ideological. I mean, not demanding that your daughter continue eating after she is full Yhy is it a good idea to keep cramming food in once your body says ‘full?’I also notice that many parents who demand that kids finish their meals choose their children’s portion sizes for them.

    • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

      Basically the sum-up was that since Skittles and Iced Tea are used with some drug thing, Trayvon Martin was a druggie. He beat up Zimmerman (likely, but hell, dude was following him around, you’re a young boy and some guy is following you around in a neighborhood you’re unfamiliar with, I’d defend myself too.) So Zimmerman had every right to shoot him. I was stunned.

      I love my family dearly, which is why I’m so scared of admitting I’m trans to them.

  • Rebecca

    I chose not to go home at all for the first time, ever, this year. Every single one of my seven siblings + the boyfriend of one sister + the new husband of another were all to be there and I having recently been excluded from the wedding of my newly-wed sister last month who is two years my junior and with whom I’ve always been closer to than anyone else in the world, I wasn’t ready to face her quite yet and knew I wouldn’t survive the day without an emotional breakdown of some sort. My mother, who is devoid of empathy and told me concerning my sister’s literally including every one of my siblings in her wedding except me and refusing to me to tell me why she suddenly hated me to “not take it personally,” thinks I’m being remarkably petty about refusing to come down merely because that particular sister was there. I spent the holiday instead with my best friend and her family… my three closest friends I feel like are my sisters now and they don’t just make empty claims of love like my family does but truly show how much they care. Quite revolutionary after being raised in an isolated family where friends were few and far between and “family is all that matters, will always be there for you and have your back, your family should be your best friends and not your peers.” Yeah, that played out nicely.

  • Rilian

    What’s the difference between kid-kid relationships and adult-adult relationships?
    Maybe there shouldn’t be a difference.

    Anyway, the family I eat thanksgiving dinner with is 75 people, although not all of them are there every time. There’s so many people that there’s no such thing as “sitting around the table”. Some people sit on the floor in the backroom, some sit in the kitchen, or in the dining room, or living room, or outside. People are constantly moving around and many go outside to play. So yeah there’s some tension between various people (since it’s a baptist/conservative family with a handful of atheists/liberals) but those people just say “hi how’s school/work, gee you’re getting tall” to each other, and then they move on.

    I spend most of my time there playing with young cousins (younger than 10). One of them mentioned that “obama” wants to kill babies who aren’t even born yet, because he thinks they aren’t human, so I told him I doubt obama thinks that, since whether you’re human is in your dna, and then I told him that sometimes they have to kill the baby because it’s hurting the mother and he asked for an example, so I told him about ectopic pregnancy and he agreed that in that case you should kill the baby because it’s better to lose one person than two. Then another was asking me some question about god and I said I don’t believe in god, and she said “So then you’re not a christian?” Nope. “So then you don’t trust god in all things?” I don’t believe in god, I said. Then she said, “I think you’re just part of obama.” And I told her that just because I’m not a christian doesn’t mean I have to like obama, and then after a few more confused questions, she dropped the subject.

    • Anonymouse

      Wow, that was some seriously offensive garbage your young cousins are being brainwashed with. Obama says he’s a Christian. He’s not running around telling lies and bad-mouthing your extended family, which makes them more Christian than they are.

      • Anonymouse

        Sorry; typo…should read, “…which makes HIM more Christian than THEY are.” Hope I didn’t confuse.

  • Amelia

    When we spend Christmas with my husbands family, we (so far) have always attended church with them. But to me, it feels so fake, and we wont be raising Peanut (due March) in a church, so why would we force him or her to go on Christmas morning? I suspect we are going to have to start not staying with the in-laws at Christmas, so we can pretend to not be up and about in time… But yeah, tensions. Not so fun! (on the plus side, we have already well established a routine of only being there once every three years)

  • Stony

    I miss my dad. I do. We were never close until I was an adult, but Thanksgiving was the holiday we all spent at Dad’s place, and I loved it because it was more about being together than over-loaded with religious baggage. When we ran out of things to talk about, we just shifted groups. With seven kids plus spouses, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, and then extended family and friends, it wasn’t hard to find someone to talk to or play games with or watch tv with or knit with. It was even easy to avoid my hyper-conservative newly born-again brother who wants me to read Ann Coulter to gain some perspective. (yeah, no, thanks.)

    The in-laws are a different story altogether. They are all conservative and vocal about it, so dinner is much
    more like Dulce’s above. Yuck. Did I mention I miss my dad?

  • Kacy

    My kids help me with the awkwardness of family time too. They are a neutral activity, so to speak, and my mom will usually plan a few outings with the children and me, usually to a local park.

    Of course kids can also provide their own difficulties with family members. This year my four year old told my mom that she didn’t want to pray before breakfast (completely her own decision). I told my daughter that she didn’t have to pray but to sit quietly for those who did want to pray. My sister later told me that my mom was completely disturbed by this discussion with my daughter. My mother is more passive aggressive and gossipy, so there’s never a direct confrontation. I end up learning her feelings more indirectly.

  • Christine

    Even though I didn’t grow up in a fundamentalist household, I can so relate to the awkwardness that can come from visiting relations. This year I’m off to Melbourne to for Christmas, to stay with my brother and his family, and it’s never fun, can usually rely on at least one round of intense frustration because of lack of common interest. In my case, my Geek Quotient is the problem – it’s officially off the scale. There are very few interests I have that don’t involve some form of Geekery. And my sister in law? Her geek quotient is so tiny it couldn’t be found with an electron microsope. I still watch cartoons – they are for children. Anime – that stuff is violent and disgusting. History – that’s boring. Re-enacting and cosplay – isn’t reality enough for me? Science fiction and fantasy – that’s just weird and stupid. My brother also thinks it’s funny to make jokes about that “boring stupid fantasy shit” that I read, even though I’ve told him I don’t think it’s funny (though in his case I have absolutely no problem sticking a metaphorical knife into him and twisting, because he’s sensitive about his weight). I can guarantee at some stage I’ll be told to shut up, no one wants to hear about that stuff, so we can get back to the Joys of talking about talent shows or Grey’s Anatomy. Oh, and I’m not allowed to play John Denver and the Muppets “A Christmas Together.” Muppets are for children, don’t you know.

    • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

      That really bothers me :\

      I saw Wreck-It Ralph in theatres twice over the last week (and I want to go again!) I play video games, I enjoy anime and cartoons, and I have fun with “childish” things because who the heck cares? There are things that are for adults only – yes that’s going to always remain true – but if you can’t enjoy things that are “for kids” then what’s the point of being an adult?

      Isn’t the joy of being an adult that no one can tell you what you can’t enjoy?

      • Christine

        I agree – more people should embrace their inner child! Though some of the comics I read are absolutely NOT for children. Ditto a lot of the animation. For family visits to Melbourne, my geekiness is Tolerated so long as I Keep My Mouth Shut and don’t Bore people with things they don’t want to hear about.

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        Yay to both!

        All my family and my boyfriend’s family think that manga and other stuff we like is for children and their comments are pretty depressing. My boyfriend’s parents think I’m infatilising (sp?) him T_T As if it was so wrong to embrace your inner child and as if most stuff we read wasn’t for at least teenagers or even R-rated stuff. It reminds me of some friends of my uncle who bought the Tomb f the Fireflies for their 5 years old, a film about WWII that is heavy as hell or the father who bought Mononoke Hime for her 3 years old girl and entered in the middle of the scene at the start with all the blood.