As I write this column, it is mid-morning on the Fourth of July and I am waiting my turn for the shower. The family has gathered to celebrate the Fourth and my father’s 85th birthday, two days hence, and there are 15 of us, including six 20-somethings and three teenage boys — so the morning competition for the shower is fierce.
Several years ago in this column, I expressed the opinion that “family time” ought never to be confused with vacation. Although one is not doing the work for which one is compensated, family time — especially with extended family — is usually still work in a sense.
Not only must meals be prepared and cleaned up, schedules must be coordinated, various things (shoes, dishes, games, etc.) must be picked up and the occasional conflicts must be refereed. Gathering with extended family also brings different family dynamics, different eating styles and schedules and different political and religious perspectives (if you dare to go there). In essence, family time can require a great deal of emotional and psychological work. It is work, however, that can be worth it, especially if you can let go of the expectations and simply enjoy the reality.
The first expectation I had to let go of, for example, was the one that everyone would be in attendance. As important as my father’s 85th birthday is, the likelihood that all 19 of us would be able to gather for it was unrealistic at best. Serious illness, deployment and the unforgiving work schedules of those early in their careers are the realities of our lives and those of our adult children. So we do the best we can, use Skype when possible and know that those who aren’t here are sending their love.
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The second expectation to go is always the picture of the ideal family I carry in my head. You know the one I mean, the one where everyone is always thoughtful and kind, offers to help, never argues and never gets on each other’s nerves. Real families, even healthy ones, just aren’t like that. We bring to our time together all the leftover jealousies and frustrations of knowing each other too well and growing up in the same family.
The goal, I’ve discovered, is to acknowledge and move on, to let the past be the past, and try to get to know the people your siblings and other family members have become. I haven’t stayed the same over the years, so why would I expect that of my siblings and their children?
The final expendable expectation is that things will stay the same. They don’t, they won’t and they shouldn’t. But the new reality can be really enjoyable. Listening to adult children share their new experiences, meeting and getting to know the new partners and spouses they bring into the mix, reflecting and finding joy in shared memories but being open to new creating new ones is a hallmark of healthy, always growing families. When one can let go of the expectation of the “perfect” family gathering and experience the fullness of the reality — messy, loud, occasionally challenging, but full of love and laughter — then it doesn’t really seem like work at all. And now it is finally my turn for the shower!
Anne K. Ard is the executive director of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, 140 W. Nittany Ave., State College. Contact her at 238-7066 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.