Families are messy!

I’ll bet you had the most idyllic Christmas yesterday!  I saw it on Facebook!  The joys, the babies, the family pajama photos.

My Christmas Eve was spent with my husband, my three children, their spouses and eight grandchildren as well as my ex-husband, his fiancé and my daughter-in-law’s parents.  Whew!  Talk about the modern family!

The photos you saw on Facebook were the joy we felt being together as we continue to share this wonderful tradition of The Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Now, raise your hand if you had a perfect Christmas holiday, no drama, everyone got along and no tears. Congratulations!

I’ve been watching the Christmas shows on Hallmark and Lifetime, sickeningly sweet with predictable, if unrealistic outcomes. My favorite Christmas shows were on Netflix, which were much more realistic.  Several of them were about the messiness of families when they get together once a year for Christmas. They almost always had a happy ending, but the friction is real. In one show, as the families come together from out of town, everyone is on their best behavior for the first day or so, smiling and hugging. Then the walls come crumbling down. We cannot keep up the facade any longer. Reality creeps in and sibling rivalry, old jealousies, hurts from the past crash in on us.

We can only put on a good face for so long if there are unresolved issues lurking below. Sometimes we outgrow the family roles we’ve played over and over again. Other times it doesn’t take much to ignite the burning flame of jealousy or unfairness. The more emotionally healthy we are, the better we handle our place in the family.

I grew up in an Italian family. Each Christmas Eve we started with dinner at Aunt Helen’s house followed by gifts, and then we drove to Aunt Lucy’s house for more food and gifts. There were no arguments that I recall, no one stomping out. If there were tears, it was because a baby was crying. It really was idyllic, at least in my memory.

As an adult, I realize that all families have their dramas. Most of the time we don’t air them in public, but I have been privy to the inside of several family dynamics – siblings that make decisions without including one member of the family, families split down the middle over an argument or misunderstanding. Over and over again, I am reminded that families aren’t perfect, even if they look like that on the outside. In fact, perfection may simply be the love we feel for each other in spite of the quirks we all have.

I know families with siblings who always seem to be so happy to be together!  And they are!  But they are not perfect. They get on each other’s nerves, they judge each other. It’s natural.

I see it with my own children, the well-worn ruts in the family dynamic. If we are not careful, the ruts could become large sinkholes. Relationships take work. I remind my children that the most important thing is the family, loving each other, being together. The other stuff is debris that we must navigate, but you can’t go wrong if you put family first.

As a child, I recall that one of my dad’s brothers was banned from our house – for ten years! The same brother and his younger sister didn’t speak to each other for many years. Later in life, as my dad and his siblings aged and their children grew up, tensions relaxed and the family came together for birthdays and Christmas eves once again. I don’t know that the issues were resolved as much as time softened the arguments. As we get older, we realize so much more how delicate life is. How short, how fragile. Do we want to spend it angry with each other?

Family dynamics change as each new person enters the family. When we get married, our relationship with our nuclear family changes and shifts. It has to if we are to accommodate our spouse and our new in-laws. This can be so challenging! My relationship with my brothers changed when we all got married. I don’t hold the same place in my children’s lives as I did before they were married. Their allegiance must be to their spouse, but that knowledge doesn’t help my emotions. Nor does it help when the grandchildren come along we watch the difference between us and the other grandparents. I was venting to my daughter once and said, “I just want the same rights and privileges the other grandparents have!” Human. Natural. Messy.

Christmas is not the time to resolve issues. Families hurt each other. It’s real. We are most vulnerable with the people we love the most. I can be and have been cut to the quick by some family members. I’ve left family weddings and gatherings bleeding from the emotional pain. I cannot stand to be separated from my brothers or my children. The pain is too great to bear.

Families are made up of people who are human, each with different personalities, each with a different set of standards. We may have all come from the same family but that doesn’t mean we all had the same experience.

If I am honest, family dynamics can bring out my most insecure self. What I am learning is that everyone has some mess in their family, even if it is not yet acknowledged. We never really know what goes on behind closed doors in a marriage. We have no control over our grown kids, their spouses, their choices.

So I turn constantly to prayer. God, please take away these feelings of jealousy, of insecurity. Please mend any fractures in my family. Please send us grace to forgive each other, to be kinder, easier with each other. If love really does conquer all, it still requires our participation. It requires a choice that we make over and over again to forgive those who have hurt us, to stand up for each other. Because in the end, none of it really matters but the love.

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