Showing posts with label family. Show all posts
Showing posts with label family. Show all posts

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Touching Home Base

Over ten years ago, during the most difficult part of my career as a parish pastor, I took a quick summer trip back East with my two young children to visit my family. We flew in, and my parents picked us up from the airport. Toward the end of that visit, I coerced my parents into taking the 100 mile trip from their home to the town of my childhood. Though we had talked about it weeks before on the telephone (and what seemed at the time, promises were made), it took several tries before I could get at least one of them to agree to go along.

I'd love to see Fairfield again, I said. I haven't been back since high school, over 30 years ago. As I talked, I could see from their faces that my desire struck them as odd. Though my grandparents on my mother's side had continued to live there long after we left, and lived in their home until their deaths many, many years later, the relatively close town of my childhood held little interest for my parents. I pushed. Finally we agree to go on the Friday before our departure home. No, don't take our car, my father decided; I'll drive us all.

In the flurry of that morning, I explained again to my children where we were going, and why. How I had spent the first 12 years or so of my life in a quiet town on the shore of Long Island Sound. That I remember long, humid days of summer spent on the beach. How I learned to swim in those salty waters, and how I watched the yearly fireworks in the growing dark, wrapped in a heavy sweatshirt with my feet in the still-warm sand. They weren't all that interested, of course.

How long will it take to get there? What are we going to do once we're there? How long do we have to stay? I knew the moment my father started the car that I was surrounded by obliging parents and resigned children. With my husband back in Minnesota, I was on this return journey more or less alone.

The miles clipped by with my lead-footed father at the wheel, dodging in and out of traffic as if he had a plane to catch. Time and again I closed my eyes in prayer as I saw how closely he cut some of his lane changes. I told him a couple of times that there was no rush; he snapped back that he was trying to get ahead of the traffic. My mother looked relaxed as she sat up front watching the miles go by. I smiled at my children, who were doing their very best just to fit into their mom's plan ; we looked out the back seat windows at the passing towns.

When we arrived in town, I did my level best to Pay Attention and Remember. We drove by the post office, the high school, the railroad underpass near downtown. We had lunch at our family's old favorite hot dog restaurant, still grilling dogs after 40 years. I shared greasy french fries with my children who hate relish, onion and mustard. We left there to find our old neighborhood. A place of sweeping mental vistas shrank down to a portion of town with tight, old roads and tiny Cape Cod houses. As we drove down a street, I was startled to realize my father, the man who was certain of everything, didn't remember our old address. I did. We slowed, and looked.

We got out and even found our former neighbor at home, home bound, in a wheelchair. When she saw me, she called me by my mother's name. I was amazed at her memory. We smiled together for a few minutes, marveling at the years that had passed.

Back into the car, the kids were asking me about the beach. The beach. We headed that way, passing by one of my elementary schools, and the site of the life-altering car accident my parents and their children survived. When we drove by it, I glanced at my parents whose jaws seem set against the memory. I took a deep breath. Here it was. And here I am again.

The beach road took us to a small, pot-holed blacktop parking lot in front of a old, but well-loved town beach house. The afternoon had heated up, and we climbed out of the car ready to just relax for a while. I had come prepared with my bathing suit under my clothes, and offered my children their suits. They declined. Suit yourself, I said with a smile. My mother, who had spent those countless days hauling her three children to and from this beach for years on summer breaks seemed unfazed. I was excited, and began to walk with our small group up the steps and through the sand-polished, gritty open deck to the stairs down to the beach.

Perhaps it was the trick of memory, or the natural erosion of water upon the land, but the beach was quite narrow, and comprised of more pebbles than sand.  We joined a dozen or so families of small children on the beach as I turned to look at the horizon, the view I had seen countless times before. A wide expanse of moving blue-gray water. Seagulls. A cargo ship. I walked down to the water's edge and stepped in; it was warm. I stood still, and thanked God for the moment: touching home base.



My father stayed on a bench by the beach house with my first-born who refused to come onto the sand. My daughter and mother walked the shoreline for awhile, picking up shells and talking together as they looked at me out of the corner of their eyes. I dropped my hand into the water, and licked my fingers, tasting the old, familiar salt of the Sound. The moment was passing. I looked for the blurry brown of horizon where five miles out was another beach front on Long Island, New York. I breathed the salty, warm air. I could feel my family waiting me out behind me. I turned to take in the Connecticut shoreline, the houses, piers, boats and bathers I could see. I walked slowly out of the water, and turned once more toward the Sound. I liked what I saw. And it was time to leave.

We shuttled back to the car, ready for a couple more hours of driving back to the other side of the state. We'd be home before dinner time. As the conversation in the car turned toward other things, and what we saw and would see as we drove, I thought about what it means to go home again, to return to a favorite place in early memory. It's not that you can't go home again, I think. You just have to want to go and be able to see your memories, and the present, as two separate visions of the very same thing.




Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How to Become a Good Stepparent

While most of us who marry intend it to be for a lifetime, about half of all first marriages in the United States end in divorce. Divorce ends not only a couple relationship based at least initially on attraction, trust and commitment; it marks the end of a dreamed future as a family. Despite the pain that most divorces bring, the desire to be happily married doesn’t seem to end, since most of those who divorce will eventually remarry.

Marrying at any age or stage of life is a challenge and a good deal of personal work and adjustment, but choosing to marry for the second (or more) time brings with it some additional complications. The most prominent complexity involves entering into an already existing family system as stepparent to the new spouse’s children.

As a therapist, I have noticed that a strategy for entering into relationship with the new spouses’ children seems to always take a back seat to the excitement, distractions and stresses of a new love, moving into a single household, and planning a wedding. Many adults who blend families believe, with good intention, that settling in as a new family will be easy as pie. After all, most of them already are parents, and have come this far as a new couple. How hard can it really be?

Well, it can be really, really hard.

I don’t believe one can be too deliberate or mindful when joining an already existing family, especially one that has been stressed by divorce or the death of a parent. In my practice, I frequently consult with adults who are planning to remarry, but whose children, especially teenagers, have grown increasingly angry, sad, disrespectful, demanding, or even hostile to their parent’s new partner the longer they are in the family circle. What was once a ride of excitement and anticipation erupts into bitter conflicts about moving homes, changing schools, losing friends, shifting visitation schedules, add step-siblings, and confusion over family roles and responsibilities. It can become so divisive couples may consider calling the whole thing off.

What’s an excited but hopeful new stepparent to do? I’d like to offer some basic strategies that can help your new family system adjust, adapt and thrive through the necessary shifts that come with merging family systems.
  1. Slow down! Perhaps the most important thing any new couple can do as it plans to blend families is to take it as slow as possible. Every family, no matter how fractured or stressed, holds loyalties and patterns of relating and functioning that need time to adapt to new people. I frequently tell my clients that though marriages may begin and end, families are forever. Don’t assume everyone will happily embrace your presence without some time to adjust.
  2. Take an outsider’s position. While all of us know what it’s like to be part of our own families of origin, and the family of choice we created as adults, you have never been part of a family exactly like your new partner’s. Be curious, respectful, and observant. Learn about how this family works. Become a student of the new family you want to join.
  3. Don’t try to become Mom or Dad to your partner’s children. Always remember and respect the role your new partner’s former spouse has with the children. It doesn’t matter whether they are awful parents, in prison, or deceased: children are loyal to their biological parents, and will fight you tooth and nail should you ever forget it. You may one day be called Mom or Dad, but don’t ever begin this way. Strive instead to be a positive, new adult friend in the children’s lives and a respectful, tactful partner in the eye’s of the children’s mom or dad.
  4. Allow the bio-parents to discipline the children. Family rules, expectations, negotiations and limits can create serious, lasting difficulties for children and their new stepparents. Don’t try to discipline the children alone. Allow their parents to enforce the family expectations. Dialogue about the children privately with your new spouse, and in matters of discipline, defer to your partner. If you keep your distance, eventually you’ll be able to set your own limits. Just not at first.
  5. Build relationships with the children one on one. Don’t assume that joining the family at Chucky Cheese every month is going to create a close bond with your new spouse’s five-year-old son, or that attending a few of your new 16 year old stepdaughter’s basketball games is going to make her think of you as a loyal fan. Taking the time to talk regularly with each child privately, reading to them, listening to their stories, going out somewhere easy and fun together is going to help bridge that long divide between stranger and stepparent. Take it easy, let them set the pace, and you will become a new friend instead of an unwelcome outsider.
While these ideas can go a long way in helping you make positive, lasting adjustments to a blended family, don’t suffer alone if things aren’t going well. Family therapists are mental health professionals who can help when family relationships get strained or problematic. Going to therapy as a couple or family regularly for a while can give you the skills and courage to recreate a happier family experience. After all, that’s what getting married and sharing our lives as families is all about.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Personality: Does Birth Order Matter?

     For generations, family members have noted the differences that naturally arise in children raised in the same family. How is it that John, the first born and only boy, seems to have such different personality characteristics than his younger brother, raised in the same house by the same parents just two years apart?  Good question!

     Theories of personality abound. You may be familiar with some of the more popular models, often used in work or educational settings. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), based on the four major personality styles described by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, is a favorite. The Enneagram, a model developed in religious communities and often used in spiritual direction, and other forms of personal discovery, is another.  These are models that seek to describe common types of personalities. Other models, such as the Big Five theory, attempt to describe personalities using the idea of common traits shared by human beings across the world, such as extraversion or neuroticism.
    
    Whichever way makes more sense to you to describe human beings, by types or common traits, we have a collective curiosity about how people become who they are, and how much we can or should adapt ourselves to others and our environment.

     How did I get to be the way I am? When my clients ask me this question, I answer this way:  our personality is constituted like a recipe, with three primary ingredients. The first main ingredient is our individual nature. We are born with a particular style of personality, inherited from our parents and our larger family system. It’s part of our genetic code, and forms the basis of who we become.  Our general sense of the world, our innate optimism or pessimism, our sense of humor; this basic personality is another thing we have inherited.

     The second main ingredient of our personality is formed by the way we are cared for by our parents; it’s the nurture part of the recipe. Was our mother well nourished, healthy, and ready to become pregnant? Were our parents free from addiction, major illness or injury? Was our birth relatively normal? Were we welcomed into the world with joy and cared for with love? The way our parents meet our vulnerability, suffering and growing sense of self makes up the great majority of our personality relationship style.

     If our parents or primary caregivers have enough sense of self that they can sacrifice and respond to our needs consistently, we learn to trust that others will meet our needs, and that others are trustworthy. We offer ourselves to them, and get care and love in return. In the research done on this concept of emotional attachment, about half of us get just what we need to feel secure. The rest of us learn some combination of security, anxiety and withdrawal to cope with inconsistent parenting.

     The third part of our personality is made up of all the unique, individual experience we have in life and what we do with it. It’s the fall you took in second grade from school jungle gym, the trip to the hospital, and the cast that you had to wear through the summer. How did that fall affect you? How did it shape the way you think, feel and respond to the world? What happens, and how you chose to respond, makes up a large part of your personality.

     What about birth order? I think it fits in this third “what happens to us” category of personality development. While research is still battling it out whether first born children actually are more independent than their second born siblings, therapists and other social scientists have found a common pattern in family position that seems to fit many families, at least in Western cultures. In general, first born and only children are commonly more self determined and disciplined, having been born into an adult system and most closely associated to adults, even as infants. The second born child is less connected to the adults in the family, and if followed by a third child, may feel a bit lost in their parents’ strong relationship to the first born and emotional focus on the baby of the family. The farther away from the parent system, the more independent and even rebellious that child may become (Sulloway, 1997). Additionally, the more older siblings a child has, the more accustomed they often become to letting other people lead, and can more easily go “with the flow” than those born first.

     Family therapists differ in the amount of importance they place in this theory of birth order, but most will inquire about how a client’s family is constituted, and where in the family their client “fits.” Why it matters at all is that it may help people better understand some of their unconscious preferences for friendships, marriage partners, relationship styles, and even how they may connect to or discipline their own children. It’s all just part of our individual personality recipes.


Sulloway, F. J. (1997) Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives. New York:
     Vintage.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Adolescent Effect : Part 1

As our children are neck-deep into adolescence, I'm trying to pay attention to what this developmental transition does to our family relationships.

We are pretty early in the game. Son is 16, daughter is 13. We have gotten here relatively unscathed, moving through most of middle school with solid parent/child connections, positive opinions of one another and every body part accounted for (not counting wisdom teeth, sports injuries or general repairs). But lots has changed, and what has changed is worth noting.

1.  We know less and less about our children's lives at school. Moving from a single class room in elementary school into the maze of middle and high school meant an immediate and dramatic change: I don't know my children's teachers. I have gone to what passes for parent-teacher conferences in our district only to spend about 10 minutes per subject talking to each teacher about my child in their class. A few of the teachers stand out in their effort to talk to me about my children, and that has made a difference in how I talk about them at home, and how at ease I am in communicating with them. Some really do a great job keeping in touch with emails, but most have as much substance in my consciousness as ghosts. I wouldn't know them to stumble upon them. I am no longer the advocate I used to be for my kid's educations. I have little to no real information on these teachers, and they me. That seems a huge loss for my family. I don't think of the teachers in my children's lives as people I share my children's education with. They have it during the school day, and I have given that influence up.

2.  We know even less about our children's friends and their parents. One of the more interesting things for me to observe in our family life is how friendships evolve. When the children were small, and we drove them everywhere, dropping them off for play time or events, we would spend time in the front halls of these homes talking with other parents and getting to know them personally. None of us would think of simply letting our 7 or 9 or 11 year old stay overnight with a family we hadn't at least met face to face. And that circle of friendships was relatively small and interconnected. But as our children have grown older, and their friendship circle wider, we have loosened our expectations about knowing the parents, and focused a bit more on trying to know the friends. We've learned that the apples don't fall too far from the trees, so if the child is solid and steady, we tend to believe the family is that way, too. This isn't always the case, of course. I know this well, both in theory and in fact, some children are more steady than their parents. And this has occasionally caused some real drama. But in general, we have shifted from a parent-centered to a peer-centered assessment of where our children spend their time.


3.  Our children still need us to be their fierce advocates, but in more subtle ways. Just when I think that our children no longer need me to do for them as much, to speak for them, to argue, plan or problem solve for them, I'm proven wrong. There is an adult they need to speak to, and they want me to do it. There's a plan they need to make, and it didn't get made, would I make it? There's an appointment, a game, a tryout, a field trip form, a PSAT, youth group, lunch money, library book, driver's ed class, special purchase, problem, or phone call that needs my help, my advice, my money, and my signature. Usually at the last minute, and often at my least flexible moments. But I have to hop to it, because in some ways, I am now the cleanup team. They have outgrown their childhoods, but haven't quite grown into their adult selves. And it's now my job, our job, to bend and flex in our parenting as they are in their development. We still defend and protect, just not so often and not so obviously.