I grew up as a daughter, sister, cousin, niece, granddaughter and grand niece. I know what it is like to be part of a family. Family is not smooth sailing, however the rewards were real. In fact, family life emulates Christian living in many ways. At the heart is a commonality, whether it be by blood, or by faith, that brings us all together, weaknesses and all. Managing different personalities, attitudes to life, perspectives and interests help us to grow as people, so long as we don’t give up on each other along the way. My family of origin never gave up on me, and perhaps this is why I was so committed to family life. I was not prepared, however, for the difficulties faced when “outsiders” became a part of my life. This not only included my partner’s family, but also my brother’s partners.
I’m sure it is a common experience. We grow up in one type of family, with all its rules, both spoken and unspoken, only to be confronted by a different way of being family with all their rules, spoken and unspoken. In my childhood, I naively believed that most families were much the same as mine, just with different characters. This all came crashing down in my young adulthood.
The whole process of adapting to another person, their family and way of going about the world is a very challenging one. This relates to both a partner’s family, but also the partners of siblings. I have challenges in both these areas. For the most part, they are not big challenges. I have never been physically abused, and have never been denied access to any of my family members. Most family gatherings are mostly polite and conflict free. Even if conflict did arise, it would quickly diffuse.
When life with my partner began, the differences in our family experiences was just starting to show itself. My family is much more formal, whereas his is more casual. My family had strong convictions about social issues, whereas his has a much more “think what you like so long as it makes you happy” sort of feel to it. My parents had high expectations of us, and we mostly lived up to it, whereas his family felt that each child could choose their own path and be supported by the parent in their endeavours. I’m not saying one was better than the other, just different. Understandably, the different family attitudes have had to be analysed by us as a couple, with decisions needing to be made about which part of our families we wanted to bring to our own as husband and wife, mother and father, and which we wanted to leave behind.
When it came to my brother’s (I have 3) partners, it all seemed to be smooth sailing. I got along well with most of their girlfriends and hoped to find in their future spouses some of the sisterly connection I so longed for as a child. Perhaps my expectations of staying up late chatting, sharing clothing, and endless play dates with our children was too much to expect. Although I have good relationships with two of my brother’s partners, one brother’s partner has been particularly challenging. This has resulted in sleepless nights, anxiety about how to behave around the partner, and frustration at having my attempts to connect with her being shrugged off. As far as we can all tell, it just seems she simply does not like us. And while I believe that we have done things that have been offensive to her sensibilities (possibly due to her own family experience), I cannot believe we have done anything unforgivable, or anything that justifies being practically cut off emotionally and physically from our family member’s life ie. my brother.
The difficulties faced by having my brother’s partner in my life, has made me consider strongly how I treat my own family-in-law. I don’t believe, again, that there is much difficulty between us, but I can see how the potential was there if I was not utterly committed to being connected to my husband’s family. In fact, despite our family’s differences, in the beginning of our relationship, I always encouraged my husband to call and visit his family. It is just the way family relationships should be.
When children came on the scene, I could see that there was another potential for my husband’s family to feel disconnected and cut off from us. At that point, I encouraged my mother-in-law to make weekly visits to spend time with the new baby, and subsequently, she has been visiting almost weekly for nearly 5 years. Some weeks, she sees my kids more than my own mother does.
As you can imagine, there are challenges with having an in-law visit every week. We are very different people in many ways. However I cannot justify the alternative, which is that my children have little to no contact with their paternal grandparents. As it turns out, having my MIL over every week has been the catalyst for a better relationship between our families than if I had allowed the malaise to fester to the point of complete disconnection.
I’m not suggesting that this is the solution for all in-law relationships. There is a lot here I am not going to write down in a blog for privacy and dignity’s sake. However I am sharing this to illustrate a point. Family is important. Not just your own family of origin, and not just the new family you create with your partner, but also your partner’s family too. Causing rifts, taking offense when none was intended, holding grudges and denying access to any family member is simply unacceptable behaviour. There may be instances when having a family member in your life is harmful to you or your children, in which case boundaries must be established to ensure harm is minimised. However for your run-of-the-mill “I simply don’t like them” family members, this behaviour is damaging and unfair. I imagine many people have grown old allowing relationships to drift apart only to feel regret at allowing it to happen for such flimsy reasons.
God calls us to live in harmony with each other, and not only that, God calls us to live in community, at the heart of which is family. Family is not only an essential part of life, but it is the way in which we begin to understand the love and grace that God gives us everyday. For the most part, I could believe that God is none too pleased with the way we conduct ourselves. We make mistakes and turn our backs on God. We believe we can live our life without God. We turn to God only in our time of need, and hardly ever spend time with God when things are going well. We think of God only at Christmas and Easter. Replace “God” with “our family” and we can get a glimpse of the hurt and abandonment a family feels when a member decides they no longer want to participate in family life the same way. The parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates this theme perfectly.
The above image sat on the wall of my childhood’s Parish Hall and is very familiar to me. I never knew that I would be drawing strength from this parable in my later years. The father, hurt by his son’s abandonment, reluctantly passes over his inheritance – as though he is not dead to his own son. The grief this father felt is only truly revealed upon the son’s return. He was so overjoyed that his son had come back to him that he threw the biggest party he ever had, killing even the fattened calf. How wonderful for that father, to know that his son had returned to embrace family living once more.
Although the father felt grief at his son’s abandonment, he also allowed it to happen. He did not refuse the sons inheritance. He did not have his servant stop his son from leaving. I can imagine there was some pleading taking place, but ultimately, he allowed his son to treat him as dead to him. God puts up with our sh*t all the time, just in the same way. Despite popular images of God smiting the unfaithful, God is actually quite good at allowing us to make our choices – after all, we have to live with the consequences. Similarly, I believe, we can only treat our wayward family members in this manner. If they choose to have less contact for whatever reason, we can only be obliged to allow it to be that way. If they decide to bring their stern looks, cold shoulders and snarky remarks, we can only smile and brush it off. It can feel like living a fake life when we greet such partners or in laws with a smile when we would rather they didn’t come inside our house at all. However, I feel that ultimately, showing these family members that you are willing to continue to uphold your commitment to peace and harmony despite what offenses occur, is being as “Christ-like” as you can be.
My ultimate goal is to show my brother’s partner that she is welcomed, that she will be treated with dignity, that she is a part of the family. Her response to this is up to her. If she would like to continue to treat us as she has, then I have no control over that. If at some point she stops seeing us as a threat and sees us as an ally, then I will be here waiting. God does this for us everyday – patiently waiting for us to turn to him. How can I be Christ to someone in my life if I cut them off simply because they don’t like me? I like myself well enough, and so her opinion of me counts for nothing. Similarly, my disappointment at my brother’s lack of empathy towards us should not overshadow the love I have for him as my brother.
Its challenging. Its gut wrenching. Its depressing. Its hard work. Perhaps that’s why we shouldn’t shy away from it. If I want to be as Christ like as possible in all my life, then I must be Christ like in this instance too.