Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Which Family Is Mine? (Babble)

Or more correctly, which family do I belong to?  This was the question I pondered on my long drive home alone.  Let me see if can explain it to you and if it makes any sense I would love some feedback.  I don’t know if this is a question other people ask themselves or not, or if too much time alone in the car warped my brain.

When I got back from my week long trip to Alaska with my friend, she got to go straight back into her life with her children, and I got to go back to my childhood home.  My own husband and children were waiting for me back in Milwaukee, but we’d planned for me to have a few days with my mom and dad before I made the drive to Wisconsin by myself.  I could have nearly a week if I wanted, seeing friends and family in Detroit before I would have to go back to work and my normal routine.

During other periods of my life such an opportunity would have seemed like a godsend, but after a week away from my kids it just left me unsettled.  I stayed about two days and had a very nice time.  I had a fabulous girls’ night out with some of my oldest friends and we laughed ourselves silly and caught up on important information about each other’s lives.  I also had some wonderful walks with my mom and a quiet afternoon with my dad playing Scrabble and talking.  I love being back home, but I’d never been away from my children so long and I needed them.  I realized as much as my son can make me nuts with the way he’s always leaning on me, I deeply missed the feel of his little hand in mine on our evening walks around the block and I longed to have someone to scoop up in my arms and nuzzle.  I also have just a few more weeks with my husband before he leaves for Iraq, and I needed to get back to him.  My mom was sad I couldn’t stay a few more days, but she understood and in the truest form of a good mother she let me go.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt more torn about leaving Detroit, though.  I had a physical pang about it as I got into my car.  My father was only recently out of the hospital after major surgery, and he was doing remarkably well, but he still needed help.  My mom is the strongest person I know, and somehow she can handle taking care of everything at home and at their business and also manage to find time to devote to her artwork, but I could see she was stretched thin.  I told her if she needed me I would stay.  If it meant keeping my store closed an extra week or more I could do that, because my dad’s health and my mom’s sanity were more important.  My kids missed me, but they were with their dad, so it was doable.  My mom thought about it briefly, and then admitted she wanted me to stay, but she didn’t need me to stay.  She thought I needed to go home to my own family.

So which family is mine?  I have created a life with the man I love, and we have three children, and together obviously we are a little family.  My family.  But I grew up as one of three children in a family my parents created together, and when my mom talks about her little family, I am a member of that family.  My old family.  But that’s still my mom’s current family.  I feel like I exist in a family overlap–a Venn diagram of relationships and sometimes I don’t know where my priorities should lie.  Of course I know that it’s all one giant family, but in reality we function on smaller levels, and I experience confusion on occasion by what I mean by ‘home.’  Where I grew up is still home, but where I live now is certainly home, too.

It felt wrong to leave my parents when they could use my help, but it felt equally wrong to be away from my husband and children.  In an ideal world we would live down the street from my parents and I could do both things, but my world is not ideal.  One of the great gifts of having children is gaining a more profound understanding of your own parents, realizing what kinds of sacrifices were involved in your own upbringing that you couldn’t comprehend until you had to step into the role of parent yourself.  I am forever indebted to my parents.  I love them and I want to give back.  But when resources and time are limited, how much do I dedicate to them before it impacts the new family I’ve created?  My parents would never want me to feel obligated to sacrifice for them, but that’s what love comes down to.  Of course I will find a way to support and help my parents when they need me, but I can’t help but think ahead about what I should do down the road when they may need me more and more.

The point has been particularly driven home to me while watching my grandma’s situation.  The year before it became clear she needed to be moved to a nursing home was incredibly hard on everyone involved.  Grandma dug in her heels and didn’t want to leave her house even though she was not capable of living there safely anymore.  It was painful to see her trying to discuss it with her children–her own little family–when her memory was so bad she didn’t remember starting a kitchen fire or passing out on more than one occasion.  Before she went into the home I worried every night that she might be lying hurt at the bottom of the basement stairs in Ohio because she insisted she could still do laundry.  The stress was worse on my mother, who still drives all the way down to Columbus to visit as often as she can even though her efforts are almost instantly forgotten once she leaves my grandmother’s line of sight.  But that’s one of the things love obligates you to do.  You do what is right for the people you love because it is right.  You do it even though you would never ask it of that person in return.  I’ve watched how hard it is for my mom to care for her mother from out of state.  I’m wondering what kind of long drives from Wisconsin to Michigan are in my future.

These were the thoughts that darted around my mind during the very boring stretches of freeway on the westen side of Michigan, the traffic jams in Indiana, and the confusing route my GPS sent me on in Illinois and Wisconsin.  I can’t remember such a long span of time without distraction in ages.  The radio was stolen out of our car earlier this year, and the one we replaced it with is awful.  Ian and I just assumed that all radios came with preset buttons and channel-seek funcions anymore, but we were wrong.  We have a radio with a strange knob and we can’t find anything.  I made desperate stabs at tuning in interesting music or news with no success and ended up back in my own thoughts about family and what it means.

Finally when I was just sitting on the freeway (few things are as aggravating as being parked on a freeway) I realized I was incredibly homesick and needed to talk to someone.  I called home (the one in Milwaukee) and got Aden.  I love her.  She was excited to hear my voice and gave me the rundown of what everyone was up to, from Mona playing Webkinz on the computer to Quinn sorting checkers, and after a few minutes I decided I should probably let her go.  “No, mama!  Don’t hang up!”  I asked if she was sure she didn’t want to go back to playing.  “No!  I want to talk to you!”  So I told her about all the different animals I saw in Alaska.  After each one I named she’d say “Really!?!?”  When I told her I saw a glacier up close she said, “Really!?!?” and when I asked her if she knew what a glacier even was she said, “No.”  So I told her all about it.  I told her I had a present for her, but wouldn’t tell her what it was no matter how much she begged.  I loved having her sweet voice with me in the car for a few minutes.  It was the highlight of the seven hour drive, but I eventually convinced her it was time to let me go because I expected the traffic to start moving again soon.  She said, “Okay.  Bye mama.”  And I was alone again in my car.

It’s amazing how much of life is just about going through cycles and getting to repeat things from different perspectives.  I remember being the little girl on the phone and talking to my mom.  Now I get to be the mom.  I hope one day, if it’s what Aden wants, she will make her own little family.  I’d like to think by the time I’m old and Aden’s worrying about me maybe one of us will have figured out a way to make some of this easier.  And maybe the construction in Indiana will finally be finished.


  1. So I really appreciate you moving all your old posts over here because I need stuff to read to keep me awake while feeding in the middle of the night! So... Thanks!!!

    Anyway, what I wanted to say is that I have been pondering this same concept of family lately as I tried (and failed) to explain the concept of "immediate family" to Toby (almost six and very literal). At one point we went with "the people who live in our house" but when we stayed with his cousins after the windstorm he thought that meant they were "immediate family" too. Then I really got stuck trying to explain how mommy and daddy had a different set of family, that we had grown up in, and they were "immediate family" too. I'm sure actually the term immediate family could have different definitions for different people... I've always used it to mean either my parents and brothers OR my husband and kids. anyway, I don't think I ever made it clear for him, probably because it's a complicated concept, as you've so eloquently described here.

    Although, we were supposed to be spending Christmas with my first, growing-up "immediate family" on the other side of the state, but a snowstorm in the mountains prevented that (Eastern WA weather has been abnormally dramatic this year!) so instead it will be a quiet little Christmas with my new "immediate family". My disappointment that our plans changed is primarily for my parents whom I know want to see us and share this with us. For me, I can't help but acknowledge that this quiet little time with my "new" immediate family might be what I really prefer most of all!

    All that to say, I understand why you wanted to get back to your kids.

    Thanks again for the post!

    1. It is an interesting concept, isn't it? And one I don't ever hear people talk about particularly. I think of my kids as mine in a way that I don't think of myself belonging to my mom, which is odd.

      Anyway, thanks for reading the old posts! I did some good writing back at Babble and am glad I pulled it out of the abyss.