Monday, January 9, 2012

The Norman Rockwell Family


Everyone's seen it. Everyone imagines it. Everyone wants it.

Parents and children and uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters and cousins, all gathered around the big table while Grandma and Grandpa serve a beautiful, crisp, juicy turkey surrounded by all the trimmings. The perfect family.

Everyone is smiling, some are even laughing. No one seems at all tired from cooking all day, or irritated because little brother put tacks on sister's chair, or puffing up to hand down the paternal edict that everyone will BEHAVE. It's not necessary, because this is the perfect family.

All clothes are clean and all faces are fresh. There are no elbows on the table, and all children are waiting respectfully until the adults have finished speaking before adding their two cents to the conversation. And of course all this congeniality is absolutely genuine, no one is pretending to be nice because it's Thanksgiving and we only see these people once or twice a year, no. Everyone really is that into each other, because this is the perfect family.

There's only one problem.  This family doesn't exist.

Oh, a good number of families, I would even venture to say "most", get along as a general rule. But nobody gets along all the time. Nobody's family is this perfect, and if they look this perfect to an outside observer... well, just wrinkle a few doilies or let the cat get into the dining room and shed all over the place settings, and watch how fast somebody loses their sh... ahem... composure.  And the addition of extended family members, whether for holidays or just Sunday Dinner at Grandma's, tends to be a breeding ground for monkey wrenches, leading to further losing of the calm and collected exterior. Sister makes a comment intended to be funny, but it flops, and brother takes exception. Brother kicks sister under the table, so she yelps, upsets her glass, and starts to cry because she's spilt her first grown-up glass of wine all over her pretty new dress. It's not a disaster, though. Someone takes sister to calm down and find something equally pretty to wear (discussing the sassy comment that got her kicked in the first place at the same time), while brother is quietly taken to task for kicking his sister.  Everyone pitches in to quickly and laughingly reset the table and clear away the mess, and momentarily both siblings rejoin the table and life goes on.

In my family, the above scenario would rapidly spiral completely out of control.  More under-the-breath commentary, by the elders this time, would include intimations that the children probably staged that little scene on purpose to disrupt all the grown-ups' hard work. And by the way the children's posture is terrible and the wine wouldn't have been spilled if sister hadn't been propping her elbows on the table. Mother at this point is humiliated because her children are behaving like hellspawn and Father has joined in the disapproving looks and judging words, and of course sister is furious because her dress is ruined and everyone seems to think she did it on purpose, when she was just making a joke. Brother is equally mad, because after all he didn't mean for sister to spill her stupid sour grape juice all over her stupid dress, and he didn't kick her that hard anyway, she's just being a drama queen. Grandmother has already managed to whip the stained cloth off the table, mop up the mess, and reset all the plates without any help from anyone, all the while muttering about how lucky it is that nothing had yet been served. Grandfather is trying to quietly remind everyone that this is a day of thanksgiving and we should at least try to get along, but pretty much nobody hears him over the glaring and blaming and muttering going on.

In short, there's a lot of embarrassment and bad feelings all around, with nobody considering anybody else's position. By the time everyone settles back down to eat again, nobody's looking at anybody, at least two sets of elbows (and occasionally Grandpa's as well) are defiantly planted on the table, and conversation has been reduced to "Please pass the cranberry sauce" and "Would you like white meat or dark?" All crisply enunciated and ever so polite.

There's a reason I pretty much dreaded holidays with family, infinitely preferring those years when no one could afford to travel, so we got together with friends and spent the days of gratitude and celebration with people we actually got along with anyway. It always seemed to me that as a whole, our family took things far too personally, seeking any opportunity to take offense over the most insignificant infractions.  Misunderstandings were denounced as lies, mistakes as deliberate misbehavior, and legitimate upset was generally dismissed as "being dramatic". The hierarchy was very clear in that house... and your feelings mattered in direct proportion to how close you were to the top. Holidays were, unfortunately, the year in microcosm. Phone calls to extended family were exercises in giving up as little information as possible, so that it couldn't come back in mutated form and bite us from another source six months down the road. Thank you cards were conveniently forgotten, because really... what were we thanking people for? Gifts that felt more like bribes or judgments, and always came with strings attached, was what. Every visit was surrounded by tension and stress for weeks before hand, and the final trip to the airport greeted with unseemly enthusiasm. After my parents divorced, at least the insanity was largely reduced to holidays, but it never settled into anything I would consider a healthy family scenario. By that point we were all a little too messed up.

Fast forward to now.

That picture was taken 10 days before JJ was born. I remember, because I was forty weeks on the dot that day and grumpy about it.  I was pretty tired of being pregnant, stressed out, and generally wanted to just be done with it and holding my baby boy. It was, as you can see, gorgeous outside. 70 degrees, not a cloud in the sky, and feeling more like June than mid-November. John had decided to rake the yard, since most of the leaves were down, and I had taken it upon myself to document the occasion while making a mess of his leaf pile.

What? That's what leaf piles are for, sweetheart! Jumping in!!  

I enjoyed myself thoroughly, and it quite took my mind off the "WHEN is this kid going to come out already?" stress for the afternoon. My mother in law took most of the pictures for us, and in the end, the yard got clean.

Ten days later... baby boy arrived.   And there was much rejoicing.

*cue Monty Python villagers*  "Yay."

Seriously though, it was awesome.

Now, I had some lingering fantasy that a new baby would somehow wave a magic wand over my frilled-up family (points if you can name the show that kid-friendly not-a-swear-word is from) and convince them all to forgive me for not fitting into their wax-work museum mold of the iconic Norman Rockwell Turkey Day. Shockingly, I actually got to hold onto that pipe-dream for a whole month and some change. Everyone was being welcoming and polite, even nice.  

A recent email interaction shocked me back to reality. My family is still the family they were when I was fifteen and too smart for my own survival interest. People still take small things personally, I still apparently go out of my way to hurt and shame folks with my emotionalism, and my feelings are invalid when measured against everyone else's concerns. I am, all told, quite the selfish little minx.

The most disgusting part is that it almost worked.  I almost slipped back into believing that I don't have a right to be spoken to as if I possess intelligence, as if my feelings matter, and I'm probably going to Hell for daring every now and then to take care of my own needs first. Expecting that others abide by the rules they set for me?? Shameful.

Enter my amazing husband, who tolerates teh crazeh because he loves me, God knows why.

And there's the little squish!  3 days old and still scrunched up.

John reminded me that he's been around for going on eight years (holy freaking cow, has it really been that long???), and not only has he heard about my father and extended family from people he generally considers to be sane and well rounded, but he's met Bill and some of the extended relatives, enough to judge their behavior for himself.

He told me I'm a great mom, even when the baby won't stop crying, and that a little selfishness is healthy, helps keep a person sane. He reminds me that the people who want me to believe that I'm being childish and mean are the same people who called me a thief when I got a bagel from the kitchen without asking, who visited with the expectation that our family would adhere to their rules at all times, and generally behaved as if they were rulers of creation... or at least their little corner thereof. He made me remember that "being selfish" isn't the same thing as "taking care of yourself", because if you don't take care of yourself, you won't have the energy to take care of others.

*sigh*  You're right, dear.  Wait... who said that???

I still have a deeply ingrained habit of assuming I did something wrong. It sucks, because I'm more than willing to accept the blame when things go pear-shaped, even if (maybe especially when) there was nothing I could have done to prevent it.   

I have this amazing other person to take care of now.

So I have to take care of myself, because this little dude needs his Mommy to be at the top of her game. 

I figure that means occasionally I need to call people on their bovine excrement, stand up for myself, maybe even open up the can of worms that is the past and say "No, sorry, that's not how it happened."  

It also means that I get to hand the baby to somebody else now and then and sneak off for a long hot bath with a book and some chocolate.

I get to ask for help, and have a reasonable expectation that said help be forthcoming.

I don't have to do it all by myself, I don't have to get it right every time, and most of all, as a parent, I now get to be the person who decides what is good enough.

If that makes me selfish, then so be it.

I will not barter my son as currency to buy myself a Norman Rockwell family.  

There ain't no such animal.

And "perfect"... well, perfect is what John and I say it is, for us.

And this is perfect.


  1. Yeah Yeah honey and I've known you for over 2 Years going on 3 now (yup it's been that long) and I still love you too. So guess what, those who can't deal with your emotional outbursts from time to time can go fly a kite.

    By the way cute pics!