Untangling

How do you keep the problems in one relationship from affecting relationships with other people? It’s hard. It’s really hard. Many of us end up paying a therapist to work on this issue/question. Relationships with our parents and siblings affect how we relate to significant others and our own children. A child who is sexually abused finds it difficult to trust other adults. A battered spouse finds herself in yet another relationship laced with violence…

But, today, I am thinking specifically about my relationships with each of my children, and how one relationship bleeds onto another. For example, if one of my kids needs a lot of structure to complete daily responsibilities, it’s hard not to assume that a similar amount of structure is required for the next child – even if she is her own harshest critic. Repeating instructions is necessary for one child, but the next child feels battered by the repetition. One child consistently avoids doing homework or mishandles money or has a hard time planning ahead, but the next child is hurt by your distrust of his abilities. You can know – as I do – to treat differences differently, but it is hard to put into practice. No one wants to be burned twice.

Because John and the two older kids are working now and hours vary, it’s difficult to have a family dinner where everybody attends. Still, John and I believe it is important to have some time when we are all gathered together to discuss the things that concern us all. We have settled on a weekly family meeting on Sunday nights. This has worked pretty well for the past few months. We talk about the week ahead, discover conflicts in our schedules, assign chores, encourage support for whomever has a concert or sporting event, and arrange transportation where it is needed. Recently, however, Emily has been spending more and more time with her boyfriend in Kennesaw on the weekends.

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I want to share my text exchange with Emily from this past Sunday:

5:37 p.m.

Rebecca: “I want to do a family meeting. When will you be home?”

Emily: “Blake and I are grilling hamburgers. After we eat I was planning on coming home.”

6:15 p.m.

Emily: “If you guys were planning on having the meeting sooner, couldn’t you just fill me in on what I need to do this week? I know that dad will be gone all week.”

Time passes. Dinner is eaten. Bedtime approaches. John has called Emily and she is still with Blake. We hold our family meeting around 9:30 p.m.

10:16 p.m.

Rebecca: “I’m not sure what your problem is. I asked you to be home for a meeting and you said you would be, but you didn’t come. We aren’t just a hotel where you can come and go without any responsibilities, but that’s the way you are acting right now. If you had been home, we could have discussed how you and K.J. are going to handle taking care of Becton this weekend while I’m gone. Now you will have to figure it out with K.J. on your own.”

10:34 p.m.

Emily: “I know mom and I’m sorry for that. It’s just that you guys keep treating me like I’m back in high school. I know that I still live at home because I have nowhere else to go. I will talk to K.J. about the weekend that you’re gone. I’m on the road home so I will see you in the morning before I go to work.”

10:45 p.m.

Rebecca: “We need to talk about this more. It makes me very angry for you to say we treat you like you are in high school. If you want complete independence, take it. Pay for your housing, your food, your utilities, your car, your clothes, your education, and so much more. You don’t even begin to know what it costs to live the life you live. You’ve always been a team player before. What’s happened to you?”

I went to bed angry. The next morning, as I was driving home from delivering Becton to camp, I noticed the following message had appeared on my phone sometime the night before –

Emily: “Mom, you’re making me sound like a horrible daughter. I never said that I wanted to live on my own. I couldn’t do it. I need you and dad by my side. I’m sorry that it seems like that to you. It’s just that since work started I’ve been stressed out. Just getting out of the house and doing some fun stuff that I enjoy makes me feel stress free. I’m also sorry that I missed the family meeting. I don’t want you to be mad at me mom. I love you and wouldn’t be the person I am today without you.”

I had to pull over and write back to Emily –

Rebecca: “Now I feel terrible for getting so angry. I’m sorry. We can figure this out. I know you need your free time and I know Blake doesn’t live close by. Maybe we need a different time to go over what’s coming up for the week. I’d just like to have 30 minutes at some point when we are all together so we can work out the snags and conflicts, and so we can support each other in whatever ways we can. I felt like we lost our family cohesiveness before Skye got into so much trouble. I’d like us to be pulling together and available to help each other out. If we can set that standard before she gets home, she will know she has all of us to rely on – even if it’s in different ways. I know my feelings about you not showing up last night are all tangled up in the lying and disappearing and pulling away that Skye did. You are at a different place in your life and naturally need to put some distance between us as you become more independent. We can do this! I love you to the moon and back.”

Emily isn’t Skye. She isn’t K.J. or Journey or Becton. For that matter, Skye isn’t the Skye she was when I developed this fear. There’s a kind of flexibility required in parenting that involves balancing trust with structure, and being able to shift the balance at every twist and turn. If you are lucky – like I have been with Emily – the other “party” will work with you on finding the new balance that works and forgiving you when you get tangled up in other relationships.

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