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Thursday, November 17, 2011

'Happy Families' is a card game

We have been brainwashed.

Did it start with TV shows like The Brady Bunch?  Or did that sort of show just perpetuate the myth that families are, naturally, a haven of universal and reciprocal affection?

Maybe there really are families that work like that somewhere on this earth, where Mum and Dad are founts of love and tolerance and understanding, where all the children adore and support each other, where every problem is eased along by mutual concern for others' happiness within the home circle. 

I'm scratching my head to think if I know any REAL families like that- but no, I don't.  And so my logical brain says, if that type of family is the norm, and if I've worked with families all my life, then why am I struggling to remember an example?

No, folks, I don't believe in that particular fairy tale. Last time I looked, The Brady Bunch was fiction (and a noxiously cloying variety thereof) and Happy Families was a card game (one that often led to massive rows around the family table about whether Johnny had lied about the presence or absence in his hand of Master Pinch the Pickpocket's Progeny... or something like that).

Please let me know if everyone in your family loves each other unconditionally and has no skeletonic resentment whatsoever hiding in the cupboard under the stairs.  Put your hand on your heart and tell me that Christmas will be a wonderful reunion, without a single squabble or insensitive behaviour.  I will need at least 500 families like that to give me even a 50-50 'perfect to imperfect' ratio. 

Yes, I can think of families who constantly work at their relationships and appear to do a damn good job of ironing out tensions, but there's always a flaw compared to the 'perfection' template.  There's an anorexic, or a dominating personality, or an unwanted pregnancy, or a child not achieving to potential, or a drunk, or a wife who's actually in love with someone else, or two members who can't bear to be in the same room, or a neurotic... go on, analyse some families you know.

Start with your own family and move on to your best friend's, because I can think of several families who appear to their mere acquaintances to be living the dream- but who are, underneath the patina of respectability, living the nightmare (at worst), or the undesirable compromise (at best).

So if the Perfect Happy Family is not the norm but the noteworthy exception, why are so many people- particularly women- beating themselves up over failed attempts to make their own family conform to a template that is essentially a fantasy?

I started musing about this question after I read a question on The Twin Coach's site from a slightly flummoxed mother, who was asking for advice on how to get her daughter to give her younger siblings some signs of familial affection such as the loving goodnight kiss.  Miss 5, far from conforming to the 'perfect family' template, was grouchily refusing to do any such thing, and mum was starting to worry that the little siblings might feel unloved.

Poor mum.  Children are so bad at conforming to our pre-ordained images of family.  They will insist on surprising us with behaviours we never imagined would come from the fruit of our loins, and on having their own strong and contrary feelings about things. 

We bore them, yes, we brought them into this world, but we don't own them- and we don't own or control their feelings, either.  They belong, from the start, to themselves. And we have to learn to live with that, and do our bit to negotiate peace when the different selves in our family declare war on each other in action or word.

That bewildered mum's question took me right back to when an 11-year-old boy I know, who I'll call 'Jamie', was presented with a little stepbrother by his dad and dad's new wife- let's call her 'Ruby'.  Poor Ruby had that fantasy template firmly embedded in her heart.  I won't say 'in her mind', because she was a very smart lady- a VERY smart lady- who would have been able to see her folly if it had ever occurred to her to analyse her expectations using the scientific method she learned at university.

That's the problem with being brainwashed. It doesn't occur to you to apply logic and contrary evidence. The Happy Family has been presented to us as our cultural norm, and if our family doesn't conform, then that makes US a failure.

Poppycock it does.

But back to Ruby and Jamie.  Ruby had her heart set on a Brady dynamic, while Jamie- who, as an adored only child for 11 years, probably had certain expectations of remaining so- was beset by a severe bout of rebellious rage. Nobody had asked HIM if he wanted a sibling. If they had, he would have said NO. He didn't even LIKE little kids, let alone LOVE this 24/7 package of screaming, pooping, demanding, incomprehensible, attention-seeking NUISANCE.

Simply speaking, he refused to play ball- or perhaps I should say 'cards'. It might have been a game of Happy Families until the new baby turned up, but he was damned if he was going to pretend to be happy now. And no, he would NOT kiss that baby goodnight, or smile for family photos with it.

At this point, Ruby made a fatal error- one which I would plead with that other mum not to make.  She pushed the point. She ordered Jamie to be nice. She tried to insist that Jamie show affection to the baby and conform to the Happy Family Paradigm.

Somewhere deep down, she must have seen Jamie's failure to love the baby on command as a personal affront to her values; when Jamie continued to refuse to play her game, she effectively declared war.  Jamie's failure to love the baby was presented as his failing of personality and upbringing. Blame was attributed freely. Punishments were meted out.

At no stage was Jamie given the space or approval to feel what he was, without doubt, feeling very strongly indeed.  Jamie wasn't acting out towards the baby.  He wasn't hitting it, or hurting it; he was just refusing to pretend he liked it. His whole world had shifted on its axis, and instead of being helped to find a comfortable place in that world by his adult guide, he was judged and condemned.

The result was inevitable; Jamie dug his heels in too, the whole situation escalated to the point where the parents were having constant arguments about it, and the marriage disintegrated.

Scorecard: Jamie, 10; single ex-stepmum (by now with two young children), minus 100.

What should Ruby have done?

The first thing she needed to do was to let go of her childhood dream of the perfect family, because it's a myth. She needed to play the hand she was dealt, not the hand she wished she had, and recognise that she and Jamie had a different set of emotions around that baby.  She needed to stop pretending that having a new baby was a positive experience for everyone in her family. What we want so desperately for ourselves may have a very different impact on those around us, as every career woman knows.

The second thing she needed to do was to let Jamie be himself, because none of us is very good at being someone we're not- and children are no exception.  Jamie needed to feel safe to express what he was really feeling about that baby- his fears, his resentment, his discomfort with the changes in his life, his anger that nobody had thought to prepare him for the possibility of a sibling before it was a fait accompli- and his hurt that, now that the baby was here, nobody considered his feelings to be valid or important.

Perhaps Jamie even needed to be praised for NOT acting out directly at the baby.  Some children who are racked by the emotions of sibling rivalry do actually hurt their brother or sister. Jamie had restrained himself admirably, given that his feelings were so strong. Eleven years is a long time to be the star of the show, and there are plenty of stars who've behaved worse than Jamie when an up-and-coming actor stole their limelight.

With the retrospectoscope- a powerful and (for the holder) totally useless instrument- it's also easy to see that perhaps it would have been wise to give Jamie a little less of the limelight in the first place. If we totally indulge our first child and spend every waking minute at his side, spend every cent in our purse giving him everything he wants and let him dominate our life decisions, we're setting ourselves up for a fall.

That's pretty much what happened to Jamie- the only child, the only grandchild on both sides, the apple of everyone's eye.  A little restraint might have given Jamie a more realistic view of the world. If you give a child everything and then have another baby, it doesn't take a degree in maths for that child to work out that half is less than one. Half the time, half the attention, half the disposable income, and that's if the parents are falling over themselves to be equitable (which new babies rarely allow).

You reap what you sow. Sow a little time for your second child when you have the first.

And so to that mother whose daughter won't kiss the babies goodnight, I'd say don't push it.  Let your daughter have her feelings, because her feelings are real.  Find a way to let her express those feelings- make it safe for her to speak about how she feels, or act out how she feels using dolls or teddies or puppets. 

Accept her reluctance to pretend; your daughter is being emotionally honest. Isn't that what you want her to be? Of course you do! You just don't want her to feel like that.

But that is out of your control.  She is herself. She has her own feelings. All you can do is to try to be aware, and not increase her feelings of resentment towards her siblings. She's not beating them up; good on her for that.  So chill.  Spend time with her, do the special things you used to do with her before the other babies arrived, make sure she feels your love.

When she grows up, you won't want her to feel she has to kiss people she doesn't want to kiss.  Nor will you want your younger children to accept forced kisses.  Start now. Give a consistent message.  This isn't a tableau for the camera- this is real life, and fake kisses are worthless to all parties.

Will stepping back work?  I think so.  It will give this little girl space to work through those feelings, instead of acting them out or suppressing them. That can only be good.  It will make her feel that mum now sees her as she really is, and accepts her, bad feelings and all.

I feel a great compassion for that little girl, struggling with those big feelings.  To that mum, I say that I wouldn't be worried about whether the younger siblings are feeling loved- I would be worried about whether the 5-year-old is feeling loved. This is what needs to change, not the tableau at bedtime.

There's a happy ending to Jamie's story, which might help and reassure that little girl's mum.

Once Jamie had the space to be himself, with his own real feelings, he stopped digging the hole of resentment deeper. As his little brother started to grow up and smile and say real words and show Jamie that he thought he was awesome, as only little brothers can, Jamie decided that he loved him after all.  They have a great relationship these days, full of genuine affection.

Accepting your children's feelings about their siblings is the first step in changing their rivalry.  Until you accept where they're at, you're the enemy in this highly emotive war. 

Step over the battle line.  Look at your family from your child's perspective.  What do you see?


  1. Annie, I love this response! Someone beat me to the punch & posted this on my Facebook page for that mom whose older daughter wasn't "feeling the love" for her new siblings. I wholeheartedly agree with you about allowing children to have their feelings. There is nothing worse than being told you don't feel something you do, actually, feel or to be made to pretend that everything is fine when you don't feel that it is.

    We all have so many cultural fantasies that don't exactly match up with real life. That can be devastating if we hold on too tightly to those fantasies. I love what you say about playing the hand you are dealt & not the one you wished for. That is excellent advice for just about every situation.

    Thank you for such a thorough and kind response to this issue...I think it will resonate for many! xo

  2. I think one of the most difficult parts of letting go of the 'perfect family' dream is having to accept that there's something about our own child that makes us uncomfortable, and that is DIFFERENT from us. This is a huge fence to get over.

    We want things to be perfect and EASY- but when our children don't much like each other, it's incredibly challenging to our sense of self if we've let ourselves identify too much with our children. As with most parenting issues, work on ourself is more important than work on our children. We have to be in a place where our own attitudes are healthy before we can lead our children to a better place. And that's HARD.

    So glad you think my thoughts are useful, Gina!

  3. Such wise words. It reminds me of the chapter in Kalil Gibrans The Prophet where it states "your children are not your children" etc

  4. It's the basis of my childcare philosophy, EG. Children aren't possessions. We're their guides, not their owners, and parenthood is a process of letting go. And I love 'The Prophet'!


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