Families are not perfect

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, so I wanted to kick things off by speaking about a topic that has been floating around my conscious mind for the best part of two weeks: family.

You know those workplaces that say they are basically like one big family? This scares the crap out of me, as in my opinion, extended families are fucked up little pockets of shared genes. So no, I don’t want to join your dysfunctional company when I’ve already got my own group of aunts, uncles and cousins that make me want to scream into a cushion.

Families are not perfect. And for another matter, how would you even describe a ‘perfect’ family? Give it a go, I dare you.

There isn’t a family out there that hasn’t seen their share of loss, grief, and drama.

There isn’t a family that is perfectly in harmony all the time, and has every member of their clan pulling the same direction.

There isn’t a family without a dark secret, or a great grandad who may actually not be a great grandad, either by DNA or by behaviour.

At this point I should note that I actually had an email yesterday about the identity of my real great grandad and all the bizarre plots of my family tree going back to 1870, when his own mother (my great, great grandmother) was born in Hemel Hempstead. My grandmother didn’t know her biological dad.

Extended families can be a messy business. There is always at least one black sheep, one ringleader, or one that gets embarrassingly drunk at reunions, wakes, or milestone birthday parties.

I am very lucky to have a loving family with my husband and daughter, and equally with my mum, dad and sister, but my extended family is a Totally Different Matter.

Now for the purposes of not being a total dick, I am going to keep some details private here, and for full disclosure, my family are not “horrible people”. They just don’t share the same values as me, and we are not able to communicate effectively anymore.

There are three main reasons why I don’t see much of my extended family, and I’ll do my best to share them with you. It should hopefully show you that small issues can be blown up into bigger proportions when the family dynamic is at play.

Reason one: we moved to Canada, and then moved back

We never knew we would stay in Canada for almost eight years when we moved there. I was a child, with my mum, dad and sister. We moved due to my dad’s work taking him further afield from the UK, and we just happened to end up in Canada as (what should have been) a temporary stop on the way to the USA.

But because we moved there, and then came back to the UK, we were told by one side of the extended family that we had failed as we didn’t become permanent residents in Canada.

I still haven’t figured this one out enough to understand why it caused such friction between relatives, but my guess is that there are other emotions and feelings at play, whether that includes some form of jealousy that we lived abroad, or maybe bitterness that they lost free holiday accommodation.

Reason two: my grandad passed away, and I didn’t buy him flowers

When I was growing up, I was actually really close with some of my cousins who were a similar age to me. When my grandad died several years ago, this changed.

His passing was upsetting for us all, and grief affects everyone differently. Sadly, I appeared to be a scapegoat for some of my cousins, who directed their anger toward me.

Back in early 2013 I was short on cash after graduating from university, working for little money, and paying rent and bills. I also lived hundreds of miles away from where my grandad’s funeral would be taking place, but my cousins were based in that immediate area.

What happened next was odd, and not even that significant in the grand scheme of things. The easiest way is to show you the messages that I’ve salvaged from Facebook Messenger :

Cousin 1 says:

Then I say:

Cousin 2 says:

Cousin 1 says:

OK so no big deal. We had different ways of dealing with the sad passing of our beloved grandad. Some of my cousins wanted to show it with a physical display of affection with flowers, whereas I was applying my usual “problem-solving” method to give to relevant charities to help more families. Both, I’m sure you would agree, are admirable gestures.

Yet after this, things have never been the same. My decision to donate money to charity, and spend money to make sure I could actually get to the funeral that they wanted to buy flowers for, meant that I have been estranged from my cousins ever since.

Despite this, I’d still do the same now. It is my opinion that flowers are more for the mourners than the person that has died; they aren’t there to see them.

Reason three: I invited my aunt and uncle to my wedding

My aunt and uncle had separated, and I didn’t want to play favourites, so I invited both of them to my wedding with individual invitations. This seemed like the least dramatic way of dealing with the fragmented family, letting themselves decide whether they wanted to come or not.

This backfired, and I was scorned for not taking sides. Sometimes you can’t win.

Which brings me back to my point:

Families are not perfect.

Now I’m certainly not saying that every extended (or even, immediate) family is entirely fucked up. But if yours isn’t everything that you imagine everyone else’s to be, THAT’S OK.

We don’t choose the families that we are born into, so why do we have the belief that we should all get along? Sometimes it is healthier for you to distance yourself from the people who bring out the worst in you, or who have polarised views to your own that make it hard to find common ground.

I sometimes felt embarrassed that I didn’t have lots of family coming to my wedding, like their presence would somehow validate me, but it made absolutely no difference by the time the day rolled around. I didn’t miss them any more than I usually do, and I let go of the idea that family is this beautiful concept and should define the person I am.

So what if I’m the black sheep? Remember, every family has one.

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Mental health blogger & speaker | MSc student mental health nurse
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