Ask Polly: Why Doesn’t My Family Understand Me?

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Photo: Jeremy Cram Photography/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

The stuff you write and the way you write — for me — is awesome, as I am older, 54, but more thirtysomething in my head and life. I am single, an artist, no kids, ride a bicycle, no TV, “ecoconscious,” liberal as hell, heart on sleeve, and like to stay hip and ALIVE.

I moved back East from CA/SF (there 18 years) to RI when my first sister passed from cancer. Since, another sister has died. This leaves me and one sister here, and two brothers — out of state. But, my one deceased sister’s family is pretty big here and is the one I was closest to for all of my life. But, man, they are some spoiled-ass kids.

At one point (when my truck broke), I bought a bike and was getting around (not too easily at first) with it. It’s the suburbs! The bigger problem, though, was my family in MA completely thought I was NUTS. “NO CAR??? How are you going to help us if you don’t have a car to drive over to where WE ARE so that you can show up at birthdays and Easter and shit.” I rebelled, said, Fuck that shit and I can’t believe you care more about how it affects you rather then how the fuck I am going to get groceries in the stupid suburbs with NO CAR!! A little milder than that and not actually out loud because we’re Irish … and dysfunctional as hell. So we spoke nary a word about all of our frustrations and stayed (mostly) in our own corners.

I’m in RI making my way with my choices. I saved money not having a car and was able to paint and try to grow a business. They stayed in MA, guilt-tripped me, and got more pissed until three years just went on by. There are problems to being carless and I do need to get a truck soon. I just received a small-business grant and that is helping my struggle to stay self-employed. Finally!

Things are still very weird with the family as they (I’m sure) think I fell down on the job of helping pick up the pieces after my sisters passed on. In my kidless lifestyle I’d been able to babysit the first generation of nieces and nephews a lot before I left at age 24. So, when I first moved back and had a car, I jumped right back into it with the “grand” nieces and nephews, and we are close. I love them so much, and they miss me.

But I rode this bike thing out for a reason/dream, so I could paint without HUGE bills and I’ll jump back in!! (No smartphone, either!!! You can imagine — THAT to them is loony tunes.) I could still meet up with people via buses (I go all over on my own … Boston. NY. Cape Cod), but these guys don’t really “meet up” like a city person would. They feel because they have the kids, people should come to THEM. I stood my ground. My nephew did bring his kids (whom I am closest to) here a couple times. And, they’ll come and get me for some stuff I can’t miss.

SO, am I an asshole for sticking to my plan? Should I have found another way? Considering I moved 3,000 miles to be closer to them, I figure they could have met me some. My third sister thinks I’m “afraid to get old” when, actually, I’m afraid of very little.

No Car Needed

Dear No Car Needed,

Every year, my extended family and I go to the beach together. Personally, it’s my biggest expense of the year. It’s prohibitively expensive, in fact. I board my dogs, fly my family of four across the country, rent a car for two weeks, and contribute to renting a beach house. There are so many compromises involved therein that I can only skim the surface of them all. I am broke but would lop off my right arm to stay directly on the beach and hear the waves at night, but others would prefer to stay in the second row so we can rent a gigantic place where children with different parents don’t have to share rooms (I say throw them all into one room and let them sort it out, if it means sitting on the front porch and seeing the waves from there!). Even though my brother and I live in California and have often advocated for meeting here every other year, certain parties are reluctant to make this happen because it involves too many hassles for them, hassles that my brother and I take on each and every year. Lately, my brother only goes every other year because his wife has rightly proclaimed this disparity utter bullshit.

There are so many small annoyances and slights on a daily basis that we may as well be living in an ant farm where someone threw a bunch of red ants and a bunch of black ants in together to see how things would shake down. Everyone has a different idea of how we should spend our time, and everyone parents their kids differently. There is judgment. Hoo doggie, is there ever! We judge each other quietly, politely, and we judge harshly, mostly in private. After a decade of upholding this tradition, the little judgments float in the air like smog. We’re all aware of them. They sometimes cast a pall over the mood. They sometimes make it difficult not to bristle and gripe.

Two of my aunts come with us, but one of them hasn’t come for the last two years. Who can blame her? My aunts went from being amiable in the early years to getting very sick of our shit, collectively, in recent years. They have gathered evidence against us for a decade, and it’s beyond clear that we’re all totally crazy and we’re doing everything wrong most of the time. Once, over a margarita, I gently teased my mom about how she was calling everyone to the carpet that day. I was actually thrilled by her outspokenness, and my mom knew that, but my aunt said, “SO WHAT? SHE’S ON VACATION! SHE’S OLD! WHY DON’T YOU GET OFF HER BACK?” I smiled and said nothing. That night in private, I told my husband, “My job here is to show up and eat giant platters of shit with a smile. Every goddamn day. Don’t let me forget that. Don’t let me imagine that we’re all going to commune lovingly and accept each other completely. It’s not going to fucking happen. Ever.”

Now that I’ve painted you the most hideous portrait imaginable, a Little Brute Family Hits the Beach storybook replete with passive-aggressive slights and spitty outbursts, let me just say this: That trip is the most important thing I do all year long. My kids know their cousins well, even if they don’t always get along. My sister and my brother and I know each other, in spite of the 3,000 miles that separate us. We don’t just have dinner together a few times a year, we live under the same roof and cook together and drink together and bodysurf together and build giant sandcastles together. My mom takes all of the grandchildren out for a walk on the beach every single morning at the crack of dawn, where they chase crabs and admire jellyfish and savor the glory of pink sky and chilly morning air with just a few people around, collecting shells or casting fishing lines into the pounding waves.

Spending time with your family means compromising. EVERYONE compromises. Everyone feels the judgment lifting off everyone else. Everyone resents it. You judge your sister and your brothers just as much as they judge you, No Car Needed. You think their kids are spoiled and they’re wasteful and they’re inflexible. They think you need to grow up. You drew a line in the sand and said, “Fuck it. I can’t get there. You come to me.” You saved money, like you said you would. You started your business. You’re thriving. And now you’re assessing the big picture and you’re wondering how to proceed.

Personally, I don’t think getting a bicycle and saying “Too bad, I don’t have a car, I can’t come to you” was a completely trivial, pragmatic decision. I think there were a lot of different emotions in play for you. You wanted to make a point. You wanted to force them to compromise for a change. And you were also sad about your sisters and maybe you didn’t want to deal with all of that heartbreak again. You didn’t want to pick up the pieces this time. You didn’t want to help. You wanted some distance. You wanted to help yourself. And maybe a small part of you wanted someone to help YOU, support YOU, give YOU a little love for a change.

None of that is unfair or bad. It’s understandable. Your ranks, as siblings, are dwindling prematurely, which is a heartbreak that’s not easy to accommodate or roll with, particularly in the company of people who don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves or show just how devastating it is for them. It’s hard to want to be vulnerable around people who judge you badly, who don’t express their emotions, who don’t seem to have a clue about what is and isn’t important in life.

But that’s how you appear to them, too. You think you’re the only one who’s forced to compromise, or to reach out. They compromise and reach out in their own ways, in ways you can’t quite discern.

To be clear, I’m very suspicious of inflexible parents who refuse to leave their houses and always force other people to come to them. But I have to tell you, it’s not a small thing to pack a bunch of kids in a car and drive them over state lines to see their aunt, either at her place or at some restaurant where you’ll spend an hour or so having an awkward conversation and then pack everyone back into the car for the ride back. If the kids are little, they may scream all the way there. If they’re big, they usually have an intricate web of homework and activities and wall-to-wall obligations. It’s natural enough for your siblings to say, “She can and should come to us.” Have you taken the train or bus and then a cab to see them? Or have you, lately, waited for them to come and pick you up?

This is more than a logistical matter. The fact that you’re treating it as merely logistical, as merely a matter of stubbornness on their part, reflects the deep pain and heartbreak and frustration in the mix for you. But now you’re reckoning with it. You’re asking yourself, “Is this how I want to be?” Can you start your business and still hop on a bus and go see your nieces and nephews? Can you hold on to your ideals and stand up for the things you believe in, and still savor and enjoy your many, many connections to your family? I think you can. You may have to be the bigger person in many ways. But for members of the same family to tolerate each other without going off on each other constantly, EVERYONE has to be a bigger person. EVERYONE has to compromise. This is the mantra, when it comes to family: EVERYONE SHALL EAT GIANT PLATTERS OF SHIT, AND LIKE IT.

Many people just give up. They don’t vacation with their families, they don’t go home for the holidays. They say, FUCK THIS. It’s easy enough to do that.

But those nieces and nephews really miss you, NCN. They love their nutty free-spirited aunt. They want to know you. They need you there. I can’t imagine our beach trips without my aunt from New Mexico, who shouted at me out of the blue that day. She lives in an adobe house outside of Taos and she doesn’t love being around a lot of people, let alone assholes like us. But she takes two flights across the country and then drives five hours with my mom, who is also cranky and demanding in her older age, and she SHOWS UP. She drinks margaritas with her volatile niece (me) and she bodysurfs with her freaky nephew (my brother) and she does Sudoku and chats in her room with her sisters. She plays cards and Ticket to Ride and Foosball with all of the kids. They love her so much that they write her letters after the trip every year. They shout her name and literally run toward her when she shows up: HILDA HILDA HILDA HEY HILDA!

I was just reading that one of the most important factors that determines whether people are happy or unhappy as they enter older age is whether they have meaningful ties and connections to other people in their lives. As people get older, they actually derive satisfaction and happiness from being responsible to other people, from having duties and obligations that hem them in. COMPROMISING MAKES YOU HAPPIER, in other words. EATING GIANT PLATTERS OF SHIT IS THE KEY TO HAPPINESS. The exact flavors of bullshit that drive you crazy are the ones that keep you alive.

And honestly, what the fuck are you here for, otherwise? To enjoy your day and make whatever you can make before time runs out? That’s part of it for me, certainly, but there must be more, right? I say this to my brother all the time about his every-other-year trip to the beach. It’s understandable he and his wife would make that choice. But how many more years do we have with my mom and my aunts? After they die, it’ll just be us. Has he thought about how much we’ll miss my mom when we go on that trip after she dies? Have we all thought about how heartbreaking it will feel to be there without her? Because that time will come, and when it does, there’s a big chance that one of my siblings will slip off the map, disappear from this tradition, with some excuse like the kids have camp or someone can’t get off work — something trivial, something small. And maybe I’ll try to lead the kids on a beach walk in the morning, but they won’t want to go. Half of them won’t be there. The other half will want to sleep in. It’ll just be me, on the beach, wishing that everyone could overcome their very reasonable hesitations and frustrations and JUST SHOW UP.

I know you feel like a freak around your family, NCN. I get it, believe me. I know you don’t love how they treat you like you’re afraid when you aren’t. I know it’s hard to be around people who don’t see how brave you are, to stick by your guns the way you do, to pursue a life of beauty and solitude, to savor the joy of small things and great moments instead of surrendering to the conveyor belt of commodification like so many of the rest of us do. I know it hurts to be so misunderstood. And I know you miss your sisters. I know you don’t want to dip a toe into that sadness again. The whole landscape has changed. You can never go back.

I understand, and I don’t think you’re being unreasonable. BUT SHOW UP ANYWAY. Bend for them. Get a car or don’t, but show up for birthdays and holidays. Insert yourself back into their lives. They will never understand you. That’s okay. Open your heart and get on a bus and knock on their doors anyway. Play cards and drink margaritas and take walks with your nieces and nephews at the crack of dawn anyway. You’re good at showing up, actually. You’re good at compromising. Maybe you will always compromise the most. That’s okay. You belong to them and they belong to you.

The sky is pink for only so long. The crabs run in circles for a while, but then they’re back in their holes. The wind has a chill to it, but then it yields to the heat of the summer morning. Your family misses you. If you wait much longer, those spoiled-ass kids won’t know you anymore. Give those brats a heroic aunt to look up to, like the one I have. Overcome a million obstacles, overcome a long bus ride and a long cab ride, overcome heartbreak and loss, just to bring them your love.

Polly

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Ask Polly: Why Doesn’t My Family Understand Me?