What a strange couple of weeks. Two weekends ago I was immersed in cousins and extended family,  this week is half term with my partner and the children visiting friends at Findhorn…and I’m finding both weeks exhausting!

Don’t get me wrong, I love all of the people concerned very much, they are among my favourite people and we all get on, I’m not talking here of family I’m obliged to see, I like all of my family. So why so tired?

Is it just me or do you find it hard to juggle everyone’s needs? Last weekend the children, as always, needed attention and activity. I wanted time to talk to my cousins and my cousins wanted time to talk to each other. I wanted time with people but also wanted time alone.

  • Whose needs are you juggling right now?
  • Can you map them or draw them?
  • Can you score each out of 10 (where 10 is:’Their needs are met’ and 1 is ‘their needs are not met)
  • How are your needs doing in the above?

We drove 8 hours to Scotland and the children were stars. We listened to the radio and story tapes and they were quiet and still for most of the journey. But we were all shattered. As much as I like stories, I wouldn’t have chosen to listen to ‘Just William’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ for as long as we did and I’m far too old for the chat on Radio One which my nine year old loves. Partner would rather have listened to Radio Four, or one of his book tapes and I would rather have listened to Radio Four, an inspirational tape such as as ‘The Success Principles’ by Jack Canfield or the tapes I have of Eckhart Tolle. Sometimes I just like the silence and watching the world pass me by.  So there was compromise, we listened to what the kids wanted to listen to in return for the peace we wanted to drive.

Families are complicated even when they get on and there are times when single life seems like the much simpler option. I had children quite late in life and that was largely because I was enjoying my freedom.  I worked, studied, traveled, went to festivals, drank too much for too long in local pubs. I could stay out too late, sleep over when ever I wanted. If I had money I could spend it on myself. If I wanted to go on a holiday, a retreat, a week’s residential course, I could. There are times when I wonder how I ever gave that up for this.

So why did I?  Well, because eventually I’d done the festivals, the courses and the pubs. I’d also done the therapy. When I started out I thought that I shouldn’t have kids because I was too messed up to be a good parent and hoped that therapy would ‘cure’ me. Then I realized that therapy wasn’t going to ‘fix’ me, rather it familiarized me with my demons; as Ram Dass once said, I still have the same neurosis that I ever had, it’s just that now I recognize them.  The more I talked to people and watched other families I saw that everyone has their flaws and that there is no such thing as the perfect parent or the perfect family, we just have to be ‘good enough’ as Winnicott said.

So I had kids because I wanted to be part of a family again, without ever imagining the complexity that would follow. There are times when my children are my mirror; they can mirror the best of me and the worst of me. They can also be my inspiration; doing things I would never have dared and showing character traits I admire and would love to have. They push my buttons and drive me mad.  I have very little time to myself and I am always on call for them.  Their social calendar is far busier than mine and I can hear my mum’s ‘you treat me like a taxi’ echoing.

For me family life is like a crucible. It burns away at who I thought I was, what I thought I needed and who I thought I was going to be. I see myself through their eyes and don’t always like what I see and hear. Trying to see things from their point of view is tiring. Maybe I shouldn’t, maybe I should crack on and do what I want and what I feel without considering them, and maybe that works for some people, maybe that would be better, but I can’t. I’m constantly scanning how everyone is feelings, how everyone is doing. I’m trying to see from everyone’s point of view and looking for the overlaps, the opportunity for harmony, the win-wins.

And that’s why the journey was exhausting, even though all we were doing was sitting in the car. Four different sets of needs, four different emotional landscapes, four different perceptions of what was happening and of what family life is and should be.

Families are incredible in their ability to contain and tolerate such difference as Bion and Klein said. In the car, there was the microcosm of the world: a confined space, different world views, experiences, wants, needs and emotions.

Did I get the answer for global peace in the car? Are you kidding…I couldn’t think for the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ tape. But last night and this morning I’ve been reflecting that the only way I know to do this is to talk and to listen and to name the elephant in the room, to break the taboos and to name the feelings we ‘shouldn’t’ have, but do. And the hardest thing is to know that this is an on-going process. There will never be point where things are ‘sorted’, there will be happy moments, but the time will never come when we can relax and say ‘we are now a happy family forever and so we can stop paying attention to how we’re doing’. Nor will that point come for the world, because we are all too diverse and complex. And our strength as a species and as a family is our diversity, our ability to step into someone else’s shoes and see things through their eyes and to find a common ground for love. Our growth as human beings comes when we rub against situations that challenge us and make us grow. We can avoid growth by opting out or by shutting off, but then we fossilize. And this process is on-going. as we constantly change and grow, so does the way we relate to other people, which in turn causes more change and growth.

Families act as containers. They can be rigid and confined with a tight lid which traps us and represses us and for some people it is only in escaping the claustrophobia that they can find freedom. I don’t want a to build this kinds of family. Instead I want our family to be a different kind of container; a container that creates a safe place to express strong feelings, scary thoughts, optimistic dreams and fabulous hopes and know that they will be received without judgement. A container that changes shape, that is big enough for all of us to have space and time. A container that is big enough for ‘you are driving me mad’ and simultaneously ‘I love you’, for ‘leave me alone’, and ‘give me a hug’, for’ I can’t do this’ and ‘I can’.

A family is not a thing. A family is not just people. A  family is process of knowing and becoming, of connecting, disconnecting and reconnecting, of tolerating, accepting, forgiving, sharing, playing, laughing, loving and being loved. Family is a verb, a present continuous….an ‘ing’ not a thing, an on-going active verb.


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