You Can’t (Always) Pick Your Own Relatives

One of my all-time favorite movies is The Man From Snowy River, and one of my favorite lines from that movie comes toward the end of the film when young “Jessica” learns that she has an uncle she’s never met before. “Spur”, played by Kirk Douglas, chuckles and says, “One of life’s injustices: you can’t pick your own relatives.”

I’m not ordinarily one to remember movie dialogue, which often frustrates my husband when he drops a well-timed comedic line from a movie only to be met with a blank stare from me. Yet this one line has always stuck with me because, in a way, I’ve always felt like I somehow ended up in the wrong family. Like I never quite fit in with my own relatives.

I think most of us feel this way to some degree. Pretty much everyone I know has felt like a stranger in their own home at some point or another—usually during our teenage years when it seems that no one could possibly understand what we’re going through. For some of us, though, that feeling is more persistent. For me, it’s the main driver behind my fascination with human relationships.

Relationships are the ultimate puzzle for me. Why do some work beautifully while others are disastrous? How is it that two people, such as my husband and me, who are generally regarded as “difficult” manage to get along perfectly? What is it about certain personalities that rub others the wrong way? What is it about other personalities that draws people to them like moths to a flame?

I’ve been a student of human relationships for as far back as I can remember. I clearly recall discussing world history with my mom when I was about 8-years-old in terms of children on a playground jockeying for the uppermost position on the monkey bars until only one could shout from the top, “I am King of the Hill!” My mom thought my explanation was clever. My teacher? Not so much.

Well into my adult years—until I married my husband, really—my view of relationships didn’t change much from that early impression of kids fighting for control of the monkey bars.  I still saw relationships as primarily competitive and adversarial. More frustrating than fulfilling. Hence, hardly worth the effort to cultivate. Even with such a negative view of relationships, though, I’ve still managed to meet several people with whom I share collaborative, rewarding, and mutually beneficial relationships. I have some amazing friends, and I couldn’t possibly ask for a better partner than my husband.

After receiving a scathing response to my last blog post from my sister a female relative who shall never be mentioned again lest her identity be inadvertently revealed on my “worldwide bully pulpit”, I’ve been carefully examining why certain people relate to me so easily while others are unlikely to ever understand where I’m coming from. My conclusion? Fear.

Fear of what, is the million dollar question. Fear of vulnerability? The truth? Facing one’s demons? Fear of the unknown, perhaps? For a very, very long time, I was afraid of vulnerability. My trust was brutally betrayed by someone I loved deeply once. I was just sixteen years old at the time, and it took decades (not to mention seven years of talk therapy) for me to regain a healthy level of comfort with vulnerability, so I can at least relate to that particular fear. I’ve never been afraid of the truth, however. Lies are infinitely more destructive. As for my demons, I faced them during those seven years of talk therapy, too. They’ve since been reduced to harmless caricatures from my past. Every now and again I’ll cross paths with one of them, and I’m reminded of how ridiculous they are once exposed to light. It’s hard to believe now that any of them ever had the power to manipulate me. And the unknown? Well, I’ve always been more curious about that than afraid of it.

What is it, then, that people are afraid of when it comes to relationships? Seriously, what do we have to lose by being vulnerable with one another, or by being honest? What do we have to gain by keeping our demons securely locked in the deepest, darkest recesses in our minds? In a word, nothing. Yet, so many of the people we interact with on a daily basis would rather die a slow, painful death than reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings to their friends, family, or coworkers. It’s no wonder, then, that my writing elicits such a fearful response from certain people. I am, after all, an open book.

I was born into a place of fear. I have certain memories from my childhood of being so afraid of being physically beaten that I peed my pants. It didn’t happen frequently, but it happened well into my teens. Until I was sixteen, as a matter of fact. And then someone else—my first love—wounded me emotionally so deeply and profoundly that my father’s rage and the threat of physical pain paled in comparison from that point forward.

There’s still some truth to that statement that you can’t pick your own relatives. My father and I are unlikely to ever be friends, but he’ll always be my father. The same can be said for most of my birth family. The majority of them are still as mysterious and puzzling to me as they ever were. It’s unlikely that I’ll commit the time and energy necessary to get to truly know or understand them at this point in my life, but that doesn’t negate the fact that we’re related. Fortunately, I’ve managed to find my people along the circuitous path my life has taken—the ones who really do know and understand me.

There’s the family you’re born into, and then there’s the family you choose. If they’re one and the same (as with my husband’s family), count your blessings; but even if they’re not you’re still blessed. My chosen “relatives” are scattered from Alaska to Germany, presently, so I don’t get to see or speak to them frequently. Just knowing that they’re there and that they’ll be happy to hear from me when I do get a chance to call or write is comforting, though. And then there’s the family I chose when I married my amazing husband. They’re a fearless bunch, and I adore them all the more for their willingness to tackle the hard topics head on and hash them out around the kitchen table.

Something I’ve learned firsthand over the past several years is that the human capacity for love is ultimately defined by our willingness to confront the things that scare us. Those who are afraid to explore the depths of their own souls will never know true love because it can’t be found on the surface, or even near the surface, for that matter. You can’t fully recognize or appreciate light until you’re comfortable in the dark. And because love comes from deep within, the only way to tap into it is to dive into the deepest, darkest recesses of your mind, heart, and soul. Trust me, the truth that you’ll find there isn’t nearly as scary as you think it will be. The lies you’ve been told and the lies you’ve told yourself are infinitely worse because they keep you stuck in superficial relationships where true love doesn’t exist.

Don’t let fear keep you from knowing yourself and the ones you love. And if the ones you love can’t let go of their fear, perhaps it’s time for you to make different choices.

Change Management

The only constant any of us can really count on these days is change. We Reamys have been in a state of flux since last July when my husband’s ex-wife was suddenly struck with a serious medical condition. We had to scramble to move my stepdaughter into our home and enroll her in a new school in our local district. Virtually overnight I went from being a weekend warrior to a full-time mom.

Luckily, my stepdaughter is an easy kid to love. She’s wickedly smart and funny, just like her father. She has a sunny disposition, and as an only child, she’s mature for her age. And the icing on the cake? She’s every bit as horse crazy as I am. I truly hit the stepchild jackpot—I couldn’t ask for a better daughter. Still, it’s taken every bit of the past nine months for me to get a handle on this new parenting gig.

Being a wife is easy. Being a stepmom is perhaps the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced. When I look back on my life, though, it’s easy to see that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’ve been preparing for this role for most of my life.

None of us grow up in a perfect environment. If even a small percentage of us did, I suspect the world would be a very different place. The environment in which I was raised was volatile, to say the least. My father is a violent alcoholic with an explosive temper and a hair trigger. My mom did her best to take care of us, and against all odds, she managed surprisingly well. I am continually amazed by her determination and resilience, but even the strongest among us can’t endure sustained abuse for long without becoming permanently scarred.

My most significant advantage in life is the fact that I am the youngest member of my family. My two siblings are five and six years older than me. Our age difference gave me the opportunity to watch and learn in ways that I never fully appreciated until I became a parent. I learned to see how my family members interacted, for better or worse, and I carefully observed the choices my parents and siblings made. By witnessing the consequences of their actions, I was able to make better choices for myself. I was mostly spared the trouble of learning things the hard way, though I’ve had my share of hard knocks.

Basically, I learned to navigate the world by observing others for examples of what not to do. How not to behave. Which choices not to make. Which company not to keep. Negative examples were pretty much all I had to work with, but rather than emulating those examples, I sought out more positive alternatives. And that has made all the difference.

It’s been over two months since I’ve published a blog post. I’ve had so much to say during that hiatus, and I’ve drafted more than a few unpublished posts. You see, the biggest change we Reamys have experienced in these past few months is that my husband and I were awarded permanent custody of our daughter after what was possibly the shortest, if not the least contentious, custody battle in the history of Colorado. It took just 45 days from initial motion to signed court order, but it’s taking much longer than that to fully process my emotions. For my daughter’s sake, I’ve chosen to keep my thoughts about how all of this went down private. All she really needs to know is that she is dearly loved, safe, and secure. She’s a very perceptive child, though. I suspect she’s fully aware of so much more than that.

We’ve all been on an emotional rollercoaster for the past several weeks. I am at once elated that we won full custody of our daughter and heartbroken that we had to enter that battle in the first place. I’ve struggled to overcome my prejudices toward her mother only to learn new information that reaffirms them.

I’ve held my tongue while enduring unsolicited advice from people who know nothing of our situation. My sister tried to shame me for suggesting that my daughter is better off with my husband and me than with her mom. She’s never even met my daughter or my husband’s ex-wife. She’s only met my husband on two very brief occasions, for that matter, but that didn’t stop her from sticking her nose into our business.

My mother-in-law, bless her heart, wants everyone to simply get along and resolve things amicably. She still thinks of The Ex as family. I don’t. Frankly, I resent the suggestion that I should embrace and befriend someone who openly and blatantly disrespects my husband. Part of the reason we sought custody in the first place is because The Ex was manipulating our daughter’s feelings about everything from her school to my husband and me in very destructive and dangerous ways. I’ve worked hard to free myself from the emotional abusers and manipulators of my past, so I’m not about to invite another one into my life, give her free rein to challenge my husband’s authority in his own household and to chip away at our daughter’s self-esteem.

All of this has put my change management skills to the ultimate test. I’ve had to scrape up every ounce of tact and diplomacy I could muster to deal with the unsolicited and unhelpful opinions of others. Empathizing with my daughter is easy because I remember clearly what it’s like to be a child with no real control or autonomy. Standing by my husband and fully supporting the decision to fight for custody was easy because it was so clearly the right choice. Figuring out how to finance that fight was another significant test of my change management skills, but I effectively pulled that off, too. Who knew that all those years of being a corporate drone would ultimately pay off in such a strange and unexpected way? A lifetime of dysfunctional family dynamics and couple of decades of experience in the business world turned out to be the perfect training ground for becoming an empathetic wife and mother.

My daughter is too young to fully understand the significance of this year, but her ability to think critically grows daily. Someday she’ll look back on this year and realize that it’s the year she reclaimed her childhood. Perhaps more importantly, I think she’ll recognize that this was the year in which she finally started getting the sort of parental support and guidance necessary to achieve her full potential. She already has bigger dreams today than she had a year ago, and I look forward to watching her dreams continue to expand and evolve.

Change is good. It’s not always easy, but nothing grows without it. The past couple of months have been both mentally and emotionally exhausting for all three of us, but I am so very grateful for this experience because it’s opened the door to some fabulous opportunities for our little family.

Change is inevitable. Embrace it. And if someone you know is going through a significant life change, allow them to embrace it–even if you can’t. Navigating change is difficult enough without some well-meaning (or perhaps not-so-well-meaning) friend or relative trying to keep you bound to a person, place, or thing from which you are ready to break free.

Change is benevolent. I haven’t always believed that to be true, but the events of this past year have convinced me, once and for all, that things really do have a way of working out for the greatest good.