Family dysfunction

Christmas brings with it more sightings of familial relations than throughout the year leading me to consider how my family works. Principally this has led me to consider my own family’s form of dysfunction.

You see my family is not the fighting sort. We don’t do arguments and we don’t do shouting. There’s a tendency to think that because we don’t have many horror stories that we aren’t dysfunctional and yet that’s not really correct. The thing we do do quite well is silence and avoidance. In some ways this is possibly more dangerous than the former as it creates a situation where we can be satisfied with the lack of conflict rather than seek to overcome obstacles to enter a higher level of intimacy. We also do control and stinginess quite well.

Most of my thinking on this is an outcome of my maternal grandmother’s relatively advanced dementia. It’s not so much that this is the problem, but that it exposes how unhealthy previous actions and ways of coping have been. For example my grandfather has led a life where he has pretty much been in control of everything. He’s owned a small business and rarely employed labour, so he has been able to do what he wants, when he wants. Further, my grandparents relationship is very traditional and definitely involves a lot of one way submission. He’s been the king.

Yet my grandmother’s illness has meant that he can’t control her anymore and yet he is still doing things to make himself feel safe. For example they have some acreage on a moderately busy road and one of my grandmother’s favourite things was to go out to the side of the road and wave to the passing cars. (It’s both a sweet reminder of her desire to bless others through her presence, but also of the way she has had to spend her whole life somewhat isolated.) This is obviously dangerous, so her children decided to build a fence so she could see the road and be safe. My grandfather was adamantly opposed to this although eventually agreed somewhat. So we start building a fence that will allow her to walk around some garden and see the road. While we’re doing this my grandfather has multiple temper tantrums about its positioning, so we move it slightly and he seems happier. Then a few days later he gets my grandmother out there with him and they move the fence. My poor grandma gets sore hands doing it, but forgets what she did that made them hurt. My grandfather has also become quite stingy. He is not short of money and yet he doesn’t do any maintenance ie they have a faulty hot water system, but rather than fix it he just turns it on a couple of times a week, so that they can shower.

It’s kind of interesting how my mum and her siblings react to all this. A couple of them do not really get involved in it at all. One of them hardly visits at all and the other visits a couple of times a month, but wants no responsibility. Another was turned off by grandpa’s temper tantrum and have kept a low profile since, but were quite involved before that. This really leaves my mum as the most involved sibling, particularly since she lives a few kilometres away. She goes over every morning to get my grandma breakfast and make sure she takes her tablets and is doing most of their washing and some cooking as well. It is running her raggard, but also enabling my grandfather to continue doing whatever he wants rather than look into a nursing home, which, again, they could easily afford. In some ways I think my mother needs to be busy. If I try to have dinner with them she is basically out 4/7 nights a week with work and her community activities. I’m not sure uber busyness is a great coping strategy either.

Then there’s me. I can see myself inheriting these negative things from my forefathers. I can be controlling and stingy and over busy. It really is true. As a teenager you look at your parents and wonder how they ever got the way they are and determine never to be like them and now in my late 20s I can quite easily see myself becoming my parents and grandfather.

Oh dear. It’s part of living on a sin-filled planet that our families are screwed up, but as a saved person part of my sanctification and redemption must be striving to be a more whole and holy version of my family creating a new heritage and a different legacy. This is hard work, but I believe it’s important. It would be no small feat to avoid the inertia that draws me towards continuing past sins and attitudes.

A grown-up Christmas wish for this family holiday season.


Way, way back desires

There’s a scene in the recent film The Way, Way Back that is lingering with me. (mild spoilers ahead)

The film is about a lonely and frustrated 14-year-old boy who comes of age in a vacation town one summer. He is staying at the beach house of his mother’s boyfriend whom he doesn’t get along with.

In an attempt to escape this he rides his bicycle to a water park where the quirky owner/operator takes him under his wing and offers him a job. As the distance grows between him and his family, he finds his place within the team and thus acceptance at the water park.

When his family leaves suddenly, he makes a final visit to the water park and his mother follows him. An employee of the month poster greets her with her son smiling in the accompanying images, which is a rare sight when she is around. In her few minutes there she discovers that her son has a place where he is recognised and respected and loved. He has found the emotional security she was unwilling to provide as she sought to focus on her new boyfriend.

I’ve pondered why the discovery of this teenage boy’s secret life resonates with me so much. I think part of it is the way it acts as a rebuke to the cold-heartedness of the mother. In a sense it says that because she would not honour her son that others would. There’s also the beauty of a young soul flourishing when he is given the right interpersonal conditions.

The other reason I think it appeals to me is a little more personal and a little less honourable. Sometimes I wish that there was a better version of me that is just waiting to break out. One where I am kinder and happier and more loving and more satisfied. A version that only requires the right kind of surroundings and people to flourish. To summarise, this film and that scene speaks to my fantasy that my weaknesses are not challenges I need to overcome, but issues that a new surrounding would fix.

I don’t think that’s entirely the correct view of the situation. Instead it is me that needs to change and that would lead to different interactions with the environment and people. But that is a lot easier said than done and having been a proper adult for a few years now it’s disconcerting that time does not provide a magical cure all to all the weaknesses I have had for years.

Honestly, some days I wish that life didn’t feel like work. It wasn’t one chore after another or a continual requirement that effort be made. Sometimes I wish that something amazingly good could happen to me and I had nothing to do with it. As I type this my brain reminds me of all the undeserved, good things that have happened to me, but that does not change the fact that this is what lingers underneath my desires sometimes.)

(The Way, Way Back trailer can be found at