Unpacking the family china

We enter the play already in progress…

Last night there was a big gathering of friends and family at my parents’ house. My parents who are divorcing, yes…we all still come together for some things: like my daughter’s first birthday.

There were presents. There was an amazing monkey cake, made by yours truly. Lots of smiles and laughter, especially when the birthday girl laid her cheek down on her chocolate frosted monkey cake. Aww.

Oh what fun!

Then everyone dispersed (into pre-dinner walks, into the play room), leaving me and my dad and my mom in the kitchen.

And then: words were spoken. Because soon I am visiting certain relatives who have not been informed about the impending divorce. Yet.

It went like this:

Me: I think you should tell them before I visit. Because I don’t feel safe being asked to lie about my own family to other members of my own family.

My mom: [Refuses to make eye contact and sets her mouth in a thin, grim line.] I hear that you don’t feel safe. [Crashing a pot into the sink!] I hear that. [Angrily stirs the pan on the stove!]

In theory, an observation (“I hear that you don’t feel safe”) is a great start to nonviolent communication, but I think you’ll agree with me that given the rather violent (and tiresomely familiar) context, this wasn’t exactly a great way to proceed. To put it lightly.

I’ve been thinking about how it could have gone differently.

Partly because it was painful, obviously. But not to erase the pain, or the fact that it happened. I accept:

  1. That it was painful (ow, so many shoes),
  2. That it was so confusing that I couldn’t figure out what was my stuff or her stuff or family stuff or anything because it was all getting stepped at once,
  3. That this is a process and it’s going to take time to figure it out, and
  4. That I’m committed to thinking it through. To finding new things to try, new insights to guide me. Not because I think I’m supposed to fix it but because I believe in examining the patterns at work.


What was the stuff getting stepped on?

One of our old family patterns (not an heirloom china pattern, but possibly just as cumbersome and fragile) is to placate the angry person in order to avert the coming apocalypse. To placate, in this context, means to get out of the angry person’s way, no matter what the emotional cost, because the coming apocalypse is going to be way worse than whatever emotional sacrifice you have to make to get to safety.

Of course, the irony is that there is no safety in retreat. You can run but you can’t hide! Because the anger is already there. Everywhere around you. But also, woe to you if you pointed that out (“Why are you slamming the pots and pans around?”) because that would trigger, like, a double apocalypse. Except — trick question! The double apocalypse is here already, too.

So last night I tried to hold my boundary firm anyway, to point out the not-so-subtle nonverbal communication going on: new pattern. And mainly I succeeded in making my mother more angry it was hard to focus on feeling good about the boundary because of how mixed-up I felt afterward.

Partly this should be expected. Changing a pattern is really hard, especially if other people involved are depending on you to stay the same. Not that change is easy for the person changing, either.

Hard times, all around. Biiiiiig sigh.

So what happens next?

I’ve been wrestling with myself about what might be the point of all this.

Because here’s my existential question:

Is it possible to practice Buddha-like compassion with your own family?

Part of me wants to say grrrrr, no way! It’s true, there are some mighty big obstacles in the way.

But in theory, shouldn’t this be the final goal? To apply what I’m learning to actual stressful situations and relationships? To experience a state of self-acceptance, universal compassion and clarity of awareness so that I won’t require external validation nor crave the rectification of old wrongs nor the airing of old hurts?

It does sound like utopia—in the sense of being fundamentally unreachable.

Part of me thinks it shouldn’t be reachable because that implies a lack of love. My instinctual thought is that if you love someone, don’t you care what they think?

But what I’m learning is that love with good boundaries and respect and safety allows you to love someone, to care about what they think, and still not be swayed to change your mind.

(I can tell this is an important concept because when I write it out like that, I immediately want to run away.)

The end of the play

What happened was that we did the other cherished family pattern, which is to say, acted as if nothing had happened as soon as other people came into the room. And then we ate dinner and the evening seemed to be fine.

Except I had that nagging stomach ache. And I was exhausted and then had one of those oops-you’re-still-in-high-school-and-you-didn’t-study-for-the-algebra-exam dreams. And it has taken me all day (from about 9am this morning until nearly 5pm in the afternoon) to write this. To dance with Shiva about it. To journal about it. To query the oracle and think and write and rewrite many things.

So clearly this is important. This idea of love coexisting with good boundaries. That’s all I want to say. And getting here required wading through all kinds of stuck and hurt.

And I just hope that the ideal I seek is not too terribly far off in the future.


About jesse k.

Writer. Mama. Spy in the house of self-awareness. Occasional crafter, letterpress geek, and academic snob.
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3 Responses to Unpacking the family china

  1. sarra says:

    Only yesterday I sorted (kinda) various useful newspaper clippings into one place, and one of them jumped out at me in my memory on reading bits of the above… it’s from lovely Sally Brampton‘s advice column, though just an aside.
    Now, this may sound completely bonkers and new-age, but there’s a practice used by every spiritual belief from Christianity to Buddhism for dealing with difficult people, and that is to pray for their happiness. The theory is that if we feel more kindly towards somebody, we treat them with greater kindness and the relationship improves. Whether it has any effect on toxic ex-wives is debatable, but it does seem to have a soothing effect on our own minds, allowing us greater peace and equanimity. I know a number of people who have practised it to great effect, and they say it’s particularly useful when it comes to dealing with difficult mothers – so obviously it’s a miracle.


    (might have mistyped a bit in terms of copytyping as I have an index finger swathed in cartoon-character-style bandage and am concentrating quite hard on hitting the right keys!)

    A postscript – you’re doing brilliantly – just be wary of taking on too much at once? I know I don’t know you, and so I might be getting a heaped-up impression of you which is out of kilter with the everyday you, but I worry a bit. Anyway – the important and fabulous and wonderful part is you do have the tools to fall back on, which is where I myself fall down when I reach too high! I’ll get there.

  2. jesse k. says:

    Hi Sarra!

    I am familiar with that technique, though I often resist it…once I baked zucchini bread for my boss when I was sick of feeling so angry/stuck towards him about stuff. It totally worked! Connecting with compassion can be so hard, and it is so necessary.

    I guess I’m not quite there with my mother yet…praying for her happiness feels a bit like putting the cart before the horse, because what I really and truly need is compassion and understanding for myself first, you know? I’m working on that 🙂

    You are sweet to worry about me taking on too much. Perhaps it is ambitious to expect progress in all areas simultaneously, but I guess unless I practice these techniques with my family, I won’t be truly testing them, you know? And it’s becoming obvious to me that even the tiniest of interactions, in which I maintain a firm boundary, contains at least twelve epiphanies and at least thirteen stucknesses. The more I write about it the clearer it becomes.

  3. Pingback: Checking in? The sound of cosmic laughter | my seed house

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