The family dynamic

Family is both a blessing and a curse. Those who have family often wish they don’t, and those who have no known family relations wish they do.

I met a woman a number of years ago, she was slightly past middle age and her 3 children were all grown. She once confided to me that her first born, a boy, distanced himself from her as a child. Much as she tried to create a bond between mother and son, she couldn’t seem to penetrate the wall he had built between them. There was no confrontation, no issues to cause a rift. The boy simply had no connection to his family, and no regrets about it. This didn’t stop with her, in fact, the child seemed to lack any interest in the whole family, mother, father, and 2 younger siblings.

She said as soon as he was of age he left home never looking back. He has since moved to another country, married, and has 2 children of his own yet still lacks interest in his original family. His younger 2 siblings seem ‘normal’, close to each other and the parents. I was startled by her lack of emotion when she spoke of this estranged son and she quickly explained that over the years and despite all efforts to forge a relationship with him, she and her husband finally had to accept that he wanted no part of the family that had been so much a part of his early life. She didn’t understand it, but had no choice. He was lost to her.

In another scenario, there is a family with 6 children, 3 boys, 3 girls, all adults now, and one of the eldest sons has estranged himself from family. Again, there was no animosity, no confrontation or episodes to facilitate his departure, he simply had no interest. It’s almost as though he would’ve preferred to be an only child. All 6 siblings live within a short drive of each other and all get along. They gather for each holiday and acknowledge each others milestones, all except this one brother. He acknowledges nothing, declines all invitations – he wants no part of ‘family’.

A female friend has one sister. Over 25 years ago they had a disagreement over family assets (doesn’t it always come back to money?) and a life long grudge was formed. Both sisters have married and have families of their own but have had no contact since. They live in the same city but their children have never met their own cousins. How fair is it to deny your children their family? And who are you to make that choice for them? How healthy is it to foster anger and resentment, not to mention forcing your bitterness and venom on the next generation? Who wins here?

What is it that makes one turn away from family?  Now granted, you can’t ‘pick’ your family, so you may not have much in common. In fact, you may not even like your family much, but there is a blood connection that cannot be denied…. or maybe it can. It just seems so sad.

My family is not large, I have 2 older siblings (a sister and a brother) and we do not live nearby but we maintain contact. Throughout our adult years life took us in different directions. We had families, careers and friends that were not a part of each others lives, and we could go long periods without seeing each other, but we never lost the ‘family’ connection. Special occasions brought us together as did the hard times, family loss, and hardship. Being together wasn’t always easy. We didn’t always see eye to eye. In fact, we often disagreed on life choices made but we respected each others right to make their own choices, and we supported them because they are family.

Friends can often become family. There appears to be much in common with them, they offer support when needed, and pass no judgement. There is no familial obligation either way so severing the ties when/if the friendship takes a bad turn is easier but rare, because friendships are made by choice, not by birth, so we work a little harder to keep them. It’s too easy to take family for granted.

Family can be hugely influential in your life (if you allow it) or they can be distant and disinterested. Just how influential is up to you. Personally, I’ve always maintained the people in our lives are there for a reason; every encounter offers a new opportunity to learn something, and life is all about learning and growing.

I can’t say I’m a fan of every relative I have, and I may not agree with how they live, what they say or do, or how they view me, but I appreciate that they are in my life and make the effort to have an impact on me. Those walking this path with me, my family and my friends, are a gift and I, for one, am grateful for every lesson.

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I was chatting with a friend earlier today about how hard it is for us to graciously accept compliments. When handed comments like “Gee your hair looks nice today” or “that colour sweater is great on you”, we almost always follow up with a detrimental response like “really?, I need to get my roots done” or “This sweater would look better on me if I lost 10 pounds”.

Women, much more so than men, are severely judgmental of themselves, especially physical appearance, and this constant need to better ourselves is ingrained from a very young age. It’s called self-esteem, or rather it’s a lack of it.

There’s a song from the nineteen seventies called, At Seventeen, sung by Janis Ian, that summarizes the sad reality of a young woman’s self-image. She alludes to happiness being only for the pretty girls; those less endowed with beauty are left to fantasize – they are, in her own words, the ‘Ugly Duckling’. The truth is most young women see themselves as the ugly duckling, even some of the pretty ones, because they don’t feel pretty.

As children we suffer the taunts of other children, and sadly, often the harsh criticisms of parents and elders who have no concept of the effects of their words. Our teenage years are the critical, formative years where our self-esteem is most developed and most tested. This is when all criticisms are taken with extreme sensitivity, i.e. the knife cuts deeper and leaves more lasting scars during these years. Some withdraw into themselves, avoiding social situations, some are fortunate enough to endure mingling with peers without feeling inadequate. Many suffer in silence, wishing they could feel the confidence the other kids do, watching them with admiration and hiding behind their loneliness.

It’s no surprise that advertising plays a key role in self-image. Young women look at models as the goal of what the perfect woman should look like; bone thin, pale faced, and pissed off (why do these run way models always look like they’ve been sucking a lemon? You make thousands of dollars for a 2 hour photo shoot and you can’t crack a smile?)

When you shop for any clothing that fits the current trends, you’d be hard pressed to find anything that fits someone who weighs more than 100 pounds, which probably eliminates 95% of the population.  These models we see, these scrawny, emaciated ‘perfect people’ are not without flaws. Every blemish and wrinkle has been dutifully camouflaged thanks to lighting, cosmetics, and camera touch ups. And that beautiful young couple without an ounce of fat on their bodies, scarfing down a burger and fries in the commercial……you can bet within seconds of the camera shutting off they’re in the nearest bathroom inducing vomiting before they should, God forbid, gain an ounce. Advertising creates images of physical perfection that cannot be sustained in a healthy balanced society.

I remember the song, At Seventeen, and like most girls, I saw myself as the Ugly Duckling, because I was far from perfect, but we don’t talk about it, girls. We just work to improve ourselves….. for a lifetime.

We dye our hair, pierce our ears, apply our make-up, wax our legs, pluck our facial hair, affix false eye lashes, and cram our ‘healthy’ bodies into all sorts of apparatus that promises to mold our blub into a thing of beauty, but at the end of the day we didn’t need to, because beauty really is in the eye of the beholder – we just need to reign the beholders expectations…. back into reality, and that starts with our own self-image.

Love your look, flaws and all. Look at others with generosity; a well delivered compliment costs nothing and goes a long way in building anothers self-esteem. And start young; build up our children. Let them know from a young age that they are smart and beautiful and valued for all their attributes. And be vocal about the sincerity of advertising – the perfect male/female doesn’t exist. (And if they did, who’d want them? Living with perfection is a lot of pressure, not to mention the maintenance!)

Throw out Snow Whites magic mirror, toss the scale out the window, and focus on loving yourself, just as you are, because when you love yourself, you look good, and when you look good….you feel great!

You’re beautiful. Pass it on.



The Farmers Daughter

Hans and Frieda Baumgardt were farmers and worked hard to eke out a meager living. For too many years Hans waited and hoped for a son to help with the farm but alas none came. Their only child, a daughter, Matilda, had very poor vision so she was unable to help with the farm chores.

Hans and Frieda determined that their best option was to find a suitable husband for Matilda; one who could help with the farm and care for their daughter. Now Matilda was an attractive girl so finding an interested match should not have been difficult.

They searched the local villages for potential suitors but word of Matildas’ visual impairment had spread and while many a man would welcome inheriting a farm, none was prepared for the life of toil sure to accompany this one. Farming was a hard living. The crops had been poor for many years and with Hans and Frieda aging the work was sure to fall on the next generation. A wife unable to work side by side in the fields would be a liability for certain, so there were no takers of Matildas’ hand. Over the years many young men passed through the small farm house but none could be convinced to marry Matilda.

One day, in the midst of a storm, a traveling salesman came upon the farm house seeking shelter. Realizing the salesman likely had no knowledge of the local people Frieda saw this as an opportunity to market her daughter. While Hans showed the young man the fields, Frieda and her daughter prepared a sumptuous meal to entice him. Matilda took great care dressing and looked quite fetching in her Sunday best but Frieda, cautious of how word traveled, wanted to ensure the young man saw no fault with Matilda, so she devised a plan to trick him. Frieda placed a sewing needle on the floor far across the room and said to Matilda, “after dinner I want you to point over there and mention that you see a needle on the floor. Then the young man will surely see that your eyes are clear.”

Armed with this plan they sat down to dinner with their young guest. Just after the dishes had been cleared and when there was a lull in the conversation, Matilda said, “oh mother, I see that you dropped one of your sewing needles on the floor” and she pointed clear across the room. The young man stood and walked over to the corner, stooping to pick up the needle, clearly startled that she could see something so small from so far away.

Now the salesman wasn’t as naïve as the farmers believed. He had, in passing through the village, heard the rumours about the farmers’ daughter and her poor eyes, but this proved it was just rumour. The girl appeared to have exceptional vision. How else could she have spotted the small needle from across the room? Feeling suddenly more opportunistic the salesman returned to the dinner table, anxious to engage in conversation with the farmer regarding his daughter, and the farm.

Freida, delighted at the obvious success of their trick, set about getting dessert on the table.  She laid out a platter of sweets and thought to accompany them with sweet wine – after all, this was a celebration, no? But wine was expensive and in short supply and she wanted to make sure the deal was sealed before imbibing. Deciding to take no chances she put a big pitcher of fresh milk on the table and no sooner had she sat down than Matilda jumped up and flung her arm across the pitcher, knocking it to the floor, as she screamed “get off the table you damn cat!”

Realizing he had been tricked the young man immediately left the farmhouse grateful that he uncovered the deception before he’d committed himself. Hans and Frieda were heartbroken at the lost opportunity and duly shamed by their attempted deception.

There is a lesson to be learned from this. The salesman hoped to shamelessly capitalize on a situation to enhance his own financial well being….and the Baumgardts’ thought to use trickery to secure their daughters, and their farms financial future. At the end of the day there is only one true lesson, one moral to be gained. Never serve milk when you can have wine.

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Movin’ on

We all go through periods of difficulty in our lives but I truly believe we are never given more than we can handle. Why then, is it so difficult to move on from some situations? Maybe the initial wound is too deep, the scars permanently embedded in our psyche, so you simply move in another direction to escape, temporarily. And often there was no opportunity for resolution, an injustice has been dealt, with you as the casualty, and like it or not, life goes on with little regard as to how you are affected. Whatever the slight, it has brought you to your knees; unpleasant memories replay in your active mind and interrupt your dreams. Why can’t we move on? Why is recovery so elusive when all we want is peace from the memories that haunt us?

Loss of a loved one, a relationship, or loss of a career, echo with a deathly finality and no matter how hard you try, you simply can’t move past it. It’s like the old record that keeps skipping in the same part of the song.

I recently encountered a woman who helped me to put things into perspective. Her name is Eileen and she works in a hair salon. Eileen emigrated from a small town in South Wales with her high school sweet heart a number of years ago. They married, had a child, and life, to all appearances seemed good. It was after 11 years of marriage Eileen discovers her husband is homosexual. He always knew this but was afraid to breach convention so he ‘played along’ with the marriage and led a secret life on the side.

Having grown up in a very sheltered home Eileen is shocked with this news and leaves to set him free so she can build a new life with her daughter. But he doesn’t ‘come out’. He doesn’t want to, and he’s angry that she has forced his hand, so he makes life difficult for her. After a costly and ugly battle Eileen, deeply wounded, finally settles into life on her own. She has loved and lost but she but she focuses on her daughter and her job, and with family and friends a world away, she also has her loneliness.

Eventually she meets and falls in love with Alex, a recovering addict. He has his issues but he’s a kind man working to improve his life and hers. He is on the road to being drug free thanks to an effective rehab program and a supporting partner, and he is optimistic of their future. They have 21/2 years together before he dies suddenly from an accidental overdose. Again Eileen is alone and heartbroken so she returns to her daughter, her job, her old life, and the loneliness. Many would crumble here, but not Eileen.

She is determined to live again, to love again, and after 3 years she meets Martin, a divorced father of 2 boys. He isn’t Alex, and she’s no longer the naïve young girl, but she is happy in his company. He is kind and considerate, and he fills the void, and for Eileen that seems to be enough. She recounts these details of her life while attending to my hair and I’m blown away with her honesty. There is no shame or anger in her voice, no regret, but I detect a note of sadness and a weariness that belies her young age. She’s not looking for sympathy or help; she’s just telling it like it is. This is her life and she has accepted it, with all the pain.

Now what strikes me about this story is how Eileen managed to move on each time life dealt her a blow. I know of any number of people who have never recovered from their first loss, never mind endure subsequent losses, but Eileen amazed me with her ability to see the glass half full. “Life is for the living’, she said, matter of factly, “and as long as I’m alive I plan to look for happiness because it may not find me on its’ own.”  Her attitude is so positive, so inspiring. So why can’t we apply her strategy to our life issues? Heaven knows we all have them!

Not all of our losses or hurts are like Eileen’s, about romantic relationships, but the effect is the same; devastating, and for Eileen, clearly this life lesson was around relationships and loss. Whatever the setback we encounter, it hurts our hearts and haunts our minds, and many issues cannot be resolved to our satisfaction because we are at the mercy of another’s handling of the situation, which is likely why we are unable to move on. And because the matter has been taken out of our hands we have no choice but to deal with it in the most constructive way we can.  Beaten and defeated, this is where many give up.

So! I take a lesson from the pages of Eileens’ life. (she was brought into my life for a reason) I look at my struggles and weigh them against all that is good in my life. Now I admit that isn’t always enough to bring me the escape from old hurts but I have come to accept that whatever happens in my life is meant to happen, good or bad, and while I may never ‘get over it’, I will, as they say, be stronger for it. (don’t you just hate these old clichés?)

Recovery is a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength, and who’s to say what ‘normal’ is? Maybe we just need to find what it is in our lives that makes us happy, truly happy, and let that dominate (or over- power) our negative experiences. For me, for now, it’s the only path to peace. Every day may not be good, but there is something good in every day. Find it.

Life is good.

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