Wednesday, August 11, 2010

He Ain't Heavy, He's My In-Law

I have been contemplating my husband's relationship with his family since the night he agreed to pack up and move back east because I knew I'd been pulling him away from them geographically.  Then yesterday something happened that opened the door to me writing this post.  I got a strange email from his oldest sister.  As I contemplated it and what likely took place to put her in a position to write it, I thought now was a good time to open those family dynamics up and take a look at them.  Because, let's face it, the in-law relationship is an odd one.  You, whether you are a sister, brother, mother, or whatever, are tossed in with this other group not by mutual interests, economics, religion (necessarily), even ethnicity simply because somebody in your family happened to fall in love with someone in their family, and you're all expected to get along.  We've all heard the jokes and the millions of hours of sitcom fodder these forced inter-familial workings have spurred.  Those of us who are married have - c'mon, admit it - nodded knowingly at many of them.

For me, and maybe for a lot of only children, it takes on something even more complex.  There is absolutely no secret - Greg and I have discussed it openly - that I was in part attracted to my husband because of his large family and their seemingly tight, well-adjusted relationship.  I throw the word "seemingly" in there not because they weren't/aren't a loving, committed family, but because their dynamic was much more complex than I originally thought.  I am pretty sure I've blogged about some of this before, so I'll apologize in advance for repeating myself if that's indeed the case, but I recall very specifically where I was and what conversation was taking place when I had the epiphany that every family is dysfunctional to some degree.  I had always thought, in all seriousness, that mine was uniquely screwed up.  But even this happy, tight-knit group of fresh-faced, intelligent children of well-educated upper middle class Caucasians had conflicts, doubts and the occasional storm cloud on their sunny horizons.  This did not make me love them less, it made me actually love my parents a bit more.  If my highly maternal, nurturing mother-in-law couldn't spare her children a few childhood scars, then how in the world did I think my parents could manage it?

Yet, while maybe they weren't the Brady Bunch all the time, they still were a bonded family, and I yearned to be a part of their world.  My first Christmas with Greg, with my parents in Montana and me with no money to go home, was magical.  Greg's mother always went overboard for the holidays, lavishly decorating her home and over flowing it with the spirit of the season.  There was an excess of everything:  food, presents, atmosphere and family time.  The siblings had a ritual of all going out to a movie together on Christmas Eve.  They took me with them.  I remember we saw Tootsie.  I felt so - I struggle to this day to find exactly the right word - integrated, included, warm, fulfilled, all of them work to a degree, but don't quite capture it.  I felt whole, I guess.  As much as I ever had to that point.

Problem was I wanted that feeling of belonging so badly I often overstepped my bounds and came across as meddling, needy and desperate.  Greg sometimes had to hold me off a bit, both before and after we were married.  I remember how utterly crushed I was after his middle sister's wedding when he wanted to spend some time with his cousins without me.  Granted, he was too young to handle the request graciously or to understand where I was coming from, but it felt as though my entire world was shattering, the weight of the rejection was so immense.  Somehow we recovered from it and, as everyone knows, we eventually married ourselves, and he made me officially a part of the family.

Of course, officially now a Veldman, I was just that much more emboldened to stick my nose into things and places it didn't belong.  I specifically got way too involved and interested in his brother's marital woes at one point and Greg admonished me about it, reminding me that "it wasn't my family."  Those words would haunt me for years.  Again, he wasn't subtle, he wasn't gracious and, given our own marital rockiness at the time, he wasn't trying to be anything close to sensitive, but he was right.  Actually, what the young couple was going through wasn't anyone's business but their own, but it really, really wasn't mine.

The task since that time was to find the right balance.  To be involved with the family I married into without overstepping my bounds.  And yes, that's a two-way street.  I've occasionally been stung by actions or comments of the individuals who lived nearby while we struggled with Kelsey.  They were close enough to see some of what was happening, but not to really understand it, yet comments got made and judgements passed.  So it goes with family, I guess.  I mean, I can only guess - they have been the only extended family I ever got to really know.  What I have come to conclude is that there are some places where I don't belong in their lives, and there are places they can't come into mine.  I am also mindful that, no matter what becomes of my marriage, there is an integral tie to his family in my surviving daughter.  I cannot remove myself completely from them.  I don't want to.

That's a snapshot into my side of the aisle.  Then, there's Greg's relationship with his family and how my involvement with him sways it.  I am concluding that the ideal is for the in-law to try and travel through the land of family relationships like one is in a national forest.  Don't damage the eco-system, don't remove anything.   I am also concluding it's easier to move through like a bull in a china shop.

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