Why Can Families Be So Damn Hard?

Someone once told me, in what could be a sanity-saving conversation, that you choose your own parents. As in, pre-incarnate, you choose who you are going to be born to. This isn’t a conscious choice you remember once born, like, you pop out and go, “hey! How’s it going? I picked you as my parents because I have all these lessons I need to learn from you, your weaknesses, your struggles, are exactly what I came here to overcome!”

It doesn’t work like that.

Evil Family

However, we do come here to learn something, to work on something. We have a purpose in this life and often that purpose is exactly what is our parents’ biggest struggle. That’s why childhood is such a defining factor in our lives and why we spend less than a quarter of our lives in “childhood” so to speak (as in, living at home, being raised by our parents) and yet we carry it with us, often can’t get over it, for the remaining seventy-five or so percent.

And the fact that we chose our parents, that we have something important to glean from them that we agreed to beforehand, somehow makes parenting a little easier. At least, for me, it eases some of the guilt every time I screw up or when I think I’m not doing a good enough job with my own kids. I remind myself that they’re here because of me and who I am, so I can’t possibly be screwing them up that badly.

The problem is, however, that it doesn’t really make living as an adult with my own parents (or parent, my father has moved on from this life) any easier. It doesn’t ease any of the guilt I feel when interacting with my own mother, and my own siblings (whom also chose to be part of this family so in a way, are individuals we also agreed to live with and learn from).

What is it about families that is so damn hard? I’ve seen some sets of siblings out there, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, who seem to get along so well. Ease, is exactly it. It’s like, with the members of their own family, they’ve been gifted with a built in bff to whom they can go to at any time. Hell, you see them posting on pictures of them side-by-side, smiling, captioned, “my sister is my best friend,” “I couldn’t live without my mom,” etc, etc, etc.

2012-11-04 09.26.59

They are the ones that make the rest of us wonder, what the fuck am I doing wrong?

(Now if you talk to my sibling, I’m sure he’d happily give you a list of exactly what I am doing wrong. A long, long list of all my faults. ‘Tis the joy of family, after all.)

A while ago, I hosted a bridal shower for someone who was very close to me. I mentioned it here. Now, leading up to that shower I was really, really sad. Showers and so many things associated with weddings, are often the kinds of things that are supposed to be done in groups, or more specifically, with your family and close friends. Now, as she’s not a blood relative and I didn’t know her soon-to-be family very well, I did not take anyone up on their offers to help (mostly because I turn into a basketcase when I am hosting anything for more than one or two people and wasn’t keen on having near-strangers witness that side of me…especially when those who do know me probably shouldn’t witness that side of me), but I did find myself missing my own family. Or….missing the fact that I did not have the family to call and have come help. My mom lives far away, my sister lives far away, and I have no extended family on which to call that live anywhere within a ten-hour drive. Either way, I was missing that group of which to gather together to make this special event even more special.

And yet, my mother was just here for the weekend and after spending the weekend before wishing I had her here, I found myself turning into a frustrated, stressed-out, cold-hearted bitch once she was here.

At the shower, I was a warm, welcoming, inviting host. When my mom pulled up I felt myself instantly put on the armor and close myself off.


What is it about family that causes us to do that? Why is it that every time I interact with my own family I walk away with this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, either from my own actions or actions of theirs directed at me. I’m either pissed off because someone gave me shit for something that had absolutely nothing to do with them or is a simple part of who I am, or I’m pissed off at myself for getting annoyed with them and closing myself off instead of being the friendly, happy, laughing person that I can be.

It’s a vicious circle: I feel slighted, or I say something that’s taken the wrong way and then they feel slighted, or (as is often the case) no one is listening to the other person and so no one is feeling heard so people get irritated and frustrated and pick at the other person, and then, as a result of the increased tension, I pull away, so then I am not contributing to the conversation or the relationship or what have you, so then they feel worse and then decide I’m a horrible person so then they are angry and so on and so on.

Or, like was pointed out to me in the midst of my frustration at my inability to simply be myself amongst my family, someone needs something – needs acceptance, love, understanding, from the other person. But the other person feels pressure, stress, and whatever else at the neediness of this other person, so they pull away. And then that person wonders what they did to anger the less-needy person so they feel more insecure and get even needier. Then the other person pulls away more and more. One person reaches out, the other is not able to give them what they want so they pull back, and that person reaches further towards them. And ultimately, no one gets what they want and everyone has hurt feelings.

I feel like I am constantly trapped in this cycle of wanting my family, wanting that ease and that closeness, wanting to be around someone who gets me and understands me and who I can be comfortable with, but then get hit with comments and suggestions and experiences that make me think, they don’t get me at all, and get frustrated, pull away, and realize, well of course they don’t get me, I am not myself around them, so they only see this worst side of me that then makes complete sense why they are angry and frustrated with me all the time.

So how do you break the cycle? What is it about family that makes being who you are, so difficult? In a way, family are the ones who should know you the best and yet, often, I feel (and I’m sure they feel from me as well) that they are the ones that know you the least.

This may not be the case with family who live close together, or who talk often. Perhaps this is not the case with families who grew up without the kind of dysfunction we did. But I know I am not the only one who feels that the moment I step into a family situation, I seem to instantly lose decades of growth and development. I am suddenly that sibling again who, I don’t know, had life easier? Had whatever they felt that they didn’t get? Or I am that child once more who needs counsel and direction, rather than a two-way conversation, despite the fact that I am grown with children of my own.

Family has this amazing ability to put us right back to where we were growing up. When I say we try to overcome our childhood, I think part of it is because when we end up with our family once more, often, we are thrown right back into it. And how many people would actually relive their childhood if given the chance? I sure wouldn’t, or, if I did, I’d do things drastically different.

And yet, here I am, alone once more, with this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, wondering how I can wake up with the best intentions concerning my family and within minutes, fuck them up. Maybe it’s because I am too hard on myself, and maybe it’s because family dynamics are hard. Maybe it’s because we all expect/need something different from each other instead of giving it to ourselves. I know I just want to be seen and heard as who I am, not who they’ve decided I am. And I’m sure they want the same from me. If we could only give it to each other, our lives would be so much different. But there’s always something in the way, isn’t there? There’s always something stopping us; a comment, an action, a judgment, a carefully (or not so carefully) hidden criticism.

Is it because, if we come from the same family, if we share the same blood, similar DNA, that we feel like the person should behave how we expect them to? Do we feel like we have some right to decide how our siblings/children/parents should act? That if we don’t approve of their actions that somehow it’s up to us to tell them so? I mean, if we don’t tell them, who will, right? And yet, most people would never treat their friends the same way.

Is it because we’re not friends, we’re family, and therefore forced to be in each other’s presence? Why, as family, is there so much pressure to be close? What if, growing up, we accomplished what was necessary and now, we’re done? Why must we continually poke the wound, pick off the scab and make it bleed over and over and over again?

Dad and I

My father died suddenly. I wasn’t given any chance to say goodbye. Before he died, or, the week before, I had given him shit for how he was treating me. I had called him and said, “you can’t talk to me like that. You can’t act like that.” I figured it was up to me to decide how my father could treat me. I was on a mission. I was going to make my dad treat me how I wanted to be treated, and in doing so, I was going to fix him. I was going to make him behave how I wanted him to behave. Exactly what I feel my family often does to me.

And then he died. And I wasn’t able to tell him I loved him. I had spent the months leading up to his death being frustrated and hurt and annoyed by him, instead of accepting him as who he was. I kept pulling away, pulling away, pulling away every time he reached for me. And now, instead of learning from that experience and choosing to move towards my family, instead of appreciating them more, I still pull away.

It’s that vicious cycle again. And if I don’t take the steps required to break it, who will? But what if, removing the armor and taking those first steps in vulnerability, is so much harder than wearing it?




  1. Fantastic post, Randi Jo! I just spent a weekend with my sister-in-law, who is notoriously difficult. The amazing thing is that she has done a lot of work on herself recently and was quite pleasant to be with despite the fact that she talks pretty much non-stop. I, on the other hand, reverted to my old patterns of relating to her and was downright cruel a couple of times which I was not happy about. I was grateful for it though, because it helped me realize that I still have work to do myself. As Ram Dass, the great spiritual teacher once said, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”


  2. I love that quote! Thanks for sharing it. I feel exactly the same way. So often we can choose the people we surround ourselves with, friends and so forth, but maybe it’s those that we don’t always choose as friends, those that aren’t as easy to be around, which are the ones who can teach us the most.


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