What is “Family”?

A couple days before Christmas, Husband and I took his grandmother out to dinner. She asked if we’d talked with his sister lately. Husband said no. Grandma paused for a moment, then looked confused/disappointed as she uttered, “That’s not family.”

About a week ago his aunt texted me to say that her “wish” is for Husband and I to have supper with sister-in-law and tell her all about the baby, because sister “really wants to know more.” Plus, “she’s family.”

… When did being “family” entitle someone who treats us like garbage to our time and energy?

I politely but firmly told his aunt that we are not interested in having sister-in-law in our child’s life based on the way she continues to disrespect my husband and the rest of the family. Furthermore, if she is really interested in knowing more about the baby, why hasn’t she called or texted? Husband calls her regularly to check in; she never answers his calls. So I do not believe for a second that she’s “really interested.” I had a feeling it was his aunt wanting sister-in-law to be interested, and hoping that by spreading this rumor to me, we’d reach out to sister-in-law and magically create interest. Nope.

Before you bring up the fact that everyone is flawed, family deserves special forgiveness because you only get one family, and God doesn’t exclude anyone from His family, stop. Imagine someone you really don’t get along with. Now imagine multiple people telling you that you should really hang out with them more, just because they are… That person. They’re not asking that person to change. To be better. They expect you to do all the heavy lifting.

Will that work for you? If your answer is yes, you’re a better person than I am.

Leaving work on Friday, I received an out-of-the-blue text from his sister:

“Hi Kelly, hope all is well. [Husband] said to get with you about doing dinner? I know we haven’t seen eye to eye and I know we have both said things but if you are I’m willing to start again. Please let me know.”

My reaction to this text closely mirrored Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of grief:

1. Denial: She’s actually texting me? Really? Let me look at my phone again. Yup, it’s her. Wow. Semi-polite, too.

2. Anger: Who the hell is she to request a dinner date and in the same breath blame me for why we don’t have a friendly relationship? Does she really think that’s an apology? Yeah, I’ve said some nasty things to her, but only after I tried to get to know her; after I listened to her tell me to F off when I asked for her help getting her mother to my bridal shower; after I sat by while she spewed extreme criticism and taunts at my husband; after I watched her take him to court over their father’s will; after I watched her win her appeal to be named co-administrator then proceed to ignore or stall every step required to legally execute his will; after I watched her steal tens of thousands of dollars from her mom to pay for her gas, her dog, her new cars (yes, cars, with an “s”), her groceries, her pizza parties, and her boyfriend’s expenses; after I tried to keep my mouth shut after she dropped the ball so. many. times. regarding her mother’s care and my husband had to clean up her messes . . .

. . . a person can only take so much before feeling compelled to speak up and say, “Stop being so self-centered you insolent brat.”

Now, because she’s going to have a niece or nephew soon, she thinks she’s going to cozy up to us and share in the joy of a baby? Get lost.

Furthermore, the last couple of times we’ve been forced to have dinner with her, she has expected us to pick up the entire check. Because my husband is a nice person who wishes he had an intact, happy family, he has obliged. But there’s no way in hell my household’s money is paying for her dinner again.

3. Bargaining: I sent a screen shot of the text to Husband, asking, “What is this?” even though I had a pretty good idea where this was coming from.

He called and said yes, he would like to have dinner with his sister and share more about the baby; we’ve told all my family all about the baby so why can’t we treat his family the same? Because she doesn’t treat us like family. So? So, when someone continually disrespects me and those I love, I don’t continue to associate with them, and I certainly don’t reward them with a warm-and-fuzzy conversation about a new family member coming soon. But she’s “family.” I don’t care if she’s blood-related. She has made it plain she doesn’t care about us.

Who else has been faced with this circular reasoning for continuing to be around certain people? It blows my mind. I’m at a point in life where I’ve learned that time is too valuable to waste it chasing after people whose presence always brings you down, or whose values, attitudes, language and actions embarrass you, or who don’t reciprocate the kindness and grace you try to show them. And with pregnancy-induced hormones turned up full-blast in my body, I really don’t have the emotional capacity to deal with those people in a rational way at the moment.

Which is why, as husband heatedly laid out all the crap my family has put him through during our rough patches and how he still does his best to be good and friendly and genuine with them, I broke down in the middle of Home Depot. (I had stopped in on the way home to return an item and pick up another needed item.)

Clean-up needed on Aisle 41. Big, ugly tears coming from the pregnant lady trying to hide behind the display of door hinges who knows she should be able to stand up for herself once more but just cannot rationally deal with it at the moment.

The bargaining started not between Husband and me but between God and me once I hung up the call.

It would be just one dinner. One, 1.5 hours tops.

But she is a brat.

It would mean a lot to Husband.

But I can’t stand talking with her. She can’t join a conversation about topics and priorities that interest most adults because she hasn’t mentally progressed beyond age 13.

You can be bigger than this. Think of all the grace others have shown you in your life. Pass that gift forward to someone who also needs it.

Okay, I’ll consider this request.

4. Depression: Intermittently throughout the weekend, I revisited the text and my conversation with Husband about it. We yelled talked about it some more when I arrived home, and afterward were exhausted enough that he fell asleep on the couch, I sulked with a book upstairs, and our sushi dinner plans for the night quietly faded away.

At other moments, the reality of having to include Sister-in-law in our lives thanks to family pressure and Husband’s desire to salvage his family resurfaced, and continued to sadden me. Maybe she’ll grow up as time goes on, and maybe she’ll become someone we can eventually trust to spend time with our kid and not warp their values and behavior. But for now, I don’t see that happening. It really is too bad, because I’m excited for little one to know my brother and sister-in-law. I’m excited for little one to meet my cousins and hear stories about when we were all children, and to have my family play with them and take them out and teach them. I should want the same type of relationships to blossom on Husband’s side of the family. I should want my child to know, learn from, and enjoy being around their paternal relatives. But I also have a responsibility to protect them from harmful people. And from where I sit, being around Sister-in-law would be harmful to my child growing into a well-rounded, well-adjusted, resilient, independent, caring adult.

Additionally, while firing retorts calmly discussing the issue, Husband relayed that he thinks his sister is so wrapped up in her world that she won’t want much to do with the baby beyond meeting it once. That we won’t have to worry about her presence in our child’s life because his sister won’t care about her niece/nephew enough to be around much anyway. That makes me sad for our child.

Furthermore, he’s not worried about her being around our baby because he thinks I’m going to do whatever I want anyway, and in this case that means cutting off his child from his family. That he thinks I’d run roughshod over his wishes was even sadder, and told me that we still have work to do at restoring faith in each other to do what is hard, but right.

It’s not fair to my husband to insist we have nothing to do with his family. I wouldn’t like it if he demanded I cut off my family. I wouldn’t like it if he refused to give them future chances. No matter what I choose, someone loses out.

5. Acceptance: After thinking it over all weekend, I texted her back today.

“Pick a restaurant and a date/time. We are both done with work by 5:30 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays aren’t good for us. I hear that you and I work in the same city, so that may be a good area to meet.”

Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.” Romans 12:17-19, The Message

I’m not holding my breath while waiting to hear back from her. In fact, I’ll be just as surprised if she follows through and suggests concrete plans for dinner at any point. She blames my husband for the pettiest of perceived slights, so if anything, she’ll come back to me with some excuse about how I waited too long to reply and now she’s busy for the rest of the year.

That might be the best outcome. A friend who does not get along with her mom told me that wise people in her life are constantly telling her to show grace to her mom. But based on her mom’s condescending treatment of her, she’s realized that the best way she can show grace to her mom is to have as little contact with her as possible. Otherwise, the two of them would always be exchanging ugly words and actions, and no one would benefit.

“Good fences make good neighbors.” – Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

To me, family is not necessarily biological. Family are the people who choose to be there for you. They show up when needed, even at a personal cost. They show up when not needed, just because they like you. They don’t keep track of how you’ve wronged them before, and you don’t keep track of their flaws, either. You try to be your best with each other, because even though you don’t always get it right, you know that deliberately being a horrible person will eventually drive everyone away.

Real family is family not because your blood cells match, but because your love for life and for each other matches.

THAT is “family.”

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