A while back I mentioned feeling ashamed and embarrassed about having engaged in a shouting match with my sister-in-law at Thanksgiving.
A few weeks later I wrote her an e-mail that said,
I wanted to write to tell you that I regret that we fought at Thanksgiving. It is not my intention or hope to have anything but a good relationship with you.
It would mean a lot to me if we could find the time to talk openly about some ground rules for co-parenting during holidays or other family visits. By ground rules I mean parenting rules that we can all agree to follow together consistently with our kids.
Parenting is such hard business and each of us has to do what works best in our own homes. However, when we’re together, I think we need to compromise.
It seems to me that if we are going to be close to each other and each other’s children, we have to find a way to be comfortable when our children are in the other’s charge and know that they will be cared for in a way that we can both live with and accept. This is why I am suggesting we establish some ground rules. Had we had them before Thanksgiving, we might have avoided our argument.
For example, we may disagree about how to arbitrate fights between our children and when or why a toy would get put into time out, but we could perhaps set up a ground rule that standardized the response the kids would get in that situation regardless of whether it came from you, me, K or Jim.
I think the reason I got so angry with you was that I made a parenting decision as the adult in the room with The Mayor and Jackeroo when they fought. I felt like you did not respect the action I took and, in so openly challenging it, you undermined my authority in front of the children. If we had some ground rules for working together at parenting our children and nieces/nephews together then this wouldn’t have happened.
I hope you are open to talking about this further.
I didn't hear anything back from the e-mail I sent, so I printed the letter out and sent it to her in the regular mail.
Another month went by and because I didn't hear from her I wondered if she planned to ever speak to me again.
I decided to call.
My brother answered the phone and said that Jane was sleeping.
I paused and finally decided to ask,
"I sent Jane a letter... did she mention it to you?"
She had not.
I told my brother about the letter and asked him if he would be willing to ask her about it.
The next day she called me.
"You gave me the silent treatment when we were leaving," she said. "That really hurt my feelings."
"You're right. I did do that," I said. "I knew it would hurt your feelings when I did it. I owe you an apology and I am sorry."
"I didn't agree with the way you handled the fight between The Mayor and Jackeroo, but the way I yelled at you in front of them was wrong," she conceded.
Though I like Jane very much, she and I haven't had a particularly close relationship.
Our conversation made abrupt starts and stops and it was awkward at times, but we were trying.
She talked to me about how hard things had been for their family these last few months. My brother works in new home construction and the market has been very slow. He's been anxious and his worry has bled over into their family life.
"I'm sorry," I said. "That sounds hard."
"It is, it is," she said. "It's very hard for him."
"No," I said. "I meant it sounds hard for YOU."
"You're worried about ME?!"
I thought she might weep.
"Of course," I said.
"I'm sorry, it's just that with the three kids and him home all day I'm the one that worries about everyone else from the time my eyes open until the time they shut. I don't have any time to myself and no one worries about me."
"That doesn't sound sustainable," I said.
"It's hard," she said.
"It sounds like it," I agreed.
"It's just been so hard since your Granny died," Jane said. "I really miss her. I really loved her."
I wasn't expecting our conversation to go in this direction. I choked back my own tears.
"She's the only person in your family that really saw ME," she said. "She understood what I go through. She appreciated me. She liked me. She made me feel special."
I was glad I was sitting down.
"She was the matriarch," Jane said. "She made sure it all fit together and that there was a place for everyone. Now that she's gone, I want to play that role... but that doesn't seem to work."
As she was talking I thought about my mom, my Aunt Nancy, myself, my cousin Shannon... the women who are, by blood, part of my family. I admit, it did sound odd to me to think of Jane adopting the role of matriarch in my family.
Jane and I talked for a long time.
She shared her experiences of various family gatherings, expressing - maybe for the first time to anyone besides my brother -- her frustrations.
We didn't get to talk about common ground rules for parenting, but we agreed to talk about it before the next time we were together.
Near the end of the conversation, I said,
"I realize there's a lot for us to work out, but I want you to know that it's important to me that our families are close and I want to do that work."
"I think it was good that we fought," she said. "We're having this conversation because of it."
Before we hung up she confessed to being a reader of this blog and asked me if I was going to write about our fight.
"No," I said. "I try not to air my dirty laundry on the internet."
"I want you to," she insisted. "Promise me you'll write about it."
I felt stunned and confused when I hung up. I wasn't sure what to make of all that was said much less know what I might write about it.
I decided to let it sink in for awhile.
A few nights ago I found myself in the space between dreams and wakefulness, the place where you are aware of your thoughts, but not certain about where reality begins and ends.
In that moment I saw Cindy, my best friend from high school.
“I know you know this,” she said, “but things would probably feel a lot better if you would just talk to your Granny.”
I eyed a photo of my grandmother.
“Well,” I said to Granny's image, “at least this time you sent a messenger I trust and not some crazy lunatic!”
As I became increasingly lucid, Cindy faded from my mind's eye.
I slowly understood that I was at home in my bed and Cindy was thousands of miles away in the Pacific Northwest.
I thought about what Cindy said in my dream state.
“Ugh!!! I know she’s right,” I thought.
I had trouble knowing what to say though.
I asked the friend who originally suggested I talk to my Granny's spirit,
"How do I talk to her? What do I say?"
She said that all I had to do was ask,
"What do you have to say right now, Granny?"
She said I'd be surprised by the response.
Days passed and I wasn't making any progress on the conversation with Jane or on talking to my Granny.
I decided I must be emotionally and spiritually paralyzed... until yesterday when I started talking to a friend over lunch about the conversation I had with Jane.
In retelling it, I found myself talking about her suggestion about playing a matriarchal role in my family.
Oh, there it is.
No wonder she feels frustrated with me.
Clearly I have maintained an unspoken boundary defining my brother as true family and Jane as something else. Merely his wife?
Oh, I am such a giant ass.
I can be so self-righteous sometimes (- oh my letter! -) when really I am the guiltiest.
This family of mine is of course hers also.
It's my responsibility to make sure that the way I speak, act and think conveys that to her.
I have to make sure I respect her equal rights, voice and contributions in OUR family.
[Why am I such a slow learner?!!]
Since I was making break-throughs anyway, I decided to push for further success on the car ride home.
"What do you have to say right now, Granny?" I said to the windshield.
The response I heard, was...
"I'm proud of you for understanding about Jane."
Jane was right. It is good that we fought.
May it be an important step on our journey to being truly close.